The Titans’ run defense last season was actually pretty good, ranking 2nd overall in total rushing yards allowed with an average of 88.3 yards per game given up on the ground, but the Titans were only 12th in average yards per attempt allowed at 4.0.
The biggest failure of the Titans run defense came in the Week 9 match-up in San Diego, when the Titans had the Chargers offense in a 3rd-and-7 situation at their own 28-yard line with 2:37 to play, and the entire stadium knew the ball was going to Melvin Gordon to run out the clock, but instead of stopping him, the Titans allowed him to rip off a 47-yard gain, essentially sealing the game for the Chargers.
The Titans front seven features one of the most underrated interior linemen in the league in two-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are pretty good in setting the edge against the run, and Avery Williamson was the best run-stopping linebacker in the NFL last season according to Pro Football Focus.
Titans LB Avery Williamson made run stops at a higher rate than any other linebacker in 2016. pic.twitter.com/B6haNddcVX— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 13, 2017
After letting nose tackle Al Woods walk in free agency, the Titans signed former Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl champion Sylvester Williams to a three-year contract worth over $17M to replace him. Safety Johnathan Cyprien joins the back-end of the defense from the division-rival Jaguars after performing as Pro Football Focus’s highest-rated safety against the run in 2016.
In Johnathan Cyprien, the Tennessee Titans added our highest graded safety against the run from the 2016 season. pic.twitter.com/NW8iWa7Zh3— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 18, 2017
Cornerback Logan Ryan, added in free agency, led the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots in tackles last season with 92. One of the strengths of rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was his ability as a strong tackler at USC. These cornerbacks are going to get involved in stopping the run near the sidelines.
Sly Williams anchoring the middle of the 3-4 is the biggest question mark of the run defense. Reports from his time in Denver aren’t necessarily glowing in regard to his performance, but Jon Robinson sounded confident that Dick LeBeau would be able to “cook something up” for Williams in an interview on the Midday 180.
Overall, the Titans were pretty stout against the run last year and have added great run defenders this offseason. The defense may not necessarily improve on its No. 2 overall ranking from a year ago, but I’d expect the average yards per carry allowed to improve from the barely-above-average 4.0 mark it was in 2016.
Last year, the Titans challenged Green Bay and New Orleans for the honor of worst pass defense in the NFL, ranking 30th in total passing yards allowed. In fact, one reason for the Titans 2nd overall ranking in run defense was because opposing teams knew the best way to beat the Titans was through the air.
Many times last year, we saw the opposing team aggressively attack the secondary with a deep shot very early in the game. Multiple times, this resulted in a large gain or a pass interference penalty that set up the opposition with great field position on their first or second drive.
It happened against Detroit (30-yard completion to Marvin Jones on their second drive), Raiders (25-yard completion to Amari Cooper on the Raiders’ first play from scrimmage), the Browns (43-yard completion to Gary Barnidge on their first play from scrimmage), the Colts in Week 7 (24-yard completion to T.Y. Hilton on their second play from scrimmage), again against the Colts in Week 10 (33-yard pass interference penalty against Jason McCourty on a deep pass attempt to Phillip Dorsett on their opening drive), against the Bears (33-yard pass interference penalty on Jason McCourty - yes, again - on their first play from scrimmage), and against the Jags in Week 16 (28-yard completion to Allen Robinson on their opening drive). It was literally part of the gameplan for nearly half the teams the Titans played against to take a deep shot on one of the first plays of the game and try to hit a big gain or draw a penalty. And it worked.
Thus, it’s hardly a surprise that the top three cornerbacks from the Titans’ secondary last season - Jason McCourty, Perrish Cox, and Valentino Blake - have all been jettisoned from the roster.
Logan Ryan joins the team after spending his first four seasons - and winning two Super Bowls - with the New England Patriots. Ryan was one of Pro Football Focus’s highest-rated player during his time in New England.
The Titans also selected cornerback Adoree’ Jackson in the first round of the draft. LeShaun Sims, a 5th-round pick last year, gradually saw more playing time throughout his rookie season, coming up with a huge interception in the Kansas City game and turning in PFF’s highest-rated single-game performance of any Titan in 2016.
Here's a mini-breakdown of LeShaun Sims' INT vs KC. Yes, ball thrown right to him, but because of good route mirroring and looking for ball. pic.twitter.com/7RPIH2ATTm— Titans Film Room (@titansfilmroom) March 23, 2017
Brice McCain returns to compete for the slot cornerback position and will probably end up as the 4th corner in the playing-time pecking order.
Dijon Mustard D’Joun Smith, a former 3rd-round pick of the Colts, was claimed by the Titans after Indianapolis released him last September. Demontre Hurst was signed in April after being cast off from the Chicago Bears. Former Mr. Irrelevant Kalad Reed also returns to compete for a job in the cornerback room.
Just like with wide receivers, Titans’ General Manager Jon Robinson identified a clear weakness and attacked it on every possible avenue with waivers, free agency, and through the draft.
While there are a lot of question marks (How will Logan Ryan perform as a team’s top corner? Is LeShaun Sims ready to step into a major role on defense? How bad will Adoree’ Jackson’s growing pains be as he adjusts to the NFL?) surrounding the Titans’ cornerbacks in 2017, there is no question that the group will be better than 2016’s squad.
Veteran Rashad Johnson was not re-signed after his lone year as the Titans free safety, and Kevin Byard is expected to move into that role this season (Titans former Director of College Scouting Blake Beddingfield said as much when he appeared on Nashville’s Midday 180 radio show).
Johnathan Cyprien arrives from Jacksonville to play alongside Byard, likely taking over Da’Norris Searcy’s position and pushing Searcy into the role manned by Daimion Stafford last season, who signed with the Steelers in the offseason.
The pass rush returns one of the NFL’s most effective duos (according to NFL’s Next Gen statistics) with Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan at outside linebacker.
Derrick Morgan (11.9) and Brian Orakpo (11.6) each ranked in the top 10 at their position last season in pass rushing productivity rating. pic.twitter.com/zT2pmeR3yb— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) April 17, 2017
Mike Mularkey expects Kevin Dodd to be ready for training camp, and he will be important as the team’s third pass rusher if he can play at full strength this season. Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug, who is expected to be fully healed from his torn achilles injury by the time training camp starts, are some of the most underrated interior pass rushers in the NFL.
While the Titans pass defense probably won’t be the strength of the team, it should be much improved from the dreadful 2016 unit. Even a slight improvement on the back end would pay huge dividends for the pass rush.
Add up all the additions and subtractions mentioned above, and the Titans are looking at potentially 5 or 6 new starters in the base defense from the beginning of the 2016 season to now.
NT - 2016: Al Woods | 2017: Sly Williams
CB1 - 2016: Jason McCourty | 2017: Logan Ryan
CB2 - 2016: Perrish Cox | 2017: Adoree’ Jackson / LeShaun Sims
SS - 2016: Da’Norris Searcy | 2017: Johnathan Cyprien
FS - 2016: Rashad Johnson | 2017: Kevin Byard
Austin Johnson is going to push DaQuan Jones for the starting DE spot opposite Jurrell Casey. The nickel cornerback could be Brice McCain again, or it could be any of Ryan, Jackson, or Sims. The coverage/nickel linebacker will no longer be Sean Spence, but instead manned by 5th-round pick Jayon Brown, for whom the Titans traded up in the draft.
That’s a lot of new faces that have to learn to play together, but they are arguably all upgrades over their 2016 counterparts.
WORST CASE EXPECTATIONS
It seems every position on the defense was upgraded from last season to this season. There are a lot of new faces that need to learn to play together, but as with the offense, it’s hard to fathom a scenario where the Titans 2017 defense is somehow worse than it was last season.
The worst-case scenario arises if either or both of Orakpo and Morgan have to miss time with injury. Depending on how healthy and effective Kevin Dodd performs as the next-man-up, the pass rush could suffer, which would, in turn, cause the secondary to struggle more.
The same can be said of the back-end, where an injury to a starting cornerback would push a very inexperienced player into a large role with lots of snaps.
Outside of unpredictable injuries, the worst-case expectations for the Titans defense should be a slight improvement from last season, including better coverage by the secondary and better run defense. A middle-of-the-road defense is about as bad as this team should be.
BEST CASE EXPECTATIONS
The best-case scenario for the Titans’ defense is an ascension into the upper echelon of the league’s top defenses.
If Logan Ryan can hold down opposing teams big-bodied receivers, and Adoree’ Jackson adjusts quickly to the NFL to lock up the smaller, speedier guys, the Titans pass defense could go from one of the worst in the NFL to one of the best.
If Jayon Brown and Johnathan Cyprien show that they can cover running backs and tight ends better than last year’s players, this Titans’ defense will be massively improved.
A top ten defense probably shouldn’t be the assumption, but it’s not impossible, either.
The realistic expectation probably lies somewhere between the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Titans’ defense in 2017.
What are you expecting from the unit?