I would normally say that it will be impossible for new Titans edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney to live up to the hype after six months worth of will-he-won’t-he drama that led to the top pick of the 2014 NFL Draft signing a one-year, $12-million deal in Tennessee earlier this week, but frankly, we’ve seen enough spectacular Clowney performances to know it’s possible.
In fact, Clowney’s last two appearances on Monday Night Football — both in 2019 — saw him produce 8 tackles, 1 sack, 6 quarterback hits, 13 pressures, 1 tackle for loss, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 scoop and score touchdown. Everyone remembers his virtuoso 11-pressure performance against the 49ers where he seemingly lined up in the 49ers backfield every snap, helping his Seahawks become the first team to take down the eventual NFC Champion.
We know that kind of performance is on the menu when it comes to Jadeveon Clowney and it would be foolish to completely rule it out against a shaky-at-best Broncos offensive line, but what is likely? How many snaps will he play and where will the Titans use him?
Those are some of the more fascinating questions heading into this primetime opener for the Titans. Let’s start with the most basic question… will Clowney play in the opener? It might seem like a no-brainer — and I think it is — but it’s been raised enough times to make it worth addressing here.
Yes, I think Clowney is absolutely, postitively going to be suited up in two-tone blue in Denver at 9:20 p.m. CT on Monday night. One year ago, he was traded from Houston to Seattle exactly one week before Seattle’s opener against the Bengals. He not only played in that matchup, but he got 46 snaps, good for 61 percent of the Seahawks defensive plays. Clowney was effective in those 46 snaps as well, tallying a sack, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit, and a pass broken up.
This year, he finds himself in a similar scenario. While reports trickled out late Saturday night, Clowney officially arrived in Nashville on Monday, exactly one week before the opener to start COVID testing. Today, he officially was allowed in Titans team headquarters for the first time, which would indicate that he’s passed the mandatory three negative tests in four days required to enter the building.
With COVID protocol behind him, Clowney now gets to join his teammates and begin (re)learning the playbook as the team installs its gameplan for Denver. Unlike last year, however, he won’t be starting from scratch. Much of what the Titans do defensively is based off of the Houston defense that Clowney played in for his first five seasons in the NFL.
Not only does he share a common language and history with head coach Mike Vrabel — his longtime position coach with the Texans — but his new position coach, Shane Bowen, was also in Houston with Clowney for two years. Even if he can’t pick up every last detail of the Titans defense in seven days, he’ll have a head coach and position coach who can translate things into terminology that he’ll understand based on their shared history.
So if Clowney has already cleared COVID protocol and has a staff that can help him figure out assignments as needed, the only other question about what Clowney can do Monday night will come down to conditioning and if he’s physically fit enough to play significant snaps in the thin air of Mile High Stadium.
The Midday 180 talked to Clowney’s personal trainer, Danny Arnold, on their show yesterday about his fitness level and what he’s been working on over the offseason. Unsurprisingly, Arnold said that Clowney was in outstanding shape — what trainer wouldn’t — but it’s somewhat reassuring to hear him talk about the training program that he went through this offseason.
While Clowney’s work ethic hasn’t always carried a sparkling reputation he’s never had issues with being out of shape (and to be fair, as John McClain mentions in the segment above, Clowney’s effort questions have always been related to practice, not games). Denver’s thin air will be tough on all 48 Titans who suit up Monday night, but there is no reason to think Clowney will struggle with it more than his other 47 teammates.
Obviously, I can’t tell you what Mike Vrabel has in mind for Clowney in Week 1 — and he won’t tell you either — but I think the team’s first (unofficial) depth chart gives a hint.
I think it’s fair to expect to see Clowney on the field right away when the Titans defense trots out for their first snap. And I also think it’s fair to expect to see him play a significant role throughout the game. He’s probably not going to get an 80 or 90 percent snap share — as was common for him in 2017 when Mike Vrabel was running Houston’s defense — but could he see a 50 to 60 percent type of workload? Sure, I think that’s reasonable.
How the Titans distribute those snaps will be interesting as well. Do they stick him at outside linebacker all night or do they move him all around the formation like Vrabel did in Houston? If he is on a pitch count of sorts, do they use him as a run down destroyer — something he does better than any other edge defender in the NFL — or do they save his snaps for pass rush situations?
I think some of that could depend on how much of the Titans gameplan for Denver was already mapped out prior to his signing as well as how much versatility they can download to Clowney in a week. As for the run versus pass question… I think that could depend on the availability of Vic Beasley and Derick Roberson.
Beasley finally came off the reserve/Non-Football Injury list on Saturday, and in theory, should have returned to practice already (we don’t know if he has and probably won’t until Thursday’s injury report is released). Roberson — the Titans second year pass rush specialist — suffered a leg injury that initially looked serious, but turned out to be minor during camp last week. Like Beasley, we will get a better feel for his prognosis on Thursday.
My guess today is that at least one of those two end up playing in Denver and I’d give Beasley slightly better odds than Roberson. Obviously, if neither could go — leaving the Titans with just Harold Landry, Kamalei Correa, and Clowney available — the pressure on Clowney to play a heavy snap count at outside linebacker would be significantly increased. If Beasley does play, it frees up Vrabel to get a little more creative with Clowney’s usage and I would expect to see our first few glimpses of a Clowney-Landry-Beasley-Jeffery Simmons front on pass rush downs that could be one of the most formidable in the NFL this year.
Titans fans are fired up to see their new “gamewrecker” — as Kevin Byard called him earlier this week — in action and I don’t think they’re going to be disappointed Monday night.