Searching for optimism for the Titans 2021 defense under Shane Bowen

RE: I wish you would step from that ledge my friend

A “Friday news dump” is a typical move to avoid scrutiny when the responsible party knows their news may not be received very well. This week with the Titans was no exception.

Tennessee made a number of coaching moves on Friday morning, leading off with an early leak via Ian Rapoport that Todd Downing would follow in Arthur Smith’s footsteps by taking over the Titans offensive coordinator job after serving as tight ends coach for the past two seasons. No doubt this was a planned leak intended to take some of the heat off of the other news that was yet to come…

The Titans public relations department must have anticipated the fiery reaction that came from the fanbase after Shane Bowen was officially named the team’s defensive coordinator. Why else accompany that news with the announcement of multiple position coach elevations on the staff?

There’s plenty of reasons for optimism regarding Downing’s promotion, which Zach Lyons has covered in detail for Broadway already. But what about Bowen?

I’m not here to paint over this promotion with overly positive rainbows and sunshine, nor am I viewing this through two-tone tinted lenses. Even if the promotion works out, there’s no denying it was a wholly uninspiring decision that could come back to haunt Mike Vrabel and Jon Robinson before the next season has finished.

That said, I do see a few reasons to take a “wait and see” approach towards this announcement. So this is my attempt to ease Titans’ fans panic with a few potentially promising nuggets and items of interest that could and should arise out of Bowen’s new role as defensive coordinator.

Personnel Overhaul

In his end-of-the-season media appearance, Vrabel made it clear that Bowen was the de facto defensive coordinator in 2020 despite not holding the actual DC title.

“Shane [Bowen] led the meetings, Shane led the walkthroughs, Shane called the defense, and I think we get caught up too much in titles.”

Despite the team’s historically bad defensive performance — tied for the fewest sacks ever by a playoff team, the worst third-down defense in the Pro Football Reference database, and finishing 30th in red zone scoring rate allowed, 29th in passing yards allowed, and 29th in defensive DVOA — Vrabel has doubled down on his commitment to Bowen.

From this decision, one might assume Vrabel sees more fault in the players’ ability to execute than in the defensive coordinator’s ability to, well, coordinate.

After all, I doubt even Bill Belichick, Brandon Staley or Robert Saleh — anyone you may view as the best DC in the NFL today — could muster much of a pass rush with Harold Landry and the scrapheap working alongside him.

The Titans swung for the fences and struck out hard with free agents Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley last offseason. The pass rushers remaining on the roster for 2021 and beyond offer little hope aside from Landry, who actually finished ninth among all edge rushers in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric.

By sticking with Bowen at defensive coordinator, Vrabel is acknowledging that Landry needs help. He and Robinson knew it last year when they signed Clowney and Beasley, and one year later, nothing much has changed in that department.

Luckily for Tennessee, there are a host of viable edge rushers expected to hit the free agent market in the coming months. The Titans should be major players for at least one big-time signing and likely a second, less expensive contract, as well. They may have to clear an extensive amount of cap space to do so, but as Mike Herndon wrote earlier this month, that should be easily accomplished. It would also be prudent to invest some early draft capital in an athletic pass rusher or two.

Beyond the edge position, the Titans lack depth throughout the defense. It was clear with Adoree Jackson missing how much the team needs additional viable cornerbacks. The ghost of Johnathan Joseph won’t cut it. Journeymen backups like Breon Borders won’t cut it. Whether in free agency or the draft, the Titans could look to add more talent in the secondary to compete with the starters for a bigger role, rotate more frequently to keep players fresh, or simply serve as insurance in the inevitable event that someone gets injured.

With Jayon Brown, Will Compton, and Daren Bates set to hit free agency as well, the Titans may need to add linebackers, too. Given how badly Rashaan Evans struggled last season, if Brown and others walk, I’d say an infusion of linebacker talent is a must.

Luckily, the offensive side of the ball is mostly set. Maybe add a replacement for Corey Davis if he is lost to free agency and some young offensive line depth, but overall, the majority of this offseason’s resources should be spent on the other side of the ball.

Could we be looking at a complete overhaul of defensive personnel? It seems likely if the Titans actually want to see marked improvement on defense.

Scheme Tweaks

One might also assume that because Bowen will serve largely in the same role, designing and calling plays for the defense, the scheme will remain largely unchanged.

Not so fast, my friends.

The Titans official news release on Friday included a statement from Vrabel. Here’s what he had to say about Bowen’s new role:

“Shane will move into the dedicated role of coordinator, with Ryan [Crow] taking over the outside linebackers this year, and I am looking forward to him growing in that role. We are going to work hard to improve that side of the ball through better coaching, improving our system and our players. I like the group we have on the defensive staff and I am confident that we will improve.”

(Emphasis mine)

It’s a subtle comment in a larger statement, but the note about improving the system seems like an important development.

Obviously there were major problems with the Titans’ scheme last season. The lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks combined with poor coverage techniques on the outside allowed for far too many easy completions and easy third-down conversions. SuperHorn has documented the inconsistencies between blitz packages and back-end coverages, recently re-sharing some of his findings on Twitter.

Beyond easily identifiable issues, 2020 saw many previously productive players regress in their on-field play, most notably former All Pro safety Kevin Byard. Evans, mentioned above, often appeared to be stuck in cement on the field. I wondered throughout the year if Titans defenders were spending too much time thinking and not enough time playing.

When Vrabel was first hired, he had a common refrain he wanted players to follow: “Know what to do and play fast and aggressive.” Often times last year, it seemed players were incapable of playing fast and aggressive, perhaps because they were unsure of what to do.

Now, it’s unlikely we’ll see wholesale changes made to the defensive scheme. But after Dean Pees’ (second) retirement, Vrabel did say the defensive scheme wouldn’t be exactly the same without him. The 2020 defense wasn’t a full continuation of 2018-2019 units under Pees.

It seems reasonable to expect some tweaks to this system again in advance of 2021. I can’t say exactly what kind of tweaks those will be, but I’d start by trying to tie pressure packages to coverages much better. For example, if you’re going to send extra rushers, don’t play your cornerbacks 10+ yards off the line and allow quick passes to be wide open. If you’re going to blitz the nickel corner, have a defender fill the vacant space where the quarterback will be looking to make a hot throw. If you’re going to send a linebacker on a delayed blitz, make sure you can take away the quarterback’s first read so the blitzer has time to affect the play.

Time to Focus

I’ll admit this last one is a bit of a reach. But here goes anyway…

Throughout the 2020 season, Bowen was balancing his unofficial defensive coordinator duties with his positional coach responsibilities. Not to make any excuses, but trying to do two jobs at once must’ve been a major strain on his time, energy and focus, especially during a pandemic season where schedules and routines were already thrown severely out of whack.

Part of the moves today involved promoting Ryan Crow to outside linebackers coach. Crow has an interesting resume himself that includes time as Bowen’s assistant in 2019, according to Turron Davenport.

Not only does Crow appear to be a promising position coach in his own right, him taking over the outside linebackers should allow Bowen more time to worry about his most important job: coordinating the defense.

Pees used to create extensive “tip sheets” for his players that included defensive calls and other details, as well as specific tendencies and alignments about the upcoming opponent. It’s fair to wonder if his departure ahead of last season left many Titans defenders in the dark when they were so accustomed to being well-informed.

If Bowen can use his newfound time to create his own version of these kinds of sheets, it may pay huge dividends on the field.

At the end of the day, we simply have to wait and see what happens with Bowen as the team’s defensive coordinator. It’s possible he’ll learn from the failings of 2020 and come back much improved for the 2021 season. It’s possible that an influx of talent, particularly at the edge position, could give the defense a boost in much the way Ryan Tannehill’s insertion did for the 2019 offense.

If you remember, the Titans offensive line didn’t get off to a great start in 2019. Rodger Saffold in particular struggled to begin his Titans tenure, and fans hoped that Taylor Lewan’s return from suspension could “fix” the offense (although Delanie Walker said that wasn’t going to happen). The receivers weren’t on the same page as Marcus Mariota. Derrick Henry had just 28 yards rushing to lead the team against Denver in Week 6. Things seemed bleak and hopeless.

Then Tannehill took over, and everything changed.

Could that happen with a talented pass rusher joining the team in 2021? Will the defense find a way to simply get to average and support what should continue to be one of the league’s best offenses?

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Shane Bowen ends up as Mike Vrabel’s Terry Robiskie. Will Vrabel’s loyalty to a friend end up hurting the team or even cost him his job in the same way Mike Mularkey lost his?

Right now, all fans can do is blindly hope for the best, because the evidence thus far points to the worst.

Let us know how you feel about defensive coordinator Shane Bowen in the comments below!

Comments

  1. At this point, I would just wait and see. No use ranting about who they name or not name as DC. I still have trust in Robinson and Vrabel but we need to have some smart (re) signings in the FA market and draft some true difference makers. In addition to an improvement to the scheme, there needs to be better adjustments to the game plan on both sides of the ball. The offense was great but we need to improve pass blocking on obvious passing situations and getting the ball out faster by Tannenhill on blitzes.

  2. It was hard NOT to be disappointed in the news with Bowen as the new DC. However, getting legit pass rushing can help cover up some cracks to get to average. I have faith in JRob to make the right moves, even after a rough 2020 off-season. There will be pressure and concern. But, in theory, we could have a clearer picture come training camp and we can be “hopeful”.

  3. I’m not sure I buy the “even Saleh and Staley couldn’t do much with pass rushers like these” take. JRob brought in Clowney and Beasley. Then both had career lows as pass rushers. Why is everybody putting that on JRob rather than our coaching staff not getting the most out of their players?

    I do like your third point a lot. I think it was a mistake to spread a first time DC so thin. I do think that it should realistically lead to at least some improvement in Bowen’s performance as DC and also to potential improvement at OLB.

  4. I too was disappointed with the decision to promote Bowen to DC. However, upon reflection and in keeping with “Searching for Optimism” I’m not ready to conclude this is a disaster in the making. There were many who second-guessed promoting Arthur Smith to OC two years ago. But that move worked out pretty well. Not so long ago there were many who were convinced that Keith Carter was a terrible Offensive Line coach. Yet over the last 2-3 years he has managed to turn this offensive line into a pretty cohesive group despite nagging injuries, a rookie right guard, and the loss of Pro Bowl LT Taylor Lewan followed by the loss of the second team LT. So maybe we should give some credit to Vrabel and Robinson for knowing the strengths and weaknesses of their coaches.

    Justin, I think you did a great job of  analyzing this subject. Just to rehash, the Titans really missed Dean Pees last year and his ability to game plan, his attention to detail and his providing tip sheets to players. In addition, the free agent Edge rushers didn’t work out. (I agreed with signing both.) No real depth in that area of the team. They had to deal with COVID, no off-season work, no preseason work to speak of, no ability for face-to-face meetings with rookies or free agents, and then really unfortunate injuries in the DB group, especially Adoree’ Jackson. The year was really a mess for every NFL team but it’s truly amazing the Titans went 11-5. And it’s unsurprising the Titans had persistent issues on defense with a new inexperienced (acting) DC under these circumstances.  

    I’m not convinced the Titans defensive coaching staff is complete just yet. I really feel there may be another shoe (or shoes) to drop. The inside linebacker play, coached by Jim Haslett, was especially disappointing in 2020. Those guys took a surprising big step back. Haslett has an impressive NFL resume’ including as Head Coach of the NO Saints. But you never hear a peep about him. I noticed that during games he is often seen intently watching Vrabel rather than watching the defensive game-play. It’s kind of odd. I believe Haslett may still be replaced before the 2021 defensive staff is set.

    Also, I believe it was PK that pointed out that the Titans approached Dean Pees about coming back to the Titans as a defensive consultant in 2021, not as the DC. Since Pees is now on-board as DC with Arthur Smith in Atlanta, Vrabel may still intend to help Bowen on the defensive side. I’m not sure who that might be but it’s possible Vrabel may support Bowen as a first-time DC with additional staff. I think that would be a very positive move. Bowen may end up being a disappointment or he may end up being the next great NFL Defensive Coordinator. At any rate, I’m rooting for him.

    Pending off-season free agent signings (yes to Shaq Barrett or similar) and a great draft (first round Edge) I’m optimistic!

    1. thanks for the well thought out comment, i agree with most of what you said and who knows, maybe we will see some more staff moves in the coming weeks.

    2. I wonder if Romeo Crennel would be open to a defensive consultant position. He has had mixed results as a coordinator through the years, but he certainly has been around the NFL game for decades and has ties to Vrabel and Bowen.

      1. Wouldn’t rule anything out. That’s pretty much the role Crennel served for the Texans in 2017 when Vrabel himself was the DC. Crennel was I think Assistant HC/Defense or something like that.

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