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The Titans Are Still Here to Contend

A strong defensive effort against the Rams showed that Tennessee can hang with the NFL’s best teams, even without Derrick Henry. Now the Titans own the AFC’s best record and have an easy schedule in front of them.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kevin Byard crept closer to the line of scrimmage before the snap. The Titans safety recognized the Rams’ formation—a three-wideout, two-tight-end set with Robert Woods as the lone receiver split wide on the near side. Byard suspected that Los Angeles, reeling after Matthew Stafford’s pick on the previous drive, might try to go with a quick pass to open the series.

As soon as Stafford opened his shoulders to Woods, who was running a speed out to the right sideline, Byard broke on the throw, picked it off, and ran 24 yards to give the Titans a 14-3 lead.

“To be honest,” Byard said afterward, “I really wasn’t supposed to be over there.”

Following a 28-16 victory over the Rams, Byard and Tennessee find themselves in a position that not many people believed they’d be in. The Titans lost star running back Derrick Henry—a leading MVP candidate—to a broken foot last week. Starting left tackle Taylor Lewan didn’t play Sunday because of a nagging knee injury. Meanwhile, the Rams boast one of the NFL’s most high-powered offenses, and a star-laden defense.

Despite all of that, the Titans won in commanding fashion. They are 7-2, owners of the best record in the AFC. Nine weeks into the longest regular season in NFL history, the favorite to win the AFC remains unclear. But of all the squads to rotate atop the conference throne, the Titans have arguably compiled the most compelling case.

After a 2-2 start that included an overtime defeat to the New York Jets, the Titans have rattled off five straight victories. More impressively, Tennessee has notched four straight wins against playoff-caliber teams—the Bills, Chiefs, Colts, and Rams—that all reached the postseason last year. Each of the past three teams that defeated four straight playoff teams reached the Super Bowl (Patriots, 2011; Packers, 2010; Saints, 2009). According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Titans have faced the toughest schedule through Week 9. But Tennessee’s remaining schedule—which includes the Texans (twice), Jaguars, and Dolphins down the stretch—is the league’s easiest by the same metric, and provides a clear path for Tennessee to maintain hold of the AFC’s top seed.

“We’re better now than what we were to start the season,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “And that’s the most important thing in the National Football League, is that you find ways to continue to improve. Obviously, you have to find ways to win, but along the way, you’ve got to find ways to get better because if you don’t, you’ll find yourself on the outside looking in, because there’s a lot of teams that are going to continue to improve. We have to be one of those.”

Tennessee’s defense has been key to its recent success. That unit has exhibited significant growth this season, and the poster child for that marked improvement is defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. Against the Rams, the 2019 first-round pick registered a career-high three sacks and nine pressures, including a near-sack in the second quarter that led to Stafford’s first interception of the game:

Since Week 6, Simmons has recorded more pressures (27) than any other defender, according to Next Gen Stats. The 24-year-old appears to be taking a massive step in his development, shining brightest in prime time. In addition to his multi-sack outing Sunday night, Simmons notched a sack and a game-clinching stop against the Bills on Monday Night Football in Week 6. Vrabel attributed Simmons’s development to his technique.

“He was always just a big, powerful, play-hard, be-disruptive player,” Vrabel said of Simmons. “I think we’re all starting to see some of the technique that those guys up front are coaching him and he’s feeling some confidence in it. It’s showing that it works.”

Veteran left guard Rodger Saffold III explained that Simmons had an advantage against a taller Rams interior line, allowing him to get into a “chest game.”

“One play, he wins with the bull-pull [move], one play he wins with the bull rush,” Saffold explained after Sunday’s game. “Then you’re sitting on the bull, swim move comes and gets you. [Simmons] did a great job mixing it up and being that dominant force in the middle.”

Simmons and fellow defensive tackle Denico Autry (who tallied 1.5 sacks Sunday) routinely dismantled the interior of L.A.’s pockets, suffocating Stafford throughout the game either on straight rushes or via stunts. On the edge, Harold Landry III (0.5 sacks), Bud Dupree (one QB hit), and David Long Jr. (two pass deflections) kept the heat on Stafford and affected passing lanes.

According to Next Gen Stats, Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen called four blitzes on Stafford’s 53 dropbacks (7.5 percent), following a trend of NFL defenses electing to sit back in pass coverage against elite passers rather than blitz. Tennessee recorded five sacks when rushing with four defenders, matching the most in a single game by any defense this season.

“We a four-man wrecking crew,” Autry said.

Byard called it a “dream” as a defensive back to play behind such a dominant group. The Titans have blitzed at the NFL’s seventh-lowest rate, but they have generated the most pressures (100), third-most hurries (46), and fifth-most sacks (23). And that pressure has translated to turnovers. The Titans have recorded at least one turnover in six consecutive games (including four games with two or more takeaways).

Tennessee’s defense made the difference on a quiet night for its offense. Stafford spotted the Titans 14 points, but prior to that, the Rams defense had done its job by shutting Tennessee out. The Titans offense produced two strong drives: a 14-play, 64-yard drive capped by a 1-yard Ryan Tannehill touchdown run that converted a fourth-and-goal chance late in the first half, and a seven-play, 59-yard drive late in the fourth quarter. Both drives proved crucial to the win, but Tennessee’s offense has plenty of room for improvement as it advances without Henry. The Titans produced a measly 3.5 yards per play and 194 total yards. Tannehill went 19-for-27 with 143 yards, one TD, and one pick.

“You don’t play for stats,” Tannehill said. “You play for wins. Obviously, sometimes, they correlate together. But in other situations, in other games, it’s just a matter of finding a way to win.”

Veteran running back Adrian Peterson recorded 21 rushing yards and one TD in his Titans debut. He’s inching toward history, now just one score away from tying Jim Brown on the career rushing touchdowns list at 126. But even more rewarding for Peterson is playing on a “gritty team with a lot of heart” that is predicated on “hard-nosed football.” The 36-year-old said he now understands why the Titans have sustained success over recent seasons, and why their defense’s improvement gives them a different level of legitimacy.

“It was an eye-opener for me,” Peterson said. “I’ve been watching their defense throughout the season, but to see them firsthand go out and perform the way they did, that put a smile on my face for sure.”

Entering the season, the Titans identity rested with its Goliath-like offensive trio of Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones. But as Tennessee enters the second half of the season, the team also has a defense that not only knows what it is, but is raising the ceiling for what the squad is capable of.

“We pretty much did whatever we had to do to get a W,” Byard said. “And that’s what it’s all about. We talked about it in the locker room. Only stats that matter is 7-2.”