Stopping the run will be a major key for the Tennessee Titans against the Jaguars on Thursday Night Football.
Over the course of the 2018 season, the Tennessee Titans defense has consistently managed to give the team opportunities to win football games. Up until a few weeks ago, the unit had allowed the least total yards in the NFL.
Currently, the Titans rank ninth in that statistic. The dropoff over the last few games has mostly been a result of the team’s poor run defense.
Against the Texans and Jets, the Titans defense consistently managed to allow chunk gains on the ground. Lamar Miller of the Texans scored a 97-yard touchdown en route to a day where he averaged over 12 yards per carry, and Isaiah Crowell of the Jets carried the ball 21 times for nearly 5 YPC.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro knows just how important it is for the Titans to get their run defense turned around. “We’ve given up a lot of rushing yards the last two games,” Vaccaro said. Overall, everybody’s swarming, making plays. But if you can shut down the run game, it opens up so many opportunities.
“It opens up the whole playbook for our coordinators. If a team’s running the ball, you’ve got to put more guys in the box and the passing game is more opened up. I think everybody knows that.”
Knowing that the run defense needs to improve is one thing, but actually executing the improvement is another. Especially against this week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, it will be paramount for the Titans’ run defense to get things turned around.
#Titans‘ Vrabel: Jags’ Fournette is returning, so he’s expecting a heavy dose of the run on Thursday.
— John Glennon (@glennonsports) December 4, 2018
With the inexperienced and ineffective Cody Kessler at quarterback, the Jaguars passing game is extraordinarily limited. Kessler’s lack arm strength makes it difficult for the team to throw the ball downfield, and their weapons in the passing game have been subpar for most of the season.
What Jacksonville does possess, however, is a deep and very talented backfield. Made up of Leonard Fournette, Carlos Hyde, and T.J. Yeldon, the Jaguars have perhaps the NFL’s best trio of ballcarriers.
“I think he’s a talented player,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said of Fournette. “He’s big, he’s physical. He can make you miss. He runs with power. I’m familiar with Carlos as well and we’ve played against Yeldon a bunch. They have a good complement of backs.”
The last thing that the Titans would want is for Kessler to gain confidence thanks to an effective running game. They want to force the Jaguars to beat them by throwing the football, something that could be easier said than done.
Linebacker Rashaan Evans, who faced Fournette in college, said the key to stopping him is to not even let him get started. “He’s a physical back, downhill runner, able to make yards after contact. That’s his game, right there. The number one thing is to get him before he’s started up. If you can do that, I think you can stop the run. If you can agitate him as much as you can, you get them off of their game.”
Pees discusses the challenges presented by Leonard Fournette. pic.twitter.com/5VPCEEHjNW
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) December 4, 2018
Asked what the biggest challenge of facing the Jaguars offense is, defensive coordinator Dean Pees identified Fournette and the running game. “They can run the ball, they’ve always been able to run the ball…the offensive line is playing well. The biggest challenge is that we’ve got to do a great job of stopping the run, and not giving up big plays.”
Adding to the strength of the Jaguars’ ability to run the ball this week is the fact that Fournette, now fully healthy for the first time in a couple of months, missed last week’s game due to a suspension. That means that his body will be fresh and ready to go.
Pees said, though, that the Jaguars would be dedicated to the run regardless of Fournette’s status last week. “I think that’s what you’re going to see from them, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the short week. I think that’s just who they are, that’s their identity. They want to run the ball, and they do run the ball, and they run it well. Yeldon is a good back too, it’s not like they’ve just got one back, they’ve got a couple of them.”
Jacksonville is a team that has struggled mightily this season. On the field, they have delivered a putrid product, week after week. Off the field, players have gotten into legal trouble, and there has even been in-fighting within the team’s locker room.
Giving the Jaguars just a sliver of hope could come back to haunt the Titans at the end of the game and, consequently, the season. Stopping their rushing attack early and often would almost guarantee a successful day at the office for the Titans’ defense.
Cover image: USA Today/Mark Konezny & Rich Barnes