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VOL. 41 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 10, 2017

Byard adding ‘smart’ to instinctual game

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Titans free safety Kevin Byard delebrates after his second interception against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Byard now has five interceptions  in two games and six for the year. He leads all NFL players in that category, one ahead of Buffalo’s Micah Huff. Three players have three.

-- Ap Photo/James Kenney

With five interceptions in two games, it’s tough not to notice what second-year safety is doing for the Tennessee Titans.

But as flashy as the results have been for Kevin Byard, perhaps the reason why the former Middle Tennessee star is finding success can be found in another play – one in which the Titan defense was in total disarray.

The Baltimore Ravens were in the red zone last week and about to score a touchdown that would pull them within three points late in the fourth quarter. As they came to the line of scrimmage, there was a receiver on the left side for the Ravens who was left completely uncovered.

It was Byard, the second-year safety, who noticed Tennessee was in the wrong defense and about to get burned for a touchdown and began pleading with the officials for a timeout. It was granted just before the Ravens snapped the ball, giving the Titans defense time to regroup and get in the right look for the play.

“That was a smart play by Kevin to call a timeout,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey recalls. “We had a couple of instances, especially toward the end of the game, where the communication was breaking down, and for Kevin to see that, knew we weren’t in the right position – we had timeouts to burn – I thought it was a smart play on his behalf.”

That sort of football intelligence, combined with Byard’s natural ball-hawking instincts, have propelled Byard to an NFL-best six interceptions this season – five in the past two games.

As a rookie, Byard was an immediate favorite of veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, so much so that the safety rotation he was a part of early in the year slowly began to dissolve into Byard being a regular by year’s end.

His rookie season ended without him getting an interception, but his film study, preparation and knack for finding the football were still apparent.

In Year 2, Byard has continued to prepare himself through film study and refining the nuances of the game. Add a little confidence, and the results speak for themselves.

“I was talking to Coach Jack (safeties coach Steve Jackson), and it was like I feel like I’m kind of in ‘The Matrix’ right now. I’m in the zone and I’m just catching one. It’s coming back to back, and hopefully I can keep them coming,” Byard says.

Both Byard and Mularkey maintain that Byard’s success is simply his preparation combined with his playing within the scheme each week.

“I think that he’s doing his job, he’s where he’s supposed to be,” Mularkey says. “That’s the No. 1 thing. I think that he’s very just instinctive of understanding, especially when he’s got a high-low, they’re trying to high-low him with the route, of setting him up a little bit and giving the impression that you can’t make this throw.

“His anticipation of that has been very good, obviously. He’s around the ball, there’s a lot of guys that are there and don’t make those plays. He’s making those plays, that’s the best thing about it.”

Byard, who had 19 interceptions in four seasons at MTSU, including four for touchdowns, sees it simply as having opportunities and taking advantage of them.

“I’m just playing hard and getting to the ball. I don’t really think I’m doing anything special,” Byard says. “Quarterbacks just keep trying me, and I hope this keeps happening. The more picks I get, I hope they keep trying me.

“Any time you get an opportunity to make a play, you’ve got to make it every time.”

Meanwhile, the Titans are 5-3 and tied with Jacksonville at 5-3 after Sunday’s win against the Ravens.

Beginning with Sunday’s visit from the Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee can count just three teams on its remaining schedule with winning records – the Steelers (6-2) in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Nov. 16, the Rams (6-2) in Nashville on Christmas Eve and Jaguars (5-3) at home on New Year’s Eve.

Yes, it felt strange to write “Rams,” “Jaguars” and “winning record” in the same sentence.

Otherwise, the Titans play at Indianapolis (3-6), the Texans (3-5) at home, and at Arizona (4-4) and San Francisco (0-9).

A team that has been largely mediocre for weeks at a time has somehow put itself in a good position to win the AFC South and possible earn a first-round playoff bye.

At the very least, the Titans should be able to secure a wild-card berth.

Mularkey says this team is capable of much more than it has shown. And in a twisted sort of way, maybe that can be a good thing – winning while not playing all that well.

“I think they know what we’re capable of doing,” Mularkey says. “I think that’s been this team’s identity for, really, the year and a-half that we’ve been together.

“We’ve shown that we can be resilient and win close games, win tight games, beat good teams. There’s no question that we still have a lot of work to do, there’s no question about that in a lot of areas.

“If we can find a way at whatever time that is in the game to make a play to win the game, that’s all that matters.”

They have forged a winning record and a first-place tie in the division with a spotty running game, a defense that is improving but still needs to find its pass rush and a quarterback in Marcus Mariota who still hasn’t matched his performance during the second half of last season.

“I think we can play a whole lot better, especially myself,” says Mariota, who has just six touchdown passes all year. “Looking on the game, if we can convert third downs, find rhythm, stop turning the ball over, we can be really good.”

Maybe even good enough to stand out from amongst the jumbled mess that is the AFC when all is said and done.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com