How worried should the Titans be about their defense?

The Titans are an offense-led football team right now. That’s extremely strange to say given this franchise’s history since moving to Nashville, but it’s undoubtedly true right now. In the 12 regular season games the Titans have played with Ryan Tannehill as their starting quarterback, the offense has scored at least 30 points in half of them. They’ve scored at least 20 in all but one, getting that streak snapped in Week 1 thanks to the Gost-pocalypse. Their average score in those 12 contests? 29.4.

The point is… you don’t have to worry about the Titans offense right now. Sure, they’ll have some games that are better than others — and they’ll probably have a real stinker at some point — but the odds of them no-showing any given game are extremely low.

I’ll have more praise to heap on Arthur Smith, Ryan Tannehill, and the Titans offense later this week, but for now, let’s talk about the Tennessee defense that gave up 20 second-half points to Gardner Minshew’s Jags and nearly ruined another fantastic performance from their offensive counterparts.

There is no way of getting around this being an alarming performance for the defense. The Jaguars cruised up and down the field to the tune of 480 total yards in this game and were nearly unstoppable on 3rd downs, going 10-for-14 and throwing in a 1-for-1 on 4th downs.

If it weren’t for the two interceptions — one that glanced off a receiver’s hands and another that got batted up at the line — there’s a decent chance that Jacksonville could have hung a 40-burger on Mike Vrabel’s crew.

So what’s going on with the Titans defense?

I’ll start by saying that this was just one game — a very concerning game, yes, but still just one game. And no, the Titans defense did not play poorly against Denver. Anyone trying to sell that narrative this morning is giving you revisionist history.

Ultimately, I think the Titans defensive struggles in this game come down to three primary factors: injuries, new pieces settling in, and a better than advertised opponent.

Injuries on Defense

It’s not necessarily an excuse, but the Titans defense is very banged up at the moment. For this game they were without top corner Adoree’ Jackson, edge rushers Vic Beasley and Derick Roberson, and they lost veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph midway through the game. Star safety Kevin Byard even left the game briefly with a shoulder injury.

Malcolm Butler was a game-time decision with a quad issue. He battled through to play all but three defensive snaps against Jacksonville, but certainly didn’t look 100%.

Every team has injuries, and some are getting hit far worse than Tennessee (see 49ers, San Francisco), but the Titans injuries on defense are all concentrated in two position groups: cornerback and outside linebacker. Also known as the two most important positions on an NFL defense.

By the end of this game the Titans were trotting out a banged up Malcolm Butler, rookies Kristian Fulton and Chris Jackson, and practice squad call up Tye Smith as their top corner options. Not ideal.

Obviously, you can’t “fix” injuries. Guys heal and get better or you work with what you’ve got left. Nobody outside of Saint Thomas Sports Park knows the extent of Adoree’ Jackson’s injury, but it’s clear that the Titans need him back sooner rather than later. The same can be said for Johnathan Joseph, who had been a bit of a bright spot for the Titans defense over the first couple weeks.

If one or both of those guys is going to be out for a while, I think it’s time to place a call to some veteran free agents that are still available. The one that jumps out as the best option is Prince Amukamara, who was a surprise cut by the Raiders at the end of training camp, but was an every week starter on a good Bears defense for the last three years. Maybe an older vet like Tramon Williams, Morris Claiborne, or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could step in and help in the short term as well.

If Jackson and Joseph are going to be back in the next two or three weeks, it probably doesn’t make sense for the Titans to go get a veteran. It will take any of those guys — even with all their experience — a few weeks to really get up to speed and help you. But if those injuries are long term concerns, the Titans probably need to do something at corner.

At outside linebacker, the prognosis moving forward is more clear. Both Vic Beasley and Derick Roberson appeared to be close to returning this week. Roberson logged a full week of practice and Beasley had a limited Wednesday session before being a full participant on Thursday and Friday. I’d fully expect to see both those guys available in Minnesota.

Beasley’s presence should be a big help, not just because of the fact that he’s a proven pass rusher, but also because of the snaps he can take off the plates of Harold Landry and Jadeveon Clowney. Landry has played 129 of a possible 134 defensive snaps so far this season while Clowney has played 109 of 134 after no training camp ramp up.

Clowney, in particular, has looked gassed frequently in the first two weeks, but neither of these guys should be playing anywhere near this many snaps on a regular basis. Playing in the altitude of Denver in the middle of the night for Week 1 and then returning on a short week in Week 2 certainly doesn’t help, but getting Beasley and Roberson back to normalize the outside linebacker rotation should help the Titans get more out of all these guys in addition to adding a pair of players who combined for 11 sacks in 2019 to the mix.

Growing Pains

We talked a lot about continuity on offense with this Titans team this offseason. Tennessee returned 10 of 11 starters, every offensive coach on the staff, and pretty much every significant role player on that side of the ball and it shows in their early performances.

The defense was far more disrupted. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired, defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs left for Ohio State, and inside linebackers coach Tyrone McKenzie was replaced by Jim Haslett.

The personnel changed too. Two of the team’s top defenders — Jurrell Casey and Logan Ryan — from 2019 are gone. Three of the team’s starters on Sunday were new to the team.

Here’s a snapshot of what the Titans had on the field for a play in the fourth quarter yesterday:

  • Harold Landry
  • Larrell Murchison (rookie)
  • Matt Dickerson
  • Jadeveon Clowney (new)
  • Rashaan Evans
  • Jayon Brown
  • Malcolm Butler
  • Kristian Fulton (rookie)
  • Chris Jackson (rookie)
  • Kevin Byard
  • Kenny Vaccaro

That’s a lot of new faces at key spots and it’s just going to take some time for the young guys to really start to click at a high level.

One bright spot early on though? Second-round pick Kristian Fulton. Through two games, he’s been targeted in coverage just 4 times out of 39 snaps in coverage according to PFF charting, allowing 48 yards and turning in his first interception on Sunday. Expect to see his snap count on the rise in the coming weeks.

And it’s not just the corners that are being juggled right now. The ink still isn’t dry on Jadeveon Clowney’s contract and Vic Beasley is still yet to make his Titans debut. The Tennessee pass rush group could — should — look significantly different in October and November than it has the past two weeks.

It’s going to take some time for all these moving parts to gel and begin functioning as one cohesive unit.

The Jaguars offense is actually… kinda good?

I’ll raise my hand here. I underestimated Jacksonville’s offense. Even after watching Minshew go 19-of-20 against the Colts in Week 1, I was ready to put more of that on the Colts secondary playing terribly than the Jaguars offense playing well.

You can say a lot of the same things about Week 2. The Titans didn’t play particularly well in the secondary, but Minshew was excellent again. Some of the throws he made — the long pass to D.J. Chark and the touchdowns to Tyler Eifert and Chris Thompson — were simply outstanding throws and catches against good coverage (though Jayon Brown might have picked off the Thompson ball if he had gotten his head around in coverage).

Undrafted rookie running back James Robinson and the interior of the Jaguars offensive line created some big chunk runs against a Titans run defense that had been very good in Week 1 (and has far fewer injury excuses to blame their performance on).

At this point, it’s time to give Minshew his credit. He’s a good NFL quarterback and the Jaguars have some legit offensive weapons in D.J. Chark, Keelan Cole, and rookie Laviska Shenault. Jay Gruden may not have been a great head coach in Washington, but he’s always been an outstanding playcaller.

This team isn’t going to be the doormat that most thought they would be heading into the season. Jacksonville’s defense is still bad enough that they’re not a true a threat to win the division, but this is likely a 6 to 8 win team, not a competitor in the Trevor Lawrence Sweepstakes.

How does this get better from here?

The first step, clearly, is getting some guys healthy. I’d be pretty surprised if Beasley and Roberson didn’t make their debut this coming Sunday so the edge rush rotation should look much better moving forward.

The secondary is far more murky. We know Adoree’ Jackson will miss the Vikings game, but he is eligible to return from IR for the Titans Week 4 matchup with Pittsburgh if he’s physically ready to go by then. Joseph’s injury situation should be clarified a bit when we get the first injury report of the week on Wednesday.

Chances are pretty good that we will be seeing a lot of Kristian Fulton and Chris Jackson against Minnesota.

Frankly, there isn’t a ton that the Titans can do to make things better in the short term besides coaching up the young corners and hoping reinforcements help the pass rush. Having suspect corners and a limited pass rush is hard to hide for a defensive playcaller.

I would preach patience with this group though. The plan was never to be down two of their top three corners and playing two rookies over 50% in Week 2. Any NFL defense will struggle when you start getting down to CB5 and CB6 playing a bunch of snaps.

Assuming Adoree’ Jackson’s injury isn’t season-ending — I’m pretty sure we already would have heard that reported if it was — I think the defense will be in good shape once he returns, and in a perfect world, these early reps will help the rookies play less like rookies as the season wears on.

Now is not the time to panic, despite how bad the defense looked in the second half yesterday. Let’s see how Beasley and Roberson’s 2020 debuts impact the pass rush and get a better feel for when the Titans expect to get Joseph and Jackson back healthy before pulling the fire alarm, and for once, be thankful that it isn’t an inconsistent offense that we’re talking about after two weeks.

Comments

  1. Great points! I think things will pick up once we get Beasley and Roberson into rotation. Greatest concern at the moment is the secondary, and I hope Adoree gets back in action quickly. We can’t take more injuries there.

    On another note, I was surprised that Corey Davis didn’t get more action. Frankly, I expected more from him than a 3 catch 36 yd day when Brown was out (especially considering the performance in Denver). I’m curious whether people think this was more the product of game plan or his performance. We’ve seen him “breakout” (Philly, Patriots, etc.) to only then return to mediocrity.

    1. Maybe it’s just a matter of taking whichever weapon the opposing defense chooses to show the most disrespect for. Nd maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be in a good offense with multiple weapons and no mega-superstars. Just a thought on the Corey Davis question.

  2. On the injury front, Kareem Orr may also be worthy of a shout out here. All indications were he makes the team and plays ahead of at least Tye Smith, if not the rookies, if he is healthy. So they were really down corner 1 (Jackson), corner 3 (Joseph), and corner (4/5 depending on whether you think Orr takes more reps than the rookies early due to time in the system, and I do), with corner 2 (Butler) playing at maybe 80%. So at times yesterday on the field was corner 2 playing hurt, corner 5, and corners 6 and 7 rotating. It’s hard to do well while also missing half the edge rushers, especially against Jay Gruden with an accurate QB and a decent script.

    If Jackson or Joseph can’t come back soon, sign me up for Amukamara or Rodgers-Cromartie. They liked Chris Jackson since he is clearly smart and gets in the right spots, but he just can’t stay with real NFL WRs right now.

  3. When you look at what the Titans have dealt with so far this season, both from the schedule-makers (I’ll continue to reiterate the difficulties of playing Week 1 at Denver) and from their own injuries, being 2-0 is a really nice place to be. I feel like things can only go up as the defense starts to gel better, Vrabel/Bowen start to get their feet under them a bit as the DC duo (remember how slowly Art Smith started last year? The fanbase fired him 5 times in the first 3 games), and players get healthier.

    A.J. Brown didn’t even play and his absence on offense was barely noticable.

    1. I do think at Denver in the middle of the night was a sneaky tough way to start the year, especially coming off almost zero training camp. Not completely surprised that the defense looked gassed in that second half.

  4. This was the exact question I had, and I thought of 2 of your 3 causes. I feel a lot better now, thank you Mike….do you think playcalling may also be having a negative impact?

    1. Hard to say on the play calling without digging into the tape further (we will have some talk about this in the All-22 defense this week for sure). I tend to think it would be tough to scheme around two rookie corners and one banged up starter regardless of how good your playcalling was, but you’d hope they’d be able to stop the bleeding a little better than they did.

  5. Buck Reising said today on 104.5 that Shane Bowen is in the booth and he and Vrabel discuss the play calls. Furthermore, he said Dean Pees and Vrabel had the same setup last year and that Bowen was the assistant to Pees in the booth.

  6. I think you can really key in on the growing pains section of this post. We have to remember that this is not a normal season. The team did not get a preseason to work out some of the kinks in the system. Defense, especially zone, comes down to communication and a lot of trust and with new faces, it takes time for those things to settle in.
    I’m wondering if not having crowds is actually affecting the defense negatively. I know that they can communicate better and can make adjustments based on what the offense is doing pre-snap much easier. However, when I played, which was high school ball, I know I tired out much faster playing DB than I did playing WR. Maybe that had to do with not knowing where I was going when the play started on defense. I know I wasn’t in near the shape these guys are in as well. But I can for sure tell you that I used to feed off of that crowd noise on defense. It, without a doubt, gave me more energy and adrenaline than I naturally had.

    Just food for thought. Good article, Mike

    1. Good point about the crowd energy. I definitely think there is something to that. Scoring is up across the entire league about 15% compared to this time last year.

      1. That’s a really interesting stat, particularly as I’d expect the lack of an off season to favor the defense. It seems like defenses always have the advantage early in camp. I wonder if there’s any way to quantify whether we’re seeing less complicated or slimmer playbooks on offense than we would in a normal season. the scoring increase may well be a product of lack of conditioning and lack of crowd noise league wide. However, defenses for teams that don’t travel extremely well play with minimal crowd noise when they are on the field for 8 road games per season anyway.

        1. If you go back and look after the lock-out head of the 2011 season, scoring was up to historic highs through the first month of the season and leveled out after that. But the lack of contact/tackling practice makes jumping into full defense tougher at the start of the season.

  7. This is such a great reality check write-up for the Titans fan base after this week 2 game. I think you’re asking the right questions. And you’ve clearly done some great homework as you’ve explored the answers to said questions. Thanks!

  8. I wonder if there’s anything coming later this week that specifically addresses the Titans’ secondary’s ability to matchup against Adam Theilen and the Vikings receiving corps. Seems like that is the primary key to Sunday’s game. That and whether we have a full-strength pass rush to get after Kirk Cousins.

    Our offense should be able to keep rolling against them.

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