When an NFL defense is as bad as the Tennessee Titans‘, it’s because of more than one problem.
The Titans’ defense has been the NFL’s worst in 2020 in terms of both quarterback sacks and third-down defense. The unit has been, in almost every way imaginable, disastrous.
Four main factors have contributed to the unit’s ineptitude.
It was clear entering the 2020 offseason that the Titans’ biggest need was a pass rusher. To fill that need, general manager Jon Robinson double-dipped on big-money players.
First, he signed Vic Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks in 2016, to a one-year, $9.5 million deal. Just before the season started in September, Robinson went back to the well and gave Jadeveon Clowney a one-year deal worth up to $15 million.
Both players proved to be massive flops for the Titans.
Beasley showed up to Training Camp injured and 10 days late. He turned in five lackluster, sackless performances before the Titans released him in Week Nine.
Clowney’s season was cut short after just eight games due to an injury, though he was mostly ineffective in those eight games. Like Beasley, he registered zero sacks.
It’s rare for an NFL team to whiff that badly on a pair of big-time free agent signees, especially when the team is run by a GM as competent as Robinson, but Clowney and Beasley both proved to be monumental wastes of money.
The Titans were certainly counting on Beasley and Clowney, in addition to Harold Landry, to account for most of their sack production in 2020. Instead, they got nothing, and the Titans’ pass rush is, statistically, the NFL’s worst entering Week 17.
CHANGE AT THE TOP
#Titans defense could use more talent, but never doubt that this problem starts and ends with Mike Vrabel/Shane Bowen.
2019 ranks w/ Pees: 12th in points allowed, 13th in sacks, 18th opposing QBR
2020 ranks with V/B: 23rd in points allowed, 32nd in sacks, 24th in opposing QBR
— Shane Bowen replacement search firm (@jlomas72) December 28, 2020
When former Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees announced his retirement in January, fans took to social media to offer thoughts on a potential replacement.
None of those wishes were fulfilled, though, as the Titans never hired a replacement. They didn’t even promote from within.
Instead, head coach Mike Vrabel didn’t give the DC title to anyone and opted for putting a hodgepodge of he and outside linebackers coach in charge of defensive game planning and play calling.
The results of that makeup have not been good.
The mere fact that the Titans do not have a labeled DC is not the problem—that particular element of the situation is meaningless. The real problem is twofold.
First, Pees’ absence has been noticeable. His knack for getting personnel in a position to make plays is nowhere to be found in the current setup.
Second, Vrabel and Bowen, clearly just aren’t very good at their jobs. Vrabel was a bad DC in Houston, and the Titans’ defense has gotten worse with him having more involvement. Bowen has shown very few redeeming qualities as a play-caller.
LOSS OF LEADERS
Heading into 2020, the Titans lost two of their best leaders on defense: DT Jurrell Casey and CB Logan Ryan.
Ryan proved at the end of the 2019 season that his days of being a premier slot cornerback were behind him, so the Titans wisely didn’t break the bank to keep him around when he became a free agent in March. Ryan switched positions to safety and signed with the Giants.
Casey also took a step back in 2019, so the Titans traded him to the Broncos before the 2020 season in a move to create salary-cap space.
While both moves were justified and, really, unavoidable, Ryan’s and Casey’s respective absences have been glaring.
Titans’ defenders have complained all season about a lack of communication, and it isn’t hard to see where that problem stems from.
Casey and Ryan are tremendous locker-room forces that any team would be lucky to have as vocal leaders. The Titans, unfortunately, couldn’t afford to keep either around.
GOING IN REVERSE
No. 92 Matt Dickerson is 6’5 292, and AJ Dillon puts him in the ground. Dear god. pic.twitter.com/o6CTkK00Ko
— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) December 28, 2020
The final element behind the demise of the Titans’ defense has been the fact that the players simply aren’t playing well.
Despite coaching problems, injuries, personnel issues and lost leadership, the players who aren’t playing well are responsible for those performances.
What’s been most shocking about the Titans’ defensive players is that previously consistent performers like Kevin Byard, Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry have seemingly regressed.
At a certain point, regardless of circumstances, players have to do their jobs, and the Titans’ defenders haven’t done that enough in 2020.
Cover image: Benny Sieu / USA Today