If the Tennessee Titans are to become the team they aspire to be, then their defense has to make dramatic improvements from last year.
Their first chance to show they are a better team on defense occurs Sunday when they open the season by hosting the Arizona Cardinals and explosive quarterback Kyler Murray in Nashville.
“You have a lot of youth on the field, guys who are hungry and want to make an impact early on,” Tennessee linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “And then you have older guys who have been in the game and made big plays. Both of those dynamics can make you very dangerous.”
For most of 2020, the Titans’ defense was dangerous only to the health of their fans. They ranked 29th in passing yards allowed per game at 277.4, 28th in total yards allowed per game with 398.3 and 24th in points per game at 27.4.
A major reason for that was their terrible defense on third down. Opponents converted a whopping 51.9 percent on the money down, the worst in the NFL. And that required a late defensive stand to get down to that level; opponents were above 60 percent halfway through the season.
Much has been made of Tennessee’s bold trade for Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones, but the Titans spent a lot of money to repair their defense. They gave linebacker Bud Dupree $82 million to leave Pittsburgh and shore up a putrid pass rush, then shelled out $21.5 million on defensive end Denico Autry and another $15 million on veteran cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
As good as Tennessee’s offense should be, it will be the play of its defense that determines whether they can live out their Super Bowl dreams. The first challenge is Murray, who threw for 3,971 yards and rushed for 819 last year, accounting for 37 touchdowns and nearly leading Arizona to the playoffs in his second season.
“He is a dangerous and dynamic athlete,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said of Murray. “Not only can he run, but he can make all the throws as well. He is just a dynamic player, a guy we are going to have to contain for sure.”
Meanwhile, Murray and the Cardinals hope to show they are playoff material. They could have reached the postseason last year with a Week 17 win at the Los Angeles Rams, but Murray left with a first quarter injury and the offense fizzled in an 18-7 defeat.
One way for Arizona to do that is to make a statement on defense. The addition of J.J. Watt from the Houston Texans should immediately improve the pass rush, but it will take more than Watt to contain Tennessee’s potent running game.
The presence of Jones and fellow receiver A.J. Brown aside, Derrick Henry is the engine of the Titans offense. Henry owns consecutive NFL rushing titles for a reason. The Titans are committed to the running game, and Henry usually gets better as a game goes along.
Young Cardinals defensive linemen such as like Zach Allen, Michael Dogbe, Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu have no choice but to show that they can be solid pros against Tennessee.
“We are tired of being called young guys, with young-guy mistakes,” Allen said. “This is our time now.”
Arizona owns a 7-4 lead in the all-time series, including a 12-7 victory in the teams’ last meeting in December 2017.