How can the Titans pull off a midseason defensive turnaround?

The Tennessee Titans are one of eight teams allowing more than 400 yards per game on defense. They are one of four teams with just seven sacks or less on the season.

Of particular concern is the red zone defense — where the Titans allow teams to score touchdowns on 80% of possessions (second-most in the league) — and third downs — on which the Titans allow opponents to convert a league-high 61% of tries.

Through the first seven weeks of the year, the Titans defense has been historically bad on third downs. No team in the last 30 years has allowed a higher percentage of third downs to be converted through their first six games.

Mike has written already about this issue extensively here (read his piece if you haven’t already and return here when you’re finished). Mike also offers some hope for a turnaround, citing last year’s Falcons team, which went from worst to first in third down defense in 2019.

In his article, Mike also mentions one commonality between nearly every quarterback the Titans have faced this year: they get the ball out of their hands nearly two-tenths of a second faster than their season average, which points to a coverage issue.

The Titans are not marrying their blitz schemes well to their coverage techniques. Corners are playing 10 yards or more off the line of scrimmage while safeties try to blitz from the second level. There’s no harmony, no synchronicity, between the pass rush up front and the coverage on the back end. The team tries to force a quick throw and then specifically allows the quick throw to be completed.

The very fast “time to throw” statistic referenced above indicates, more often than not, the Titans aren’t taking away the first read for the opposing quarterback. Rarely does the opposing passer sit in the pocket and scan through his progressions to find an open receiver.

Part of this is the consistent “soft zone” coverage the Titans have played, trying to keep everything in front of them and not allow the deep ball. This hasn’t worked nearly as well as intended because when the opponents drive into the red zone, the Titans defense still allows everything to be caught in front of them, even when the opponent has reached the end zone.

So how does it magically get fixed? What can be done to solve this problem?

Adoree Jackson

Well, one major reinforcement on the way is Adoree Jackson. Jackson isn’t the entire answer, but his presence will have a domino effect that leads to improvements across the board.

Last year, Jackson missed five games, including all of Weeks 13-17, as the Titans closed out the season with a playoff push. Removing the A.J. McCarron-led Texans from this comparison, these are the Titans’ defensive splits with and without Jackson in the lineup:

Splits, Weeks 1-16Yards Allowed/GPassing Yards Allowed/GPoints Allowed/G3rd Down % Allowed
With Adoree Jackson (W1-7, 9-12)359.625819.235.2%
Without Adoree Jackson (W8, 13-16)373.8262.526.542.6%
Adoree Jackson missed Week 8 and Weeks 13-17.

The yardage differences are negligible, but the third down numbers represent quite a shift when Jackson is on the field. Even more eye-popping though is the difference on the scoreboard of over a full touchdown allowed per game. This tracks with PFF’s Wins Above Replacement stat, which names Jackson one of the most valuable corners in the league.

Coverage

The most obvious and instantaneous aspect that will be improved by Jackson’s return is the team’s ability to cover receivers and, more importantly, force incompletions.

I say “more importantly” because, in today’s NFL, quarterbacks get the ball out of their hands quickly. Making a play on a pass and forcing it to the ground is obviously a better outcome for the defense than what we’ve seen so far this year, which is corners giving up catches underneath so they can come down and make the tackle. Jackson can turn some of those tackles into incompletions, and some of the missed tackles into short gains.

One specific area where Adoree excels is covering down the field, where the Titans are currently playing backed up to not give up the big play. Jackson’s presence allows them to free other players up, trusting that he won’t get beat over the top with his combination of speed and ball skills.

Recent analytics studies point to the theory that coverage is more important and more impactful on win totals in the NFL currently than the pass rush. The idea is that most offenses nowadays are designed to get the ball out of a quarterback’s hands so quickly that the pass rush is essentially negated if the coverage is not there, like the example above in SuperHorn’s tweet.

Jackson is the best player at arguably the most important position on the defense. His ability to improve the coverage will also help the pass rush — by removing Tye Smith, you take away the easy target for the offense to pick on. You’re not only getting one of your best players back, you take your weakest link off the field. That’s an impactful trade-off.

Communication

Jackson’s return also improves the communication of the entire unit. Kevin Byard, Kenny Vaccaro, Malcolm Butler, and Jackson are now in their third season together in the Titans secondary. Those four, who make up the back end in the base defense, have an established rapport and chemistry playing alongside each other. That chemistry has been missing with Jackson injured and Logan Ryan having departed in free agency.

Johnathan Joseph — a savvy veteran player who knows the defense — in the run-support nickel role with these four players in the back end will allow for better communication than when Tennessee was forced to run two rookies (Chris Jackson and Kristian Fulton) and/or Smith onto the field in place of Adoree.

Communication in the secondary is paramount to coverage success, and Jackson will provide an instant boost in this department.

Other Reasons to Believe

It wasn’t that long ago this Titans defense, made up of largely the same core of players, was performing at a high level. The same key contributors helped hold Lamar Jackson’s league-leading offense to 12 points in the playoffs just nine months ago.

Defenses all across the league are playing poorly this year. It’s a result of the limited offseason work with no preseason games. The Titans are in a good position at 5-1 to take this early part of the season to iron out those kinks. There’s certainly an adjustment to be made with the retirement of DC Dean Pees and the loss of both LB coach Tyrone McKenzie and DB coach Kerry Coombs. Improving as the season progresses — not playing your best football in September and October but in December and January — is an important element to being a true playoff contender.

There are reasons to believe the Titans defense will continue to improve as the season progresses.

Vic Beasley hasn’t stood out much yet since signing in Tennessee except in all the wrong ways, but he had his best game as a Titan against Pittsburgh in his 30 snaps, matching the most he’s played this year. Beasley was a virtual no-show for the Falcons during the first half of 2019, posting just 1.5 sacks through the team’s first 8 games. However, once they began turning their defense around, Beasley closed out the year with 6.5 sacks over the final 8 games. If he can have a similar close to this season, that would provide quite a jolt of energy for the pass rush.

David Long and Derick Roberson played very little or not at all during the first half of last year, but when they had an opportunity late in the season, they both flashed quite a bit and made plays in big spots. It’s unknown why they’ve played so little this season — even with Roberson coming off a preseason injury — but if they can come on late like they did last year, the Titans defense could receive another spark.

When you look at the advanced numbers, the defense isn’t that bad. They’re mostly middle of the pack in counting stats and DVOA — 25th in yards/game allowed, 26th in passing yards/game allowed, 23rd in rushing yards/game allowed, 17th in PPG allowed, 17th in defensive DVOA — it’s really just the third down defense and red zone defense that are glaring deficiencies.

Although the team’s bye week was moved up due to the COVID outbreak, in a couple week’s, they play a Thursday night game against Indianapolis, their first matchup of this season. While it’s always tough to prepare for a Thursday game, the break afterwards provides a chance to regroup and shore up the weaknesses as the team prepares for the home stretch and a playoff run. There’s still a chance the defense figures things out.

Cause for Concern

While the above offers a glimmer of hope, there is still cause to be concerned. Jackson’s return may have a marginal impact, but it will require much more than one player to really turn the defense into a championship unit.

Jackson is a good tackler who is unafraid to come downhill in run support, but his presence is not going to suddenly fix the Titans issues fitting gaps in the run game.

Even with Jackson coming back, the depth on defense still leaves plenty to be desired. With Fulton now set to miss some time, if one of the remaining corners were to go down, the Titans would be right back in the same spot with Smith or Kareem Orr getting significant snaps again.

And it’s not just the cornerback depth. Beyond Roberson, the Titans have almost no reserves who could contribute in a pinch at the outside linebacker position. The Titans were an injury away from Nick Dzunbar getting significant snaps at ILB with Long inactive last weekend. That’s certainly alarming.

But the biggest looming cause for concern is head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel’s background in his only previous season coordinating a defense. While Shane Bowen is supposedly the gameday playcaller, by not naming a DC this year, the responsibility of the position ultimately falls on Vrabel.

In 2017, the year before taking over the Titans, Vrabel was the DC for the Houston Texans. That Texans defense gave up more points than any other team in the league.

Could Jon Robinson make a trade to bolster the defense? Sure, anything could happen. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for outside help to swoop in and save this unit.

On the other side of the ball, Arthur Smith’s crew has done a pretty good job so far of carrying the team through six games. If the defense doesn’t get better as the year progresses, at least Titans fans will get to enjoy what could be a series of thrilling shoot-outs and an ultimately exciting season.

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