How far can Titans go with sub-par defense?

Friday, October 30, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 44

Titans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney is helped up after being injured in the second half of Sunday’s loss to the Steelers. The high-profile free agent has yet to live up to his expected level of play.

-- Photo By Mark Zaleski | Ap

In baseball, there is the old notion that it’s hard to fix a bad bullpen.

Teams must be able to get outs in the late innings often or end up on the losing end of games they should have won.

The Tennessee Titans are finding out there is a football equivalent.

It’s hard to overcome the lack of a pass rush, and right now the Titans are surrendering third-down conversions at an alarming rate. And there appear to be lots of reasons.

The Titans paid big money during the offseason for Vic Beasley, gambling he could still be an effective pass rusher, as he was in Atlanta, where he once led the league with 15.5 sacks and had eight last year on his way out the door.

He has none in limited snaps through six games for the Titans.

Then, just after training camp ended, Tennessee added Jadeveon Clowney, whose best work in the NFL had come under now-Titans coach Mike Vrabel’s in Houston.

While Clowney’s sack numbers coming in didn’t dazzle, it was sold that Clowney’s presence had to be accounted for, and that such a presence would make Harold Landry, Jeffery Simmons, Beasley and others better able to make plays.

Clowney has no sacks, either.

Simmons leads the team with two sacks.

Landry has 1.5.

No other Titan has even one.

Through six games, the Titans have a grand total of seven sacks, 1.16 per game, after not getting Ben Roethlisberger on the ground a single time Sunday.

What that, as much as anything, has led to is opponents converting a mind-boggling 61% of third downs this season. That is not a percentage normally associated with a championship-caliber team, which the Titans aspire to be.

Yes, the NFL has changed dramatically over the years, with offense depended on to win games. Even the Titans, after so many years of relying on its defense, were winning with offense before Pittsburgh came to town.

But that’s not to say the defense can be dismissed.

It has to be able to get off the field on third downs at a better rate than it has done. Despite three interceptions Sunday, the unit still turned in an abysmal performance.

How bad was it? Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 49 times and was hit just three times by the Titans defense.

We already know the new arrivals listed above have yet to make a big impact. But maybe the Titans lost a bit too much from last year’s defense and are feeling the effects of those losses in the first half of the season.

Veteran defensive coordinator Dean Pees went off into retirement, and thus far the Titans are using a defensive coordinator-by-committee approach with outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen calling plays while running decisions through Vrabel and getting game plan input from the rest of the defensive coaches.

Could there be too many voices in the headset? It’s at least worth asking.

Also, the Titans traded away Jurrell Casey in a salary cap dump, knowing Jeffery Simmons was ready to fill his role.

Simmons has been far and away the Titans best defensive player through six games (he had two of Sunday’s three QB hits). But it’s hard to argue that Casey was the heart and soul of the Titans defense.

Just go back and watch the Baltimore playoff game last year and you’ll see evidence of that.

Also gone is Logan Ryan, whose well-timed blitzes from Pees gave quarterbacks fits in passing situations.

Even players who excelled last season – Kevin Byard and Rashaan Evans, for example – have been relatively quiet and made few of the big plays to which we have grown accustomed.

“It starts with communication, it starts with the coverage, the rush,” Byard says. “Everything has to be coordinated, because I don’t think that we’re really – we’re not as detailed as we need to be, whether it’s third-and-short, third-and-medium or third-and-long, we’re giving up all the varieties.

“So, we have to be better and we have to go watch this film and continue to correct those things. It comes down to pride, honestly, I think it comes down to pride and taking pride that we have to be better on third down.”

For his part, Vrabel is promising to re-examine everything to see what can be corrected going forward.

“We’ll evaluate what we’re doing, who we’re doing it with and see how we improve,” Vrabel says.

Truthfully, the Titans have little choice but to hope the players they have improve and quickly get on the same page in the scheme the way the offense has.

Because there’s no one warming up in the bullpen.