In life and football, change is usually a good idea when things aren’t going favorably. The Tennessee Titans adopted that philosophy heading into their Week Eight game against Chicago, and it paid off.
After another dismal defensive performance in Week Seven, the Titans cut two defensive starters and traded for former All-Pro CB Desmond King. Those moves led to marked improvement for the Titans’ previously inept defense against the Bears, particularly on third downs.
It’s a lesson for the rest of the NFL. Good teams don’t sit on their hands when they’re facing persistent struggles—they do something about it.
CHANGE IS A GOOD THING.
The #Titans absolutely had to have this one. Can’t drop three straight. Their much-maligned defense really stepped up today. Bears may not have the best offense around, but this was still impressive. Well done.
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) November 8, 2020
Entering Sunday’s game, the Titans’ third-down defense was the NFL’s worst. Against the Bears, the Titans allowed just two third-down conversions.
That transformation was due, in large part, to the changes the Titans made during the week leading up to the game.
By releasing struggling then-starters OLB Vic Beasley and CB Johnathan Joseph, the Titans ensured that, if nothing else, the defense would get a spark on Sunday.
“New guys bring in new energy, and you’ve got vets on the field keeping everyone on the same page,” LB Jayon Brown said.
But the Titans’ defense got more than just a boost of energy from the new blood, though—it got production.
The group of players who stepped in to replace Beasley and Joseph, which included outside linebackers Derick Roberson and Wyatt Ray, as well as King, were clearly improvements.
The group was collectively faster, it made more plays and, in contrast to Beasley, gave more effort.
What made the feat all the more impressive is that those three players—King, Roberson and Ray—were each making their season debuts for the Titans.
“Players, whatever roster they’re on—active roster, practice squad—they’re expected to be ready to play in a game,” head coach Mike Vrabel said. “They never know when their opportunity is going to come. I think our guys are starting to realize that.”
Things couldn’t have possibly gotten worse for the Titans’ defense after letting the Bengals convert 10 of 15 third downs in Week Seven, so they really had no reason to not at least try changing things up.
They did that and more, and their efforts were rewarded against Chicago.
LESSON NO. 2
Vrabel credits Desmond King for his professionalism but that they expect anyone who is active to be able to contribute on game day #Titans
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) November 8, 2020
Another lesson that the rest of the NFL could learn is that, when you acquire a new talented player midseason, you need to play him, immediately.
King, who the Titans got from the Chargers in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick, did not get into the team’s facility until Saturday due to COVID-19 restrictions. That means, as of Sunday, he has never practiced with the Titans.
Yet, he played a major role in the team’s win over the Bears, in terms of both snap count and impact.
Starting at slot corner, King made good plays in coverage throughout the game and was mostly flawless, save one 34-yard completion he allowed to WR Anthony Miller.
King also scored a touchdown, picking up a fumble caused by Jeffery Simmons and returning it 63 yards for the score.
How was King able to so flawlessly transition into a new system with new teammates?
“It all comes down to communicating on the field, and that’s what we’re out there for, especially as a defense,” King said.
“You have to communicate with the person to your left and the person to your right, and I think that’s what made things so much smoother and so much easier for all of us, even for me.”
Whether King’s performance proves that practice is generally overrated can be debated, but what’s clear is that more teams need to follow the Titans’ lead in handling major midseason acquisitions.
Far too often, teams hold off on playing trade-deadline purchases for a week or two with either the excuse that “they don’t know the system yet” or “they haven’t gotten enough practices.”
King’s performance in his Titans’ debut, with nothing but a week of Zoom meetings to learn what, likely, was a small portion of the playbook, proved that such reasoning is faulty.
These are professional athletes and, if they’re worth trading for, they’re probably pretty good professional athletes. While completely throwing them into the fire would be dumb, not letting them play at all is equally ill-advised.
Because the Titans made the right choice, both with King and the players moved on from earlier in the week, they avoided a third-straight loss.
They also got a much better performance out of the defense.
The unit still has a long way to go, and they’re going to face much better offenses than the Bears’ in the near future, but today was a big step in the right direction.
“Everybody was flying around and having fun today, and that’s what our defense is about. That’s what we want to get back to—having that juice and flying around,” DL Jeffery Simmons said.
Cover image: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today