NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans‘ pass rush isn’t just bad—it’s horrendous.
Through 13 games, the Titans have registered a league-worst 14 sacks. To put that ineptitude in perspective, only one NFL team in the last 10 years finished a season with less than 18 sacks, a reasonable possibility for the 2020 Titans.
And, as defensive play-caller Shane Bowen eloquently explained, the disastrous production has been the result of both poor coaching and poor playing.
“We’ve got to do a better job of coaching, getting guys in those one-on-one matchups,” Bowen said. “And then, as we get there, we have to find ways to win. I think it’s a combination of things.”
However, of the two options, the players are more deserving of the blame.
NOT GETTING THE JOB DONE
I don’t know if anyone has said this yet or not, but the Tennessee #Titans have moved into sole possession of the least productive pass rush in the NFL with a whopping 14 sacks (on pace for 17)
In the last DECADE, only one team in the NFL has had less than 18 sacks in a season.
— Shane Bowen replacement search firm (@jlomas72) December 14, 2020
To be fair, the Titans haven’t had a whole lot of them available. Due to injuries, the team currently has just two outside linebackers—Harold Landry and Derick Roberson—on the active roster.
The lack of bodies has forced the Titans’ defensive coaches to make some schematic choices that they probably wish they didn’t have to, such as playing Jack Crawford, a natural interior defensive lineman, on the edge.
But injuries aren’t an excuse for being the worst pass-rushing team in the league, and the bottom line is that the players who have been out there in 2020 have, as Bowen suggested, failed to produce more often than not.
The problems began with big-ticket free agents Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney, who combined for $21 million of cap space and zero sacks before the team released Beasley and moved Clowney to injured reserve.
Now, Beasley and Clowney’s replacements are failing to get the job done.
LIMITS TO COACHING
Vrabel on the #Titans‘ missed opportunities for big plays: “There are certain things that I’m able and willing to coach, but at a certain point, the player has to be a professional and finish the play.”
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) December 17, 2020
The most maddening aspect of all of this has been a phenomenon that head coach Mike Vrabel has coined “M.O.B.P.” or “missed opportunities for big plays.”
Tennessee’s pass rushers have shown a propensity to get close to the QB and seemingly have him dead to right before slipping, missing a tackle or doing something else wrong to blow the opportunity.
The Titans’ defensive coaches have made plenty of questionable decisions throughout the 2020 season, but they’re getting close to zero help from their players.
That’s partially an indictment on GM Jon Robinson, who epically failed to give his team capable pass rushers heading into the season, but it’s also an indictment of the players who are out there and not producing.
“At some point in time, if you get in a position, you’re going to have to make a play,” Vrabel said. “There are a lot of things that I’m willing to coach and have the ability to coach, but there are also things that you’re going to have to execute as a professional football player.”
He’s 100% right.
NFL players need to be excuse defiers, not excuse creators. As Vrabel said, they’re professionals.
Whether you deploy a defensive line filled with the NFL’s best, like Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt, or one with the players the Titans have, there is no excuse for being the NFL’s absolute worst at getting to the quarterback.
And, by the way, if you were to add Watt’s and Donald’s 2020 sack totals to the Titans’ team total, they still wouldn’t even crack the NFL’s top five.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
There are, however, things that the Titans’ defensive coaches could be doing better to prevent the pass rush from being quite so bad.
Perhaps the biggest reason that the Titans’ coaches haven’t been able to consistently get their players into favorable matchups is that they’ve, at times, gone a bit too far with disguising.
The Titans’ defense is, admittedly, at its best when it effectively weaponizes confusion and disguise. It is possible, though for the disguising to go too far.
“We can’t let our disguise or alignment override our assignment,” Vrabel said.
There have been moments in 2020 when it’s looked almost like that happened—moments when the Titans have seemed so focused on disguising that they’ve abandoned reason and logic.
The best example of this has been the Titans’ use of Harold Landry. Landry, the Titans’ best pass rusher by a mile, is often asked to play coverage in obvious passing situations.
Though the Titans have routinely dropped Landry into coverage since 2018, it’s seemingly been happening at a higher rate in 2020.
Head coach Mike Vrabel and his staff certainly have their reasons for letting Landry drop, and they’re valid ones in ordinary times.
As former defensive coordinator Dean Pees explained in 2019, “hopefully you get to the point where everybody’s a threat to blitz and everybody’s a threat to drop.”
But when you’re struggling mightily to rush the QB, it would seem that letting your best pass rusher do what he’s best at could lead to at least some degree of improvement.
OUT OF TOUCH
The Landry situation and others like it point to the fact that the Titans’ defensive coaching staff is struggling to strike the perfect balance between trying to confuse offenses and simply lining up to play good defense.
That’s a balance that Pees, who retired in January, struck masterfully when he was in the booth calling plays. It’s probably the quality of his that the team misses the most.
Pees’ absence, though, is still not an excuse for the fact that, more often than not, the Titans’ pass rushers have simply left their coaches out to dry.
If that doesn’t change soon, the Titans’ stay in the postseason will be a short one.
“Over the last stretch of this season, from December to February, we have to create negative plays,” DL Jeffery Simmons said.
Cover image: Steve Roberts / USA Today