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VOL. 45 | NO. 31 | Friday, July 30, 2021

How many coaches does it take to change a defense?

Titans loaded with experience, but can they reverse the woes of 2020?

By Terry McCormick

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The optimism that surrounds the Tennessee Titans as training camp 2021 opens is no doubt centered on the addition of wide receiver Julio Jones to what was one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses in 2020.

In putting up an 11-5 mark and winning their first AFC South Division crown in 12 years, the Titans relied primarily on the rushing of 2,000-yard back Derrick Henry and balanced it with the passing of Ryan Tannehill and the playmaking of receivers like A.J. Brown.

It added up to plenty of success, and Jones could be instrumental in making that offense even more dynamic this season.

That prolific 2020 offense also helped mask a deficient defense that suffered from the departure of defensive coordinator Dean Pees, and never really found any consistency in rushing the passer or stopping opponents on third downs.

The Titans mustered only 19 sacks all season and allowed the opposition a ridiculous 51.8% conversion rate on third downs.

General manager Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel viewed it as more of a personnel problem than a coaching or scheme issue.

And so we have Shane Bowen, who was the outside linebackers coach and de facto defensive coordinator of last year’s underachieving unit, promoted to the defensive coordinator job for 2021.

As for the personnel on defense, the Titans pretty much blew up the secondary, with safety Kevin Byard the only returning starter from a year ago.

The Titans also made changes on the edge at outside linebacker, allowing last year’s supposed free agent prize Jadeveon Clowney to walk away after an injury-filled zero sack season. They replaced him with Bud Dupree, who comes in from Pittsburgh, but is dealing with a knee injury of his own, having torn an ACL in December.

The defensive line didn’t escape the purge, either, as Daquan Jones, the longest-tenured member of the defense, allowed to walk at the end of his contract and sign with Carolina.

To replace him, the Titans opted for former Colts interior pass rusher Denico Autry.

Many changes, and many questions remain to be answered as training camp opens:

• Can this unit jell into a cohesive unit, and if so, how soon?

The Tennessee Titans have handed the defensive coordinator role to Shane Bowen, who came from Texas to the team with Mike Vrabel when Vrabel was named head coach in 2018. Bowen and Vrabel shared leadership of the defensive unit last season following the departure of defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

-- George Walker Iv/The Tennessean Via Ap, Pool, File

• Can Bowen shake off last year’s disaster and help mold this defense into his own image, while still getting advice and mentoring not only from his head coach, but also from longtime NFL defensive mind Jim Schwartz, who returns to Tennessee as a senior defensive assistant this season?

• Can the players the Titans hope will impact this defense – like Dupree, first-round pick Caleb Farley (coming off two back surgeries before ever taking an NFL snap) and veteran pickups like Autry and cornerback Janoris Jenkins stay healthy and be productive enough for the defense to improve?

The purge

In remaking the defense, the Titans have new starters at seven of the top 12 spots on defense – the 11 starters and nickelback. Some of those newcomers projected to start in 2021 are free agent additions, while some are draft picks. Others are being elevated from a backup role a year ago.

The only holdover starters from last year’s struggling unit are defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, linebackers Jayon Brown, Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry and Byard. The Titans probably might need nametags when training camp opens to help with the introductions.

For his part, Bowen spent the offseason work trying to get a sense of who fits where.

“As this thing goes and as we get these guys back and get them in here and get the work in, we’ve got to see what they do well, what they can understand, what they can execute, what their skill sets are,” Bowen says.

“It’s across the board, from up front with four guys rushing to the guys we could be bringing from the second level and the third level, obviously the coverages – who’s good at man coverage, who’s good at zone. The skill sets that these guys have.”

Training camp opens

The Titans opened training camp officially Wednesday with their first morning practice. Rookies reported the previous weekend, and the full squad was to report Tuesday.

There will be no open practices for fans to attend because of COVID protocols and expansion construction at Saint Thomas Sports Park. That construction also is causing many Titans employees to have to work out of temporary offices located across the street from the complex.

Byard, who played collegiately at MTSU and was a Pro-Bowl selection in 2017, probably came as close as anyone on the team in pinpointing what went wrong in 2020, voicing his frustration with communication and scheme problems.

Now, with a new season to look forward to, Byard is eager to turn the page and sounds confident some of the little things that became big problems last year – like too much off coverage on short-yardage passing downs – could be addressed this time around.

“It was a historically bad year on third downs,’’ Byard says. “So I think that’s something we’re stressing a lot in OTAs – of being better on third downs and really being aggressive, not being so far off.

“If it’s third-and-short, make sure we get up on these guys and we’re challenging.

“We feel like we can play with anybody in this league. We have to show improvement every single day at practice and just get better at those little things.”

Byard’s position coach, Anthony Midget, also stresses improved communication.

“It’s going to take all 11 guys, not just the back end. The back end communicating to the linebackers, the linebackers communicating to the back end and all the way down to the front,” Midget explains. “That’s been a big focus for the unit this offseason and the guys are taking tremendous pride in getting that accomplished.”

Bowen’s show

Last year, Bowen bore the blame when things dropped off significantly after Pees’ one-year retirement. Some of that was probably fair, some of it maybe not.

Those who really know where to assign the blame for last year’s shortcomings aren’t talking publicly.

But this year, for better or worse, it will be Bowen’s show – perhaps.

Safety Kevin Byard, 31, a Pro Bowl selection in 2017 and still considered the Titans’ top defensive player, will be the only starter returning to the team’s defensive backfield.

-- Photograph By Donald Page | Tennessee Titans

There was a sense last season that Vrabel’s input on the defensive side of the ball was very real. As the head coach, he certainly was within his right to overrule or veto a play call or personnel change he wasn’t comfortable with.

But if Bowen is to grow into the role of a competent defensive playcaller, he has to have the freedom to grow.

But how easy is that to do with the presence of so many veteran defensive minds around him. Vrabel, Schwartz and inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett all have NFL head coaching and defensive coordinator experience. Can that group walk the fine line between helping and overshadowing Bowen and turn the defense into a cohesive unit.

If the coaching staff can’t get on the same page, how can they expect the same from players?

Those involved say it will not be an issue. Time will tell.

Bowen, who has been mentored by Vrabel and followed him here from Texas, says he embraces the situation.

“I think he’s kind of coached me in this deal,” Bowen says. “He’s brought me up through this profession in some regard. I think just looking back at the positions groups when I had them, some of the things we’ve done in the past here, even last year, some of the good stuff, some of the bad, obviously we’ve got to get corrected. I appreciate his confidence in me.

“Again, just like all these players here, we work to improve ourselves every single day and make this team better, regardless of the individual, we’re all in this together to see.”

Though it is his defense, Bowen welcomes the fresh ideas and wants to implement whatever can help his unit improve.

New group on the field

2021 brings several new faces to defensive starting positions for the Titans:

Projected 2021 defensive starters

DE: Jeffery Simmons
DT: Teair Tart
DE: Denico Autry
OLB: Bud  Dupree
ILB: Jayon Brown
ILB: Rashaan Evans
OLB: Harold Landry
CB: Janoris Jenkins
FS: Kevin Byard
SS: Amani Hooker
CB: Caleb Farley/Kristian Fulton
Nickel: Fulton/Elijah Molden

Last season’s defensive starters

DE: Jeffery Simmons
DT: Daquan Jones
DE: Jack Crawford
OLB: Jadeveon Clowney
ILB: Jayon Brown
ILB: Rashaan Evans
OLB: Harold Landry
CB: Malcolm Butler
FS: Kevin Byard
SS: Kenny Vaccaro
CB: Johnathan Joseph/Adoree’ Jackson
Nickel: Desmond King

“There’s a lot of the same scheme stuff, don’t get me wrong. But there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat. You can do things a lot of different ways. I’m just trying to find what fits with these players, what they most relate to,” Bowen adds. “That’s the beauty of bringing in guys from other teams – how they’ve done things. Obviously with Schwartz coming here, everybody kind of has their schemes and what they do, their system, but everybody does them a little bit differently.

“I’m just trying to find that niche with what works with our guys.”

Vrabel was asked about the possibility of having too many cooks in the Titans defensive kitchen, and acknowledged that there will be disagreements at times, but that those must stay behind closed doors.

“The one thing that everybody has to realize is there’s going to be disagreements. When you leave a meeting, you all have to be on the same page when you go give the message to the players. That’s what’s most important and critical. It’s what happened and will continue to happen,” Vrabel points out.

Putting the pieces together

On the field, the Titans might have to wait a while before they know exactly how their 2021 defense will look.

Dupree and first-round choice Farley are both starting training camp on the injured list following their respective surgeries in the offseason. It is uncertain how soon either could pass a physical and rejoin the roster.

The prevailing feeling with the Titans defense is that the group should be better. How much better is certainly up for debate.

As good as the offense was last year and should be again this season, the defense doesn’t have to be second coming of the 1985 Chicago Bears in order for this team to succeed. They just have to not be a rerun of the 2020 Titans.

Some observers say going against their own powerful offense each day in camp – not to mention joining practices in August against Tom Brady and the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers – will give the defense plenty of opportunity to measure its growth during the preseason.

As Midget explains it, having his cornerbacks trying to defend against Brown and Jones in a 7-on-7 drill can only help get them better.

“It’s going to make them think about really facing two No. 1 receivers every day. That’s a very, very talented group,” he says. “We’re fortunate to be able to go up against those guys every single day. When we get to Sundays, we’re not going to face better guys than we’re facing in practice. That’s two receivers who have done it at a high level.

“We’re in a good position to go up against those guys every day in practice and see how we match up with them.”

Bowen emphasizes that he won’t be afraid to try new things as he makes the defense his own.

“We’re doing a lot of new things, a lot of different things, just in how we go about our day, how we go about our business. Obviously, schematically, some things change as we go with all the new personnel and everything else,” he adds.

As always, though, communication will be a big key to improvement.

“We’ve got to play better defensively, I’m encouraged about where this thing is going right now. I’m just like everybody else, I’m putting in the work day in and day out, trying to do everything I can to help this team win.”

The players are committed to making sure communication is a priority, as well.

“All across the board, we just want to make sure everybody is on the same page, not only knowing what they’re doing, but knowing what the guy next to them is doing,” says safety Amani Hooker, who figures to claim a starting spot after two years as a backup.

“That way if somebody doesn’t know what he is doing, we’ve got to make sure he does. We’re not independent contractors. We all have to work together.”

In getting everything to click, Bowen admits that with so many new players and new coaches, the task could be a strenuous one that will require lots of attention to detail to make things work correctly.

“We’re kind of starting from square one all over again, trying to rebuild this thing with the new guys we’ve got, but I’ve been encouraged by all of them,” Bowen says.

Terry McCormick publishes TitanInsider.com and appear daily 2-4 p.m. on the George Plaster Show on WNSR-AM 560/95.9 FM

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