These previews are meant to be able to give fans of the Los Angeles Rams as much insight as possible into what anticipate during the next game, but if every team has just one player who they absolutely can’t lose without changing up the entire organizational philosophy...then the Tennessee Titans just lost that player for the season.
I’ll do my best to tell you everything you need to know about the Titans, but not even the Titans may be able to predict what happens for them next. What works and what fails. Now comes Mike Vrabel’s era of experimentation.
There was probably no question pondered more times after Super Bowl XXXIV than, “What if Kevin Dyson had go-go gadget arms?”
The Titans’ number one receiver stretched for the goal line against the St. Louis Rams and failed to be long enough that day, so of the two relocated franchises, it would be the Rams who entered the national football conversation many times over in the next two decades.
Ironically, it’s the Titans who have faded away into relative NFL obscurity — forgotten about, you might say — during the 21st century, as even the Rams’ worst days as a football team have far outpaced the interest level earned by a Tennessee franchise that is never good enough or bad enough to gain attention. Whether you want to talk about the New England Patriots or the Jacksonville Jaguars, there’s something that I think any NFL fan could drone on for hours about with respect to those polar opposite franchises.
But for the Titans, a team that has won nine or more games 11 times in the last 21 seasons since that Super Bowl loss, and has yet to return to the NFL’s version of “The Big Game at the End”, there’s rarely been a superstar football player or a historic season on offense or defense that has drawn fan attention to Nashville in the last 20 years.
Not once between 2004 and 2019 did the Titans have a top-10 scoring offense.
The Titans ranked second in points allowed and first in yards allowed in 2000, signaling that Jeff Fisher had actually improved the team after Dyson proved too stocky against the Rams, but Tennessee’s defense has only had three notable seasons since (2007, 2008, 2018) and none of them were dominant.
None of them came at a time when the offense was good either.
For those reasons, I think that the idea that the Titans have won as many games as they have over the last 20 years because they play in the abysmal AFC South is bordering on factual.
Outside of Derrick Henry, the Titans have failed to find any superstars on offense over the last 20 years, only settling on Ryan Tannehill as a “franchise quarterback” because he’s been a revelation as compared to Vince Young and Marcus Mariota. And A.J. Brown is by far the best wide receiver that the team has found since Derrick Mason, but the effort to make him a dangerous duo with Julio Jones has thus far been underwhelming.
Defensively, Jurrell Casey and Derrick Morgan have been the best pass rushers for the Titans during this century, while Michael Griffin leads the Titans in interceptions during the 2000’s and 2010’s.
Scour the Titans database of players over the last 20 years and you will see a stark difference between Derrick Henry and virtually every other contender to be named as a “star NFL football player”, and Henry just suffered a Jones fracture in his foot that will end his 2021 season.
I’m not saying that the Titans aren’t a good team.
I’m not saying that Tannehill is a bad quarterback or that he and Brown can’t be one of the deadliest connections in the league.
I’m not saying that the Titans can’t win the AFC, the conference in which Tennessee is currently ranked as the number one seed.
And I’m definitely not saying that the Rams are guaranteed victory over a Henry-less Titans team this Sunday night.
What I am saying is that the Tennessee Titans have been searching for an identity ever since that Super Bowl loss to the St. Louis Rams, and now the one person who began to carve out a face for the franchise and who has literally carried them to a 6-2 record this season is not going to be showing up in anything other than street clothes in Week 9.
If you thought it was difficult to ascertain the identity of the Titans with Derrick Henry, then it’ll be a crawl in the desert to understand what the Titans have in store for a football team without Derrick Henry.
Here is everything that I think you need to know about the 2021 Titans.
2020 record: 11-5
2021 record: 6-2
Head coach: Mike Vrabel (35-21, 2-2 in playoffs)
Philosophy: “I’ll get my revenge on Bill Belichick for trading me to Todd Haley”
It was really just mediocrity that got Jeff Fisher, Mike Munchak, and Mike Mularkey fired from the Titans prior to Vrabel being hired in 2018. Only Ken Whisenhunt (2-14 in 2014) was fired after a terrible season; Fisher was fired after going 8-8 and 6-10 following a 13-3 campaign; Munchak fired after 7-9; Mularkey after 9-7 with a playoff win.
What will Mike Vrabel have to do to get fired? Because so far the Titans haven’t been anything more than mediocre with Vrabel either.
Though Tennessee had a 17-7 second quarter lead over the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2019 AFC Championship, that team went 9-7 during the regular season and can’t hang its hat on much more than Henry’s dominant playoff performances against the Patriots and Ravens that year.
And while the Titans did go 11-5 in 2020, they ranked just 14th in DVOA (29th on defense) and they faced one of the easiest schedules of any NFL team last season. A quick wild card playoff exit against Baltimore didn’t surprise anyone.
Now Vrabel’s team sits atop the entire AFC at 6-2, but with overtime wins against the Seahawks and Colts, a three-point win over the Bills, and little else to brag about other than the running game, truly where would this team have been without Derrick Henry?
That’s what we will finally find out, beginning on Sunday. Will Mike Vrabel still be the Titans coach in 2022 if Tennessee fails to get back to the AFC Championship game, at least?
I’ve yet to find anything on his resume that should suggest that Mike Vrable is irreplaceable. Surely not as irreplaceable as his running back.
OC: Todd Downing
Former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was perhaps the second-hottest coaching candidate in 2021, after LA’s own Brandon Staley, and hired away by the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason. Downing, a former defensive and special teams assistant on the Rams from 2006 to 2008 under Scott Linehan, has replaced him after spending the previous two seasons as Vrabel’s tight ends coach.
Downing also spent five years on the Lions, three as Matthew Stafford’s quarterbacks coach, having followed Linehan to Detroit.
Changes on Offense from 2020:
RB Derrick Henry* to RB Jeremy McNichols, RB Adrian Peterson
WR Corey Davis to WR Julio Jones
WR Adam Humphries to WR Josh Reynolds/WR Chester Rogers
TE Jonnu Smith to TE Anthony Firkser/TE Geoff Swaim
LT Dennis Kelly to LT Taylor Lewan*
What to expect from the Titans offense
The addition of Julio Jones in the offseason brought lots of noise, but that hasn’t translated to decibels in the regular season. Jones has missed Weeks 4, 5, and 8 with injury but he did practice on Thursday and could return vs the Rams.
In his most recent three games, Jones has been targeted 14 times, catching eight passes for only 144 yards and no touchdowns. Jones, long criticized for his lack of touchdowns despite being so dominant everywhere else on the field, has only caught five touchdowns in his last 25 games; Cooper Kupp has 10 touchdowns in eight games this season.
You think the team will turn to former Rams receiver Josh Reynolds though? Not likely.
Through his first eight weeks, Reynolds has played in five games and been targeted just 13 times, catching 10 passes for 90 yards. The team has instead favored Chester Rogers, who has 14 catches on 22 targets with 186 yards. Or Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, who has 14 catches on 21 targets and 141 yards.
In any case though, A.J. Brown (35 catches, 509 yards) has been the only viable receiving threat on the entire team. The losses of Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith in the offseason were not, as it turns out, filled with replaceable stars or even serviceable ones. Julio Jones might be able to change that in the near future at receiver, but it seems like this offense’s two-trick pony just lost half of its inventory with Derrick Henry on the trainer’s table.
Ryan Tannehill-to-A.J. Brown...and then what? That’s what we will find out.
2021 offensive ranks
Pass attempts: 22nd
Rushing attempts: 1st
Net yards per pass attempt: 18th
Passing touchdowns: 21st
Rushing yards: 4th
Yards per carry: 11th
Rushing touchdowns: 2nd
Points per drive: 7th
Red Zone O: 15th
3rd down: 10th
Time of Possession: 4th
DVOA: 16th (18th passing, 9th rushing)
Offensive “strength of schedule”: 8th
*Essentially, FootballOutsiders is saying that the Titans have faced a more difficult schedule of defenses by DVOA than the average team.
Offensive Depth Chart
DC: Shane Bowen
Vrabel and Bowen met in 2012 while working as assistants under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. He next spent three years at Kennesaw State coaching linebackers, then reunited with Vrabel on the Houston Texans in 2016. When Vrabel was hired by the Titans, Bowen followed him as outside linebackers coach.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired in 2020 and Vrabel didn’t name a defensive coordinator, but Bowen did most of the game day play calling duties and in 2021, was officially promoted to the role. Pees, for what it’s worth, unretired and is Smith’s defensive coordinator in Atlanta this season.
It’s not easy for anyone to be able to say if Bowen is a “good” defensive coordinator or not, there are so many variables, but the Titans have struggled in allowing explosive plays in 2021, including in an ugly loss to the Jets last month:
The Achilles heel of the Tennessee Titans’ defense so far in 2021 has been the unit allowing big plays, something we saw once again during the Week 4 loss to the New York Jets.
The Titans gave up a handful of 20-plus-yard plays to Gang Green last Sunday, including two of 50 yards or more. It was the second time this season that an opponent has notched at least two 50-yard plays.
What Bowen said after that game:
“All 11 guys have to evaluate themselves: ‘How could I have made a difference on this play?’” Bowen said. “Whether it’s keeping the guy in the pocket, which happened a couple times the other day. Whether it’s staying deep when I’m a half(field) player. There’s a lot of different things that come into play in regard to that, and it’s not just one guy, right? It’s a unit thing. Everybody kind of factors in when those big plays are happening.”
Tennessee’s defense has talent to usually keep the Titans competitive — and just two weeks ago held the Chiefs to three points — but they’ve also allowed 30+ points in half of their games.
With Henry on the field to move the clock and the chains offensively, what will the defense respond with moving forward?
Changes on Defense:
CB Malcolm Butler to CB Janoris Jackrabbit Jenkins
SS Kenny Vaccaro to SS Dane Cruikshank
DT DaQuan Jones to DT Teair Tart
LB Jayon Brown to LB David Long / LB Bud Dupree
DE Jack Crawford to DE Denico Autry
CB Desmond King to CB Kristian Fulton
CB Johnathan Joseph to CB Elijah Molden
CB Breon Borders to CB Chris Jackson
This is actually kinda crazy!
What to expect from Titans’ defense:
Harold & Mob
(Yikes, has nobody in Tennessee used that as a headline yet?)
The breakout star of the Tennessee Titans in 2021 is probably pass rusher Harold Landry. The 41st overall pick of the 2018 draft, Landry has gone from an above-average edge player who averaged 15 QB hits and six sacks per season over his first three years to already being at 8.5 sacks and 15 QB hits through the first eight weeks of 2021.
Landry is consistently dominant too: Week 2 vs the Seahawks is his only contest without at least a partial sack and one QB hit. He has seven sacks over the last five games alone.
The Titans signed Bud Dupree in free agency with the hopes that he would be providing that kind of sack production, but Dupree missed three games and he has just one sack over his five contests with 10 pressures.
Landry has 33 pressures.
The player second on the team in pressures is Denico Autry, a free agent signee from the Colts, with 19 pressures; but Autry also is blamed for six missed tackles with only 14 made tackles. Not good. Defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, a first round pick in 2019, has 11 pressures, 2.5 sacks, and five missed tackles.
But LA isn’t the only defense with a David Long problem: Linebacker David Long has 11 missed tackles for the Titans this season, the second-highest total in the entire league.
My Cruikshank brings all the boys to Byard
(Do I need to send these directly to the Tennessean or something?)
Perhaps the entire future of the Titans rests directly on the growth and development of the secondary. By 2022 or 2023, this could be one of the best secondaries in the NFL, which would be a huge revelation for Tennessee given that the front-seven seems to be ahead of them at the moment and leading the defense with pressure coming from Landry and co.
But if these secondary players pan out, watch out.
Safety Kevin Byard was a first team All-Pro in 2017 when he led the NFL in picks, but he’s been dissed on every Pro Bowl roster since despite consistently being one of the top players at his position. That figures to change this year, as Byard already has four interceptions in eight games, and he had a fumble recovery touchdown against the Jaguars in Week 5.
The key players around him right now will be cornerback Kristian Fulton, a second round pick in 2020 who was off to a promising start before being placed on IR in Week 6; and Caleb Farley, the 22nd overall pick in 2021. Farley may have slipped slightly in the draft for injury concern reasons and he’s appeared only sparingly as a rookie and is also on IR right now.
The other corner not to sleep on is third round rookie Elijah Molden, a 5’10, 192 lb slot who has started the last three games.
But this unit remains a work in progress and that is highlighted by the fact that some starters may not remain starters for long. The team recently got back strong safety Amani Hooker — 2019, fourth round — to replace fill-in Dane Cruikshank — 2018, fifth round — while reluctantly having to rotate in journeyman and UDFAs like Greg Mabin and Chris Jackson.
Down the line, this unit could be fantastic, but right now it’s an area to attack for Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp.
2021 Defensive Ranks
Points Allowed: 20th
Yards Allowed: 22nd
Turnovers Forced: 11th
Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 15th
Passing Touchdowns Allowed: 22nd
Rushing Yards Allowed: 8th
Yards Per Carry Allowed: 24th
Rushing Touchdowns Allowed: 18th
Points Per Drive Allowed: 20th
TOP allowed: 6th
Red Zone D: 9th
3rd down rate: 16th
DVOA: 20th (14th vs pass, 18th vs run)
Defensive “strength of schedule” rank: 14th
K - Randy Bullock
I was recently astounded to learn that Randy Bullock is still in the NFL; not because he’s old, but because he’s had so many teams (Texans, Jets, Bengals, Giants) eventually tell him “No Thanks”. I hate to use the word “automatic” for Bullock anywhere on the field because really the issue is that he can make — or miss — any attempt from anywhere.
P - Brett Kern
I once camped at Kern River.
PR/KR - Chester Rogers
Rogers returned kickoffs for the Colts from 2016 to 2019. He has zero career return touchdowns on either kickoffs or punts.
Last 3 games (3-0)
Week 6 - 34-31 WIN over Buffalo Bills
Monday Night Football. Bills led 31-24 at end of third quarter. Tannehill led drive into Bills territory in fourth quarter, Henry scored from 13 yards out to give Tennessee the lead. Buffalo had first-and-10 from the Titans 12, but ended up turning the ball over on downs rather than sending the game into Overtime with a field goal.
Josh Allen went 35-47 for 353 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 9 rush, 26 yards.
Stefon Diggs held to 9 catches for 89 yards on 11 targets. Emmanuel Sanders had five catches for 91 yards on eight targets.
Week 7 - 27-3 WIN over Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes left the game after going 20-35, 206 yards with an interception. He also fumbled twice. Chad Henne came in and went 11-16 for 82 yards. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce both really ineffective. But again, Mahomes didn’t play the full game.
Week 8 - 34-31 OT WIN over Indianapolis Colts
Colts led 14-0 early, then 24-21 going into the fourth quarter.
Carson Wentz threw one of the worst passes of all-time, Molden had a 2-yard pick-six, giving Titans a 31-24 lead. Indianapolis tied it with :22 seconds left, going to OT. Teams traded punts, then Wentz threw another interception, this time with Byard returning to the Colts 32. Enough to eventually get the game-winning field goal.
Can you believe that Matthew Stafford cost two first round picks and Wentz cost one conditional first? Seems Wentz shouldn’t have been worth more than a day three swap in 2029.