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All-22 Review: Titans secondary stifles Julio Jones and the Falcons passing attack

Malcolm Butler and the defensive backs shine in a big spot.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The All-22 Review is a recurring feature here at Music City Miracles 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.

I’ve missed writing about the Titans defense for the past couple weeks due to time constraints, but we’re getting back to it this week and it’s yet another stellar defensive performance from Dean Pees’ crew. Through four weeks, Tennessee’s defense has allowed just 62 total points (15.5 points per game) which is good for 4th best in the NFL up to this point and it’s fewer than two teams — the Jets and 49ers — who have played just three games.

That is a continuation from the 2018 group that finished 3rd in the NFL in total points allowed, but now they’re starting to add the turnovers and sacks that can take a — wait for it — good defense and make it great are starting to come. Through the first quarter of the season, the Titans are tied for 6th in the NFL with 13 sacks and rank 11th with 6 forced turnovers.

It’s not like the Titans are just feasting on helpless offenses either. They’ve held three of the four teams they’ve played to their lowest point total of the season — 13 for the Browns, 19 for the Colts, and 10 for the Falcons — and the 20 points allowed to the Jaguars was their second lowest output of the season, aided substantially by Adoree’ Jackson’s muffed punt early in the game. Nobody is going to mistake any of those teams for the Chiefs or Patriots offensively, but anytime you’re holding 75% of the teams you play to their season low on the scoreboard, you’re doing something right defensively.

Against the Falcons specifically, the Titans defense suffocated Atlanta’s rushing attack, holding them to just 58 yards on the game, and while they did give up 397 passing yards to Matt Ryan, they managed to make those empty stats by winning on 3rd and 4th down (Ryan is just the 8th QB in NFL history to throw for at least 397 yards in a single game without throwing a touchdown pass). Tennessee’s defense got the stop on 9 of 14 3rd down attempts and 3 of 4 4th down attempts. That’s not something that’s new or fluky either. The Titans defense ranks 6th in the NFL in 3rd down conversion rate this year, allowing just 30.6% of attempts to be converted to first downs. Last season they ranked 11th in this same metric.

Assisting the Titans defense was a unit that probably doesn’t get enough attention for what they do on a week to week basis. That would be Brett Kern and the Tennessee punt team. Look, talking about punting isn’t sexy or fun, but it absolutely matters to NFL results.

Take starting field position for example. The Titans offense has had an average starting line of scrimmage for their drives of 31.2 yard line. That’s 5th most favorable in the NFL. A lot of the credit for that stat goes to the defense for forcing turnovers — including 4th down stops — and keeping opposing offenses backed up in their own end.

However, the special teams units — particularly the punt team — should get massive credit for this next stat. Titans opponents have an average starting field position of their own 22.3 yard line, the worst in the NFL. Partial credit is due to the Titans offense — who has still yet to turn the ball over through four games — but the bigger part of this is the work of Pro Bowl punter Brett Kern and his coverage unit.

Kern leads the NFL with 14 punts inside the 20-yard line in 2019, three more than the next closest punter. The NFL record for most punts inside the 20 in a season is 42, set by former 49ers punter Andy Lee in 2007. Kern is on pace to smash that record by 14 through four games, though I’m sure the Titans would prefer to give their punter fewer opportunities moving forward.

Let’s get into how the Titans defense and special teams combined to stop Atlanta and their talented set of skill players.

Malcolm Butler and the Titans secondary were excellent

If you read this piece regularly, you know that I enjoy using charting stats and advanced metrics to help backup some of the performances that we’re watching on tape. Most of the time, those stats pretty closely reflect what I’m seeing, but in some cases stats can lie. Malcolm Butler’s performance against the Falcons was one of those cases.

If you just look at PFF’s charting data, Butler was targeted 9 times, giving up 6 catches for 79 yards. Those 79 yards were the 7th most allowed by a corner in the NFL in Week 4. That’s bad, right? Well, the tape says otherwise. Butler played like an elite shutdown corner for most of the game on Sunday and it started from the very first drive of the game.

Matt Ryan drops back looking for Julio Jones on a deep comeback route off play action, but Butler is in his hip pocket the whole way. Here is the All-22 angle, but the broadcast replay angle shows Butler’s coverage better below.

The reason I want to show the All-22 is to point out an instance of the Titans clearly having a plan coming into this game. Watch safety Kenny Vaccaro on this play. He’s lined up almost like a linebacker towards the top of the screen (red cleats). After making sure he forces the tight end’s release to go inside, he clearly turns and looks for Jones and retreats underneath that comeback route to help squeeze the window that Matt Ryan has to make the throw. Whether Ryan’s pass would have been inaccurate regardless of Vaccaro’s presence underneath is hard to know, but this is good team defense from the Titans secondary to make things hard on the quarterback.

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Here is a great view of Butler’s coverage. Even an on target throw would have been contested here. Outstanding work by Butler.

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This next play is one of the plays of the game and Butler deserves at least 50% credit for the result despite the fact that there is no stat that we can apply to him. The Falcons are taking another play action shot and Matt Ryan is looking to hit Julio Jones on what Kyle Shanahan calls a “blaze out”. It’s essentially a 15-yard out that features a hard fake towards the post before cutting hard outside towards the sideline. I’ll share a clip of what it looks like when it works below this play.

However, on this play, Butler forces Julio to take an inside release and then gets in phase, meaning he’s locked on his hip, running stride for stride alongside his man. Julio gives the nod inside towards the post, but Butler doesn’t panic, he just stays in position and ultimately keeps Julio from being able to complete the route.

If you watch Matt Ryan, you can see him loading up to deliver the ball. Look at where his feet are pointing... he’s expecting to hit Julio near the sidelines near the 20-yard line and by the time he sees he’s not going to get there and tries to move on to another option, Casey has already closed in and gets the strip sack to create a massive turnover for the Titans. I don’t want to take anything away from Casey’s play here — he does a great job as well — but Butler deserves the lion’s share of the credit for this turnover. Great complementary football from the Titans pass rush and coverage.

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Here is what the blaze out is supposed to look like:

Butler also had a big hand in a 3rd down stop right before the half that ultimately resulted in a missed field goal attempt for the Falcons. The Titans go into a press man look across the board and Butler completely erases Julio’s route once again with a good physical jam at the line of scrimmage. This is a part of his game that doesn’t get captured by any statistics, but there are generally a play or two a game where Butler completely deletes a receiver from a play by stoning him at the line of scrimmage like this.

Also, credit to Logan Ryan who similarly bothers Mohamed Sanu, though Sanu eventually creates a little separation with a late pushoff. It’s too little too late though as Ryan has already moved on and eventually runs out of options as Adoree’ Jackson and Kenny Vaccaro have excellent coverage at the top of the screen as well. Again, good team defense.

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Another good rep from Butler against Jones. Here, Butler is once again in great position, but Matt Ryan decides to throw it up for his star receiver anyway. Butler does a nice job of going up to contest and knocks the ball away.

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Butler was the star of the secondary in this one, but he wasn’t alone in making great plays among the MMCNB crew. Adoree’ Jackson — who has been targeted less than all but five NFL corners with at least 100 pass coverage snaps so far this season — joined Butler in setting the tone early. A play after his teammate shutdown the Julio Jones deep comeback route on the first drive, the Falcons decided to try the other side with Jackson and got a similar result. This time the throw is better, but Jackson’s coverage is air tight and he gets the PBU against Calvin Ridley to force a quick three and out. I felt like Jackson was a little extra fired up in this game. His reaction after this play is more fire than I think we’ve ever seen from the former 18th overall pick on the field. He’s always had the physical tools to be a top end corner.

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While Jackson’s target rate has dropped significantly so far this season, the number of targets into Logan Ryan’s coverage have increased. However, opposing quarterbacks aren’t finding much success there. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell shared some impressive stats regarding Ryan’s play through the first four games of the season in his recent quarter-season awards piece in which he calls Ryan both the best cornerback in the league to this point and third in his Defensive Player of the Year rankings if he had to vote today.

Best cornerback in football is always going to be an inexact science, but you can make a strong case for Tennessee’s top corner through four weeks. Ryan has filled up the stat sheet, with 1.5 sacks, a tackle for loss, two interceptions and six pass deflections, with the latter figure tying for the league lead. With Ryan as its lead corner in the slot, Tennessee has allowed a passer rating of just 62.8 to slot targets this season, the second-best figure in the league.

Advanced metrics also love Ryan’s play. The NFL’s Next Gen Stats project that targets thrown at Ryan should have been completed 61.8% of the time. Instead, those passes have been completed just 46.2% of the time; the resulting 15.6% difference is the third best in football among corners with 100 snaps in coverage or more.

That’s pretty high praise and plays like this are why he’s finally getting national recognition. This is a simple 2-Man look from the Titans. They aren’t looking to fool Atlanta here, just lining up and playing our best versus yours. With the two deep safeties playing wide, Matt Ryan looks to hit Sanu on the post, but Ryan is all over it and gets the PBU. If the ball bounces a little differently here, it could have easily been an interception for Kevin Byard who is closing in from the outside. Outstanding coverage.

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Let’s not forget about the safeties either. Both Kenny Vaccaro and Kevin Byard had some standout plays in this one as well. Vaccaro’s biggest play was in the run game when he knifed into the backfield to cut down Devonta Freeman for no gain on 4th and 1.

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Then you have Kevin Byard, arguably the Titans best defender, who can do anything from playing in the box as a run thumper to ranging over the top as one of the game’s best ballhawks to matching up man to man against athletic tight ends as he’s seen doing here. Matt Ryan is looking for frequent target Austin Hooper here, but Byard is in good position and gets help from Jayon Brown who is dropping off the line of scrimmage. The throw is a little behind Hooper and Byard very nearly comes up with another pick here.

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Finally, let’s take a look at the secondary’s performance on the final 4th down stop of the game for the defense. It’s 4th and 4 and the Falcons come out in an empty set, trying to matchup their pass catchers against the Titans secondary, but once again, the defensive backs are up for the challenge. Just take a look at the man coverage here across the board. There is nowhere safe to put this ball for Ryan so he tries to take off and gets hauled down by Jayon Brown (who started the play as a part of that coverage that helped force Ryan to run).

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Harold Landry is starting to show some of the counter moves he’s talked about

Harold Landry picked up the first multi-sack game of his career in this game, getting home for two sacks of Matt Ryan. His performance also left him tied for 7th among all players in quarterback pressures according to ESPN NFL Matchup.

Even better, Landry got home twice on moves besides his patented speed rush around the edge. On his first sack, he’s lined up inside with the ever-versatile Kenny Vaccaro blitzing off the edge. He uses a nifty two-hand swipe move to knock down the hands of the left guard and then quickly corners around to swallow up Matt Ryan. This is a move that wasn’t part of his repertoire last season.

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Landry’s second sack was more of an effort sack, assisted by the excellent coverage downfield. He does a nice job of getting some push in his initial rush, recognizes Ryan trying to leak out, and then spins back to bring him down.

We should also credit Landry’s summer workout partner DaQuan Jones for a nice pass rush here as well. He works the right guard back into Ryan’s face and forces him to flee the pocket right into Landry’s path. Jones’ play has ticked up a notch this season.

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Landry also added some pressures on some T-E stunts — a designed twist where the T (tackle) goes in and tries to pick off the blocker for the E (end) — which is promising. He’s got the athleticism to be a real problem for offensive lines on these types of games as he shows here. Rashaan Evans is lined up as the “tackle” in this case and does a nice job of attracting the attention of the left guard and then picking off the tackle, allowing Landry to loop in behind him towards Ryan. Landry very nearly gets home for a third sack, but he speeds up Ryan’s progression and forces him to take the check down.

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Here’s another T-E stunt with Landry. This time it’s rookie defensive tackle Isaiah Mack setting the pick for Landry to cut off of. Again, Landry gets home in a hurry, but Ryan’s quick delivery — this time to an open Austin Hooper during garbage time — keeps him from taking a direct shot.

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A few other things that I liked

Let’s get to some other odds and ends that I liked from this game. One is the development of Rashaan Evans from a mental standpoint. This play from the Falcons offense should look familiar to you if you’ve been reading the All-22 posts about the Titans offense. This is the same Yankee concept that Tennessee frequently uses to create shot plays down the field. Like the Titans, Atlanta likes to use play action to draw the linebackers down and make the window for the crossing route larger.

However, on this play watch Rashaan Evans and Wesley Woodyard. Both those guys are already bailing on their run fits prior to Matt Ryan even completing the play fake. That tells me that A) Evans and Woodyard are trusting their eyes and keys and B) the Titans likely picked up on something the Falcons offense was doing to tip their hand. Instead of having room to drill the crosser, Ryan is left with no choice but to throw up a YOLO ball to the deep post (which is also well covered) because Evans is squatting right in the window where he’d be looking to hit Julio Jones.

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Evans also made an impact as a pass rusher on Sunday, unleashing a hellacious spin move that cleared not one, but two Falcons offensive linemen out of his way and gave him a clean shot at Matt Ryan. You’d like to see him get the QB on the ground with the first shot here, but he disrupts the play and is able to clean it up on a second effort with the help of Isaiah Mack who splits the sack with him. This play is all Evans though. Exciting to see.

Less exciting to see is Cameron Wake’s injury on this play. You can see him slip on the field turf as he’s trying to corner against the right tackle and then immediately grabs back for his hamstring. He’s been out of practice all week and is officially questionable for the Bills game. Several Titans players seemed to struggle with their footing on the turf in this game and that particularly impacts edge rushers like Wake and Landry who rely on being able to get their cleats to catch while running almost horizontal around the edge. Hopefully Wake is able to return soon. He continues to be an impact player for this defense.

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I mentioned DaQuan Jones a little while ago and here’s another clip that shows off his improvement as a player since last season. He’s lined up over the left guard for the Falcons on this play and beats his man so quickly that I thought this was a designed screen play at first. It wasn’t, Jones just won that quickly on the rush. He’s flashed like this a few times this year and has been one of the team’s most improved players through four games in my eyes.

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Reggie Gilbert made his Titans debut and immediately stepped into pretty significant playing time. He was on the field for 60% of the defensive snaps, second among Titans edge rushers behind Landry. He lined up all over the field in this game. Usually appearing on the edge as he does in the play below, but sometimes lining up inside on the defensive line and other times dropping off the line as a linebacker in coverage. I thought he was pretty clearly an upgrade over Kamalei Correa. This edge rush and QB hit was probably his best play of the game, though he did deliver a crushing hit on a Falcons running back after a catch later in the game.

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Finally, let’s have a moment of appreciation for Wesley Woodyard. The Titans veteran linebacker and leader has seen his role reduced tremendously this year as Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown have pushed their way into the starting lineup, but the old vet got 21 defensive snaps on Sunday and made the most of them, including this excellent run stuff on Freeman. It’s a luxury to have that much ability and experience coming off the bench.

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Special Teams Corner

I touched on some of the stats the Titans special teams help with up top. As a unit they rank 8th in DVOA. The punt cover team probably stands as the best of the Titans special teams units, led by Pro Bowl punter Brett Kern:

Kern has been incredible for years now, but he was particularly great against the Falcons, pinning Matt Ryan and the Atlanta offense inside their own 20 on all five of his punts, four of them went inside the 10-yard line. Here is the first of those with an assist from gunner Chris Milton who was signed after Joshua Kalu was moved to IR before the start of the season.

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Speaking of Milton, he also made a big play as part of the Titans kick cover unit, speeding through the Falcons return unit to peg the ball carrier at the 14 yard line.

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What more is there to say about this punt? Perfectly placed out of bounds at the 5-yard line from over 50 yards away.

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Finally, Kern effectively ended the game with this boot, pinning the Falcons desperation drive hopes back at their own 2-yard line with an assist from LeShaun Sims.

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It was a masterful performance in Atlanta for the Titans defense and special teams. These two units are both easily top ten in the league. They’ll get a chance to make a statement this week against a shaky Bills offense.