The Tennessee Titans don’t have very many weaknesses heading into the 2021 season, but the 28th-ranked defense the team fielded a season ago has to be the biggest wild card for the team as it prepares for training camp.
Defensive coordinator Shane Bowen, who served in the role unofficially last season before earning an official promotion during the offseason, has been handed a restocked cupboard that includes defensive end Denico Autry, edge rushers Bud Dupree and fourth-round pick Rashad Weaver, and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins, Kevin Johnson, first-round pick Caleb Farley and third-round pick Elijah Molden.
Bowen is tasked with turning around a unit that produced the worst third-down defense in NFL history, allowed the fifth-most yards per game and mustered just 19 sacks.
“Obviously, ... it was a historically bad year on third downs,” safety Kevin Byard said. “So, I think that's something that we're stressing a lot in OTAs — of being better on third downs, really being aggressive, not being so far off.
“If it’s third-and-short, [we need to] make sure we get up on these guys and we’re challenging. We feel like we can play with anybody in this league, so we have to ... show improvement every single day at practice and just get better at those little things.”
While the personnel changes were a must, expect to see a few new defensive wrinkles from the Titans as well. Tennessee ranked near the bottom of the league last year in several statistical categories, including 29th in passing yards allowed per game (277.4) and 24th in both points allowed per game (27.4) and yards allowed per play (5.9).
The Titans also had the third-worst red-zone percentage (69.2) in the league while allowing the second-most touchdown passes (36) and sixth-most rushing touchdowns (18) and generating the fourth-fewest QB pressures (117) and QB hits (seven) and the seventh-fewest QB hurries (50).
“We're trying new things," Bowen said. "Like a lot of the same scheme stuff, don't get me wrong. But there's a lot of ways to skin a cat. You can do things a lot of different ways. Just trying to find what fits with these players and what they most relate to. That's the beauty of bringing guys in from other teams."
“You have to start over every single year,” Byard added. “Obviously, sometimes some successes from the year before do carry over, but I think mentality-wise, you have to eliminate all the stuff that you had last year, reset goals and start over. We have a new group of guys; we have new goals, and we want to be a lot better than we were last year.”
While pass rusher has been the most heavily scrutinized position on the team for the better part of two seasons, the secondary, which allowed the fourth-most passing yards (4,439) last year, is perhaps under the most pressure to perform in 2021.
Replacing Malcolm Butler, Adoree Jackson, Desmond King and Kenny Vaccaro will be no easy task, and with Byard as the only returning starter, there’s a little added pressure on Amani Hooker, Jenkins, Farley and second-year cornerback Kristian Fulton to produce.
Although OTAs are nothing more than glorified practices, Fulton and Chris Jackson both stood out on Thursday. Fulton had what would have been a pick-6 after jumping fullback Khari Blasingame’s route and intercepting a Ryan Tannehill pass.
Jackson showed off some improved coverage skills as well, making a nice play to break up a pass intended for Cody Hollister and defending well on another pass to tight end Anthony Firkser.
“I’ve been really impressed,” Byard said. “I think Kristian Fulton, Breon (Borders), Chris Jackson … I feel like I’m going to leave some guys out, but I feel like everybody’s been improving. Obviously, we’re not full pads but ... guys are paying attention to detail. We’re working toward trying to be a finished product by the time the season kicks off.”
Added Bowen: "I can't speak for anybody outside of this building, but I got confidence in them. I can't wait until we get to the fall and get to put this thing together and see what it looks like."
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