The Titans limped through their final four games, snapping a three-game skid on Sunday to beat the Jaguars and punch their postseason ticket. Heading into the wild-card round, Tennessee looks overmatched against the 4-seed Chiefs, but as we saw in the team’s win over Jacksonville, the Titans can erase many of their on-paper disadvantages with a handful of game-changing takeaways. Safety Kevin Byard, a Pro Bowl alternate who tied for the league lead with eight interceptions, picked off Jags quarterback Blake Bortles twice in the fourth quarter—the second was the game-sealer with 13 seconds left—and showed why he could be the X factor for a Titans team looking for an upset in Kansas City.
Tennessee won nine games this year but never jumped into the ranks of the AFC elite like some expected—and for most of the past month, hasn’t looked much like a playoff team. The offense sputtered down the stretch, with quarterback Marcus Mariota struggling with accuracy and decision-making and finishing with a career-low 13 touchdowns and a career-high 15 picks. The team’s previously dominant run game was inconsistent, ending the year middle of the pack in yards (15th) and yards per carry (17th) as DeMarco Murray slowed and the offensive line regressed. The receiver corps, headlined by a mishmash of green youngsters and aging veterans in Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, Eric Decker, Rishard Matthews, and Delanie Walker, was often unreliable.
On the other side of the ball, the run defense was stout, but the pass defense was often vulnerable; despite the additions of big-money free agents Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien and first-round draft pick Adoree’ Jackson, the Titans ended the year ranked 24th in pass defense DVOA, 25th in pass yards allowed, tied for 24th in passing touchdowns surrendered, and 16th in opponent passer rating. But while the big names in that group failed to live up to expectations, Byard, a former third-round pick out of a small school, Middle Tennessee State, proved to be a difference-maker—and provided a much-needed boost in the form of those game-swinging turnovers. As Ryan put it after Byard ended Jacksonville’s last-ditch comeback attempt on Sunday: "At the end of the day, Kevin Byard’s the reason we’re in the playoffs. He’s a huge reason, got almost every turnover this year for us. It was fitting that he ended it that way.”
He’s not the biggest name on the Titans’ defense, but Byard’s already emerged as a vocal leader of that unit in just his second year. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound defensive back started seven games as a rookie before earning a full-time starter’s job in training camp this season. He rewarded defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s confidence in him by finishing the year tied for third among safeties per Pro Football Focus’ player grading (90.1), matching Detroit’s Darius Slay for the league lead with eight interceptions, and leading all safeties with 16 passes defended. Oh, and he added two fumble recoveries. He was a takeaway machine.
Like most safeties in LeBeau’s blitz-heavy scheme, Byard excelled in a variety of roles, from patrolling the deep middle, to running up the seam with opposing tight ends, to coming off the edge to pressure the quarterback. He hasn’t always been the man in coverage when he comes down with his interceptions, and a few of those big plays have come down to reading the quarterback’s eyes, recognizing route combinations, and getting himself to the right place at the right time. We saw that on Sunday when he stayed over the top of tight end James O’Shaughnessy’s route to reel in Bortles’s overthrow.
He picked off Joe Flacco twice in the Titans’ 23-20 win over the Ravens in Week 9, too, then came up with another big play late in the game, drifting to the corner of the end zone to knock away Flacco’s pass to Mike Wallace.
That ability to read the play and react quickly is the reason Byard knocked down so many passes this year. Early in the fourth quarter of the team’s 24-20 win over the Bengals in Week 10, the 24-year-old defensive back sat on an out route by tight end Tyler Kroft and closed on it almost instantly, knocking down the Andy Dalton pass.
He did the same thing in Tennessee’s 24-13 win over the Texans in Week 13, showing awareness of down and distance to jump Stephen Anderson’s route to the first-down marker to break up the pass and put Houston in a fourth-down situation.
Byard hasn’t been perfect this year. Per Pro Football Focus, he’s given up six touchdowns in coverage and missed nine tackles in coverage (second most among safeties). But his penchant for the big play—whether it’s well-timed interceptions, fumble recoveries, quarterback pressures, or late-game pass breakups—has far outweighed those hiccups and consistently provided a spark for an underperforming unit.
The Chiefs are more efficient and execute better than the Titans in most areas—and that’s why they’re favored by eight points on Saturday. But the winning formulas for both of these teams aren’t all that different. The two squads don’t run the same schemes on either side of the ball, but both rely on explosive plays on offense and game-changing takeaways on defense. When they can generate those two things, both can be pretty dangerous.
For Kansas City, cornerback Marcus Peters (five interceptions and three forced fumbles) has been the catalyst for takeaways and has helped mask the play of a defense that’s given up way too many yards (28th most). For the Titans, Byard’s been that similarly styled turnover creator, and this weekend, he’s the playmaker the Titans defense desperately needs. He’s bound to draw plenty of coverage on Travis Kelce, and it’ll go a long way if he can limit how much Kansas City can get the athletic tight end involved. But more than that, if Byard can take the ball away from Alex Smith and the Kansas City offense, it’ll put Tennessee well on its way to an upset.