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The Tennessee Titans Are Doing It Again

Mike Vrabel and Co. just keep finding ways to win. Even as the Tennessee offense has sunk this season, the defense is putting on a master class—and is keeping the Titans atop the AFC South.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Tennessee Titans have the worst offense in football. They are also 6-3.

OK, they’re not the worst offense in football. They’re the worst offense in football in terms of yards per drive, but they’re 24th in expected points added per play, 21st in DVOA, 26th in points per game. So … pretty bad.

But they are 6-3, only one game back from the AFC-leading Chiefs (whom they almost beat with their backup quarterback), and a half game back from the Dolphins. They’re a good 2.5 games ahead of the next closest team in their division, the 4-5-1 Colts. Despite their offense, the Titans are once again going to win a lot of games and play a home playoff game. Ho-hum.

This is becoming old hat for head coach Mike Vrabel, the NFL’s reigning Coach of the Year after the Titans’ 12-5 2021 season. Last season, Tennessee endured the loss of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith preseason as well as star running back Derrick Henry midseason and still churned out win after win after win before falling victim to Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals’ magical playoff run in the AFC divisional round.

But this year, the prevailing wisdom was that there was no way they could do it again. Henry was coming off a foot injury—a death knell for a running back of his size and career workload. Star wide receiver A.J. Brown was traded to the Eagles after contract extension discussions fell through. Star pass rusher Harold Landry III tore his ACL during practice just days before the season began; offensive tackle Taylor Lewan suffered the same fate in Week 2.

Well, the Titans are doing it again. They do have (one of the) worst offense(s) in football. But, lo and behold: They’re also 6-3.

This time, the credit doesn’t belong to Brown or Henry or Smith—no, this time, it belongs to the defense. Second-year defensive coordinator Shane Bowen was a quiet internal promotion after the 2020 season, during which the Titans had no defensive coordinator and produced one of the league’s worst defenses. With Bowen came the hiring of senior defensive assistant Jim Schwartz, in a role that has little description from the team, but huge ripple effects on the film. In just two years, Bowen and Schwartz have turned this defense into one of the league’s best.

Schwartz’s influence is not difficult to find. When running the defenses for the Bills, Lions, and Eagles, Schwartz became synonymous with the Wide-9 front—a defensive line alignment that set outside edge rushers on wide paths to stretch out the offensive line and put immediate pressure on the quarterback.

This front is great for rushing the passer, as it easily isolates outside pass rushers on tackles in one-on-one situations. If that edge rusher has a quick first step and the flexibility to bend around the arc, he should feast in Schwartz’s defense. Such was the case in 2021, when Landry produced a career-best 12 sacks and 22 quarterback hits, which led to his first Pro Bowl berth. Schwartz’s wide, attacking defensive line also creates big interior lanes through which pass rushing defensive tackles can wreak havoc—this is certainly true for Jeffery Simmons, the star of the Titans defense, who also set career-best numbers in pass-rush productivity and earned an All-Pro recognition on top of his Pro Bowl selection.

But there are tradeoffs for every tactic. A defensive line that attacks upfield through individual gaps allows opposing offensive linemen to easily climb to the second level. This creates wide interior running lanes, putting all the responsibility for stopping the run on the linebackers. Additionally, because no defensive lineman is playing two gaps, Schwartz-styled defenses must have extra bodies in the box to account for all the potential lanes in the running game. That extra body is usually a box safety, leaving only one safety deep and limiting the menu of coverages the defense can run: Cover 1 Man or Cover 3, both coverages with only one deep safety in the middle of the field.

Well, in Tennessee, things are slightly different. Despite the clear Schwartzian influence along the Titans’ defensive line, the team’s strategies for pass coverage behind Schwartz’s fronts are updated with more modern sensibilities. As the league has moved to having two-deep safeties, so has the Titans defense. Compare their called coverages in the past two seasons with the coverages called by Schwartz when he coordinated the Eagles defense in 2019 and 2020. The Titans have quadrupled the rate of quarters coverage.

How can this be, if the aggressiveness of the Schwartz front necessitates an additional player in the box to fit the run? Well, the Titans still get that additional player. Cover 3 is their primary pass coverage, and they’ll take pre-snap split-field looks that initially appear like quarters coverage and then rotate a safety into the box at the snap to present the offensive line with a changed picture that can discombobulate run-blocking schemes. Such is the case on this run, when safety Josh Kalu (28) blitzes from depth and is replaced by Andrew Adams (47), who rotates down from depth.

This is a pressure look—watch Mario Edwards Jr. (94) knife into an interior gap at the snap, freeing up space for Kalu. Also look at the hole that develops in the interior of the line. Playing with late rotations and changing gaps can be risky for the defense, but when these gambits work, they create positive plays for the defense and force opposing offenses into late down-and-distance situations.

The Titans don’t just solve this issue with their scheme, however—they also solve it with personnel. Look at this two-high pre-snap alignment, once again with box safety Kalu (28) masquerading as a linebacker. This is a great run look for the Chiefs—with the two tight ends in the formation and the jet motion moving across the field, they have more than enough blockers for the Titans’ front.

But at the snap, the Titans’ personnel tips the scales in their favor. At defensive end, instead of those light, explosive, bendy rushers long favored by the Schwartzian defense, the Titans have 6-foot-3, 280-pound Mario Edwards Jr. Edwards’s best season as a pass rusher came in 2020 with the Bears—he had four sacks and seven quarterback hits. The Titans didn’t care. They didn’t need him for that—they needed him to win against the run on first-and-10—as he does here. Watch him step into the pulling guard, hold his ground, and work back into the gap to prevent Clyde Edwards-Helaire from breaking into the second level.

With Edwards and Denico Autry, who are the platonic ideal of large, angry defensive ends, the Titans have two of the best run-wrecking edge rushers in the league—plus, they’ve been better pass rushers than the Titans bargained for. Edwards is on a career pace for pass-rush production; Autry is tied for the fifth-most pressures in the league. They are backed up by DeMarcus Walker, another 6-foot-4 280-pounder.

This is an important middle ground in this iteration of the Schwartz defense. The Titans still line their defensive ends out wide and still get an explosive outside rusher onto the field, but they pair that speedy outside player with a solid, physical one on the other side. And that’s gonna keep them safe against the run.

When you see this first blending of ideas in the Titans defense, it’s easy to start seeing the next ones. Look at the Titans’ starting linebackers: Zach Cunningham is one of the most physical, downhill, aggressive run-stuffing linemen left in the league. He was drafted onto the 2017 Texans team cut in the image of the Patriots and Bill Belichick: Bill O’Brien was the head coach, Romeo Crennel was the assistant head coach, Vrabel was the defensive coordinator, and Bowen was a defensive assistant. Cunningham represents that old-school thumper at linebacker that the Patriots defenses have always prioritized: Tedy Bruschi, Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley. He brings that physicality to the Titans defense. But he is paired with David Long Jr., as modern a linebacker as they come. A 2019 sixth-round selection because of his lack of size, the 5-foot-11, sub-230-pound Long darts around the field, sneaking under blocks, popping into gaps, and offering a wide range of coverage influence on passing downs.

Other blendings are more schematic. Bowen worked under Dean Pees during his first stint in Tennessee, and shares Pees’s love for simulated pressures that generate the positive effects of the blitz without surrendering any additional bodies in coverage. Compare the traditional Schwartzian third-down look on the top with this Peesian third-down defensive alignment on the bottom.

Even though they often show pressure looks, the Titans send five-plus pass rushers on fewer dropbacks than any defense in the league. But that doesn’t mean they don’t send linebackers and defensive backs from depth to disrupt the offense. Instead, the Titans will randomly send a defensive back or linebacker from depth—not from a clear, on-the-line position. At the same time, they’ll drop defensive linemen into coverage and rotate the remaining defensive backs to create confusion and save time for the rush to arrive. They are exchanging an edge rusher for a surprise pass rush from another player—something you’d never see a Jim Schwartz defense do without this additional Bowen flavor.

The Titans’ third-down simulated pressure package, which very clearly comes from the Bowen crockpot in this defensive potluck, is a huge part of why the Titans defense is so good: They get off the field on third down. Tennessee is allowing a conversion on 27.9 percent of their third downs faced—by far the best mark in the league.

Sometimes, the details of how a unit succeeds on the football field sounds easy enough. I wrote pieces this year about how the Dolphins offense is excelling because they throw to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle a ton, which sounds easy enough, and about how defenses were stopping the Bengals because Cincinnati was tipping run and pass plays with their pre-snap alignment, which also sounds easy enough.

But the Titans defense has no “sounds easy enough” to it. They have responded to modern changes in the NFL defensive ethos by playing more quarters, despite relying on an aggressive, four-down front brought by Schwartz’s experience, while also integrating the chaotic alignments and pressure packages of Bowen, all with unheralded names like Edwards and Long and Kalu playing tons of snaps. This complexity brings us back to Vrabel.

The Titans are just well-coached. “Well-coached” can mean many different things, depending on the context in which it’s used. Teams without many pre-snap penalties and turnovers are often called well-coached, though much of that is just luck. Teams with lots of energy and intensity are often called well-coached, independent of the actual energy of the coach. Teams who win a lot of football games are often called well-coached, because, well, they’re winning a lot of football games, so the coaches are probably doing their jobs well.

Here, well-coached means the last one. It means the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Vrabel hasn’t had a losing season with the Titans in four years; if a 6-3 start is any sign, he’s going to make it five in a row. Vrabel has won the division in each of the last two years; if a 6-3 start is any sign, he’s going to make it three in a row. He’s done this without an elite quarterback in a league defined by elite quarterbacks. He did it with Jack Conklin and Corey Davis and Adoree’ Jackson and A.J. Brown, and now he’s doing it without them. Vrabel just wins.

This year, he’s winning with defense: a defense that hasn’t given up over 17 points in regulation since Week 3. A defense that has totaled 53 pressures in the last two weeks. A defense that nearly beat the Chiefs with Malik Wilis at QB. And while this defense doesn’t have the names that other top defenses do, it has the scheme and the execution. It’s for real.

Vrabel’s team wins because his team has what other coaches pontificate on: culture, toughness, discipline, execution. To borrow a Belichickism, the Titans do their job. They seem to play the exact same game every single week and often come out the victor—an outcome that, in a small sample, could be waved away as noise, but over the combined consistency of several seasons becomes irrefutable. What remains now is postseason success, something Vrabel hasn’t tasted since 2019. If he just wins, it’s time he does it in January.

This offense isn’t good enough to win in January—but then again, it’s not good enough to win in November or August or on a day that ends in a y. Yet the Titans are 6-3 on the back of their defense, well on their way to yet another AFC title and home playoff game. If the Titans are legit contenders in the ever-powerful AFC, it will be because they have the defense for it—and it will serve as yet another testament to one of the league’s best coaches and the quality football his team puts on the field every Sunday, week in and week out.