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All-22 Review: Titans defense is on the rise behind Jurrell Casey and Harold Landry

Jurrell Casey is playing at an All-Pro level and Harold Landry continues to stack up impressive plays.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The All-22 Review is a recurring feature breaking down the tape from the previous week’s Titans game. The focus will vary depending on where the action on the field takes us, but the idea is to bring insights that may have been missed on the TV broadcast.

The Titans offense is getting many of the accolades this week after a furious come from behind win over the defending champion Eagles — and those are certainly earned — but the defense kept this game within striking distance early and then helped fuel the comeback with a big turnover later in the game. Dean Pees’ unit has been consistently strong through the first quarter of the 2018 season, allowing just 18.2 points per game which is good for 6th fewest in the NFL.

One interesting development is that the Tennessee defense has seemingly flipped it’s focus from previous seasons. In 2016 and 2017 under head coach Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Titans finished in the top 10 in run defense DVOA and in the bottom 10 in pass defense DVOA both years. So far in 2018, the Titans rank 14th in pass defense and 25th in run defense.

Some of that improvement can be explained by personnel changes, but scheme changes and the way the Titans approach defense under Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees has had an impact as well. One of those adjustments is the use of nickel personnel. The Titans are virtually — and sometimes literally — staying in nickel for every snap regardless of the opponent’s offensive personnel. It’s a way to not only get their 11 best players on the field — nickel back Logan Ryan is playing at a higher level than any defensive lineman not named Jurrell Casey right now — and also limit opponent’s passing attacks. Tennessee has had at least three corners on the field for over 90% of defensive snaps this season.

I studied the correlations between several aspects of football and winning games during this offseason. One of my findings was that being good at defending the pass has a significantly stronger correlation to winning than having a strong run defense. I believe the Titans are consciously choosing to sacrifice a stifling run defense in favor of shutting down opponents through the air and I think that’s a smart approach. It will be interesting to see if that approach evolves as the season wears on.

The Titans defense is playing at a really high level right now and that continued against a very talented Eagles offense led by Carson Wentz. Here’s how they got it done.

Jurrell Casey is playing at an All-Pro level

Every great defense needs a star that leads the way and the Titans have one in Jurrell Casey. He’s gone to three straight Pro Bowls and played at a very high level for quite some time, but I’ve never seen him playing quite like this. The box score stats from Sunday are OK — 5 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, and 2 QB hits — but the tape shows a guy that is virtually unblockable right now.

The Eagles struggled to control Casey from start to finish on Sunday despite having one of the best offensive lines in football. On this snap the Eagles are running inside zone, but Casey is able to slide inside right tackle Lane Johnson despite help from right guard Brandon Brooks and scrape down the line to make the stop on Jay Ajayi.

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In addition to being impossibly quick and surprising strong, Jurrell Casey has some of the best hands of any defensive lineman playing. That’s what he uses to beat Eagles guard Stefen Wisniewski and force this incomplete pass from Wentz. Watch Casey’s left hand as he goes to engage with Wisniewski. He reaches out and grabs his opponent’s right elbow and pins it down which allows him to run right through his right shoulder and very nearly get a strip sack on Wentz. This is special stuff from Casey.

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The Titans have been running lots of stunts and twists up front on passing downs to try to generate pressure without sending an all out blitz. Here, the Titans are running an E-T twist with Casey (spotlighted) and Brian Orakpo and it could serve as teaching tape because this is exactly how it’s supposed to look from the defensive tackle. The Eagles left tackle, Jason Peters (No. 71), is focused on his matchup with Orakpo at the snap. That allows Casey to slant right at him and use him to ricochet back in to the quarterback. It’s perfection execution of a well-designed defensive call.

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And frankly, Casey should have had his 4th sack of the season. Wentz is lucky that Landry or Evans didn’t get their hands on this ball as he was trying to throw it away, but it sure did look like his knee hit the ground before the ball got out of his hand on this play.

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Even when it looks like Casey is blocked, he’s still able to somehow slide off an make plays. On this snap, Wisniewski (No. 61) should be helping Peters (No. 71) get a reach on Casey and then pushing up to the second level to block a linebacker. Not only does Casey keep him from getting up to the linebackers, but he actually crosses his face and makes the tackle right at the line of scrimmage.

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Here’s another stunt that Casey helps set up. This time it’s an N-T twist and Casey’s quick inside move helps free up DaQuan Jones for what would have been a likely sack if not for the blatant hold by Jason Kelce (No. 62) that went uncalled.

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Jason Kelce is one of the best centers in the NFL, but he struggled with Casey when matched up against him throughout this game. Here’s an example as Casey is able to stack and discard Kelce to make the tackle for a loss during the Eagles overtime drive.

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Casey has been extremely disruptive this season thanks, in part, to Dean Pees’ decision to allow him the freedom to move all over the line to find matchups that he likes. Rather than simply lining up as the left defensive end, Casey is primarily now the 3-technique defensive tackle, flipping sides as necessary based on the defensive call and strength of the offense. Playing as a 3-tech — aligned in the B gap between the guard and tackle — makes him more difficult to double team and allows him to do what he does best which is penetrate and disrupt. If Casey keeps playing at this level he should have a shot at earning his first First-Team All-Pro recognition and could even get in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year (though Khalil Mack is very clearly the frontrunner through 4 games).

Rashaan Evans is a thumper, but he’s still a little lost

Rashaan Evans has gotten a little bit lost in all the (deserved) hype surrounding Harold Landry’s early impact, but the Titans 1st round pick got a whopping 60 snaps against the Eagles after making his debut against Jacksonville a week before with just 18 snaps. A big reason for the jump in usage is Wesley Woodyard’s shoulder injury that took Tennessee’s best linebacker out of the game after just 2 snaps. Evans’ performance was a mixed bag. We will start with the bad and then show some of the things that showed his potential.

Evans had a few snaps where it was pretty painfully obvious that he’s still swimming a little bit when it comes to learning the new defense and how to read NFL offenses. This is one of them. In Evans’ defense, the Eagles do run a lot of play action and RPO so I’m guessing he thought this was a play action pass, but there were linemen several yards downfield before he realized this was a run. Not great.

Sidenote: Jurrell Casey nearly gets Ajayi from the backside on this play, but was tackled by Lane Johnson (No. 65). Casey is just a monster right now.

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Here’s another play where Evans shows a lack of play recognition. To be completely fair, he is supposed to be passing Zach Ertz off to the safety behind him, but the Eagles receivers are all running vertical routes and Jayon Brown has the back in man so there is no threat anywhere else in his zone. He should have stuck underneath Ertz on this route.

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Now let’s get to some of the things that Evans did that made me really excited about the player he can become when he starts figuring things out. He’s a flat out thumper in the run game. Watch him on the snap below absolutely rock Jason Kelce’s world as the Eagles center pulls around to try to clear a hole for Ajayi. Kelce outweighs Evans by about 70 pounds, but hits with such force that it stands him up and pushes him a couple yards back in the hole. That forces Ajayi to flatten out his path and allows Jurrell Casey and Jayon Brown to flow to the ball and make the stop. Oh, and Evans goes ahead and finishes the job by pushing Kelce over the pile.

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Kelce wasn’t the only Eagles offensive lineman to get stoned in the hole by Evans. Here, Jason Peters (No. 71) — who has 100 pounds on Evans — is pulling to lead Ajayi, but Evans stuffs him at the line which closes the hole and the Titans defense is able to rally to make the stop on 3rd and 3 at the end of the first half.

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The other big skill that Evans brings to the table is his ability to rush the passer. We got a little taste of it here as he comes with Jayon Brown on a double A gap blitz. The blitz scheme forces Wisniewski (No. 61) to be late picking him up and Evans just blows through Wendell Smallwood, very nearly getting a hand on Wentz’s throwing arm as it pulled back. Evans is an absolute load to block when he’s coming downhill.

Sidenote: Watch Casey here. He’s lined up outside as a wide-9 type rush edge. He goes with an inside move and is able to essentially toss Jason Peters in to Wentz’s feet as he’s making the throw. Casey is just so so so incredibly good. Also, this is a phenomenal throw from Wentz to beat really good coverage from Adoree’ Jackson.

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Evans isn’t there yet, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. He missed the entire preseason and Week 1, got zero defensive snaps in Week 2, and then got 18 in Week 3. Evans’ physical ability is clear, but he’s not quite there yet from the standpoint of reading and anticipating what’s coming from the opposing offense. Once he does get there, he has a chance to be a stud.

Harold Landry makes Wentz the first name on the Honor Roll

Landry is special. I thought that before the draft, but I know it now. We’ve seen him destroy college tackles with his speed rush. We’ve seen him destroy backup NFL tackles with his speed rush. We’ve seen him destroy bad starting NFL tackles with his speed rush. Now, we’ve seen him destroy the reigning First-Team All-Pro right tackle to create a critical turnover in a comeback win over the defending champs.

It’s relatively hard to believe this was Landry’s first NFL sack because of how active and disruptive he had been against the Texans and Jaguars, but it was. It is likely the first of many. There’s not a whole lot I can add beyond what you see here, but you need to understand that Lane Johnson — the tackle that Landry makes look like he’s playing in quick sand — is quite possibly the most athletic tackle in the NFL.

This is a great view of Landry’s bend as he gets lower than a 45 degree angle from the ground while running full speed around the corner. It’s also an example of how his 6’-2” height can actually help him. It’s tough for the 6’-6” Johnson to maintain leverage and speed at that height off the ground. Landry is by no means a complete product right now, but he doesn’t have to be to make a major impact. His fastball is so good that it’s going to get him home at least a couple times a game and that’s really all that an edge rusher needs to change a game.

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While his speed rush is enough to make him disruptive, you can see Landry trying to add some counters to his game. Here, he uses a long arm and tries to slide back inside of Johnson. It’s not quite there yet, but you can see him adding to the toolbox.

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When Landry isn’t buzzing around the edge with a speed rush, he’s generally flying around the field somewhere showing extraordinary effort. Here, again, he tries an inside counter move, but is matched by Johnson. Wentz escapes out right, but Landry peels back and is able to chase down the quarterback to make the tackle for just a 2 yard gain. Landry has made several extra effort type plays during his first three games as a Titan.

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The great thing about Landry is that he’s a perfect complement to Jurrell Casey. He has already helped force two Casey sacks when quarterbacks had to step up in the pocket to avoid Landry screaming off the edge. It’s a really nice “Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside” type relationship developing between those two.

This week, Landry gets to face off with two sub-par tackles in the Bills Dion Dawkins and Jordan Mills. I would expect him to be around Josh Allen quite a bit on Sunday.

What’s going on with Malcolm Butler?

Butler’s struggles have been well documented at this point. He’s allowed 21 catches on 27 targets for 397 yards and 4 touchdowns through 4 games. The big problem contributing to those numbers is that those 4 touchdowns have all been extremely long plays.

First, it was the 75-yard touchdown for Kenny Stills when Ryan Tannehill dropped a perfect ball over the top despite pretty decent coverage. Then it was Butler losing (or thinking he was passing off) DeAndre Hopkins during a scramble drill that resulted in a 28-yard touchdown. Later in that same game Will Fuller gets away with a very subtle push off on another perfectly thrown deep ball for a 39-yard touchdown. Then, this week, it was the 56-yard touchdown to Jordan Matthews that picked the Eagles offense up off the mat late in the first half and sparked a 17 point Philadelphia run.

Here’s that play. The Titans appear to be in quarters coverage with both corners and the two safeties splitting up the deep part of the field in to four parts. I can’t tell if Butler (spotlighted) expected safety Kenny Vaccaro (the safety to that side) to pick up the post or if he simply got caught looking for a chance to peel off and pick off the deep out from Zach Ertz, but it’s clear that whatever he thought was going to happen wasn’t what happened.

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This is probably the worst of the 4 touchdowns that he’s given up to this point in my opinion. Matthews is just wide open and regardless of communication, that can’t happen.

The excuses are tired at this point, but when I watch him on tape I don’t see a guy that’s playing terribly. Here’s an example. It’s hard to cover Alshon Jeffery much tighter than this, but Jeffery is still able to spin back late and make the catch.

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Butler still has skills and he’s going to have better days in a Titans uniform, but these first 4 weeks have been really rough. He did have a forced fumble and a sack in this game that were both really nice plays, he just needs to have those more often.

Jayon Brown’s rise continues

Brown has been a pleasant surprise for the Titans since picking him in the 5th round of the 2017 draft. He was a prominent contributor as a coverage linebacker last season and has only gotten better in 2018. He’s 4th on the team in tackles and spent most of the game against the Eagles as the Titans primary defensive playcaller.

Brown has always had the athleticism, but now he’s starting to add some anticipation and recognition to his game. Watch how quickly he reads this play action boot and attack up field to go get the sack with an assist from Derrick Morgan.

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Brown nearly had another sack in this game on a clever blitz from Dean Pees. Tennessee lines up in the diamond front that Mike Vrabel used frequently in Houston. It features 5 defenders — in this case Morgan, Evans, Casey, Orakpo, and Landry from left to right on the screen — lined up across from the 5 offensive linemen. The Eagles are in a 5-man protection — we know this because the back ends up free releasing in to a swing route — so that dictates the responsibilities of each offensive lineman pre-snap. However, Evans bails out in to coverage after the snap and the Titans send Jayon Brown instead. Jurrell Casey does a good job of making sure that he occupies Jason Kelce long enough to get Brown through untouched.

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Of course, Brown’s primary responsibility is still as a coverage linebacker and he’s excelling there. You can see his closing speed here as he breaks on a swing pass to Wendell Smallwood and causes a drop.

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Brown is developing in to a really nice player and gives Tennessee a really nice, deep group of linebackers. From a long term perspective, I still believe Brown can be a perfect complement to Rashaan Evans as the primary inside backers on this team.

The Titans defense is playing at a really high level right now, and is likely to continue to improve as their young rookies Evans and Landry develop over the course of the season. This unit has a chance to be really special and it’s being led by a very special player in Jurrell Casey right now.