NASHVILLE, Tenn. ⏤ For the Tennessee Titans‘ defense to rebound in 2021, the unit will need to be far more aggressive than it was a year ago.
The 2020 Titans’ defense, which allowed the fifth-most yards in the NFL, was characterized by its passive and timid play, particularly in regard to players’ lack of willingness to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage and take risks.
Tennessee desperately needs to reverse course in both of those areas in 2021, and the players know it.
“We want to be aggressive because we want to be able to play with an attacking mentality,” safety Kevin Byard said.
“We definitely felt like it was lacking last year. Kind of just second-guessing ourselves a lot of times, even myself.”
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For the Titans, being more aggressive on defense should start with playing more press coverage.
“You have to have that ability to be successful in this league,” CB Kristian Fulton said. “If you don’t, they’re going to take those easy-access throws.”
Various in-game situations, in addition to the type of receiver on the other side of the line, can certainly affect the utility of press coverage, as Titans head coach Mike Vrabel astutely pointed out on Monday.
“If you want to go out here and press [DeAndre] Hopkins every play, it is just going to be a fade fest,” Vrabel said.
But the Titans’ lack of press coverage in 2020 extended far beyond situations where game flow or down-and-distance led to it being a bad choice.
There were plenty of occasions when the Titans’ DBs maddeningly gave cushion to opposing wide receivers in short-yardage situations.
It was an epidemic of softness, and that’s something the players want to fix in 2021.
“We want to make sure that if it’s third-and-short, we’re not playing off,” safety Amani Hooker said. “We’re up there, trusting our abilities, and making sure that we’re challenging guys.”
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The Titans’ defenders also need to be more willing to take risks that lead to big plays as they seek to be more aggressive.
That’s something LB Rashaan Evans is focused on heading into 2021.
“The biggest thing for us is to make more splash plays—plays that get the ball out, INTs,” Evans said. “If it’s not getting the ball out, at least let it be tackles for losses, something like that.”
Amazingly, the 2020 Titans led the NFL in turnover differential, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the defense, as a whole, looked slow and unexplosive.
Besides, a lot of those turnovers came from lucky breaks rather than from playing with speed and aggression.
PLAYING WITH COMFORT
Luckily for the Titans, flipping the script on risk-taking should come naturally.
Newly-minted defensive coordinator Shane Bowen clearly being the man in charge, as well as some changes to the efficiency of the Titans’ entire defensive operation, has already led to vast improvements in communication and comfort for the defense.
As the players continue to grow confident and comfortable in the Titans’ defense, which should be far easier for players to grasp under Bowen in 2021, they’ll be more willing to trust themselves and take risks in addition to playing faster.
“You want to do what’s best defensively where guys can play fast? Anytime you’re thinking a little too much, more than what you’re supposed to, it allows you to be a lot slower in your play,” Evans said.
A similar natural improvement should occur in regard to the Titans’ willingness to play press coverage.
Since the cushion or lack thereof that a cornerback gives a receiver is often left up to the player, it requires a certain measure of confidence to play close to the line of scrimmage.
“It’s on you. You’ve got to play with confidence at all times,” CB Jackrabbit Jenkins said.
Just as the Titans’ confidence in taking risks that lead to splash plays should increase, the team should also feel much more comfortable challenging receivers on the line in 2021.
Aggressiveness is risky in the game of football, but it’s necessary.
Passivity and meekness don’t win championships, and the Titans seem to understand that. They also, finally, seem to have the tools to put that understanding into practice.
“We understand that this game is not going to be perfect—we’re going to make some mistakes,” Byard said. “But if we make mistakes, we’re going to make them full speed.
“That’s the attacking, aggressive mentality that we’ve been talking about.”
Cover image: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today