NASHVILLE, Tenn. — All season long, the Tennessee Titans’ special teams units have done more than just avoid mistakes. They’ve made a lot of big plays, repeatedly having major impacts on games.
Just over the team’s last three games, the Titans’ special teams groups have managed to block two field goals, return a blocked field goal for a touchdown, force a fumble on kickoff coverage and consistently give opponents poor starting field position.
The production has given the Titans’ special teams a reputation and around the NFL as a group that opponents legitimately fear.
“We definitely have them on their heels,” said cornerback Tye Smith, who gave the Titans the lead in their Week 13 game against the Colts by picking up a blocked field goal and returning it for a touchdown.
“They know that we go hard on special teams, especially on field goal block and that we’re coming every time. They’ve seen on film that we’ve gotten to it not just once, not just twice, but multiple times. That opens up the door for us.”
So, what is it that has made the Titans’ special teams units such powerful weapons for the entire team? The success comes down to culture, talent and coaching.
SPECIAL TEAMS CULTURE
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The Titans have established a culture of special teams being important. For most of the team’s key players in the phase, the goal isn’t simply avoiding costly penalties or making a tackle.
Rather, they want to impact games.
“It’s more of a brotherly challenge every day we’re on the football field, and it starts at practice,” said linebacker Wesley Woodyard, the Titans’ special teams captain for 2019.
“You see guys racing down the field on kickoffs, and guys just have the confidence in themselves that they’re going to make a play and get their responsibility done.”
“We take pride in it,” Smith said. “We know that we can make a play to help the outcome of a game.”
SPECIAL TEAMS TALENT
Being good at special teams is about more than just an effort or desire to be good, though. As with any other position or role on a football team, talent plays a major factor.
“It’s an effort thing, but you have to have a certain skill set,” said safety Dane Cruikshank, another key special teamer for the Titans. “You have to be fast, have to know what they’re trying to do, how to beat a double team.
“A majority of it is an effort thing, but you can’t just be anybody out there playing special teams.”
Through both the draft and free agency, Titans general manager Jon Robinson has built a core of versatile players who excel at various elements of playing special teams.
Cruikshank, Woodyard, Smith, linebacker Daren Bates and defensive back Joshua Kalu, among others, have given the Titans a core, reliable group of players who can make plays on special teams.
“I think the great special teams units have a core,” said Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, whose team will face the Titans on Sunday. “What I mean by that is five, six, seven guys that are on every phase, every special team.
“They can cover the punts, they can cover the kickoffs, they’re on kickoff and punt return. They give you quality snaps. They protect the punter, they protect the kicker.”
“You can’t do it any other way in this league,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said. “There’s only 46 guys who get to play on Sunday. You have to have core guys.”
SPECIAL TEAMS COACHING
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At the helm of the Titans’ efforts on special teams is coordinator Craig Aukerman, who is currently in his third year, overall, with the team.
His efforts are a major factor behind the culture the Titans have established and the talent they’ve been able to utilize.
“Craig is a smart, passionate, very focused coach,” Woodyard said. “He knows what he wants to do and what he wants to get accomplished in the gameplan. He’s not afraid to go out and execute fakes, and he believes in his guys.
“When he gets up here in the morning, he’s one of the guys that say, ‘control the momentum of the day.’ Besides Vrabel, he’s the first meeting that most guys are in. He’s very enthused and very upbeat.”
“He has energy every day in coaching us and giving us our keys to victory from that week,” Smith said. “It’s really the day in and day out stuff. Just the little details. You can come in after-hours and ask him questions. He’s a great coach.”
Should the Titans be successful in their push for a playoff spot over the final four games of the 2019 season, contributions from the team’s key special teams players will almost certainly have been a factor.
MORE on the Titans’ special teams: The Path to Joshua Kalu’s Heroic Blocked FG vs. the Chiefs
Cover image: Brian Spurlock/USA Today