The Tennessee Titans have not made the playoffs since 2009, a span that includes just one winning season. This year they are on the cusp of a big turnaround. They sit at 8-6, and with victories over division opponents the next two weeks they would clinch a playoff berth. The offense instilled by head coach Mike Mularkey is receiving much praise for the turn-around. His design, which he termed “exotic smash-mouth” in the off-season, sits 12th overall in yards gained and eighth in points scored. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is another big reason for the Titans resurgence. This season he has tossed 26 touchdowns versus just nine interceptions. Both the offense and their quarterback are deserving of the praise they receive. But one unit that is largely being left out of the discussion is the defense; and they have been just as big a part of the Titans success as anything else.
Dick LeBeau‘s Defense Key to Tennessee Titans Success
Coaching Is The Difference
Mariota is the leader of the offense. But the leader of the defense might very well be Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Although in just his second season with the Titans, LeBeau has coached in the league continuously since 1973 – the year after he retired as a player. In LeBeau’s first season with the team, the defense ranked just 27th in points against. This year there has been a massive improvement, but it is not because of an all new cast of players. The Titans biggest off-season additions were on the offensive side of the ball. First and second round picks were used on offensive tackle Jack Conklin and running back Derrick Henry. Their biggest offseason move was a trade that netted them Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray.
Select defensive players were added through free agency, but no big money players. Also, in the last two years of the draft, few top picks were used to select players on the defensive side of the ball. Of all their defensive draftees over the last two seasons third round rookie safety Kevin Byard is making the largest impact. Fifth round cornerback LeShaun Sims has seen more playing time in the second half of the season and defensive linemen Austin Johnson and Angelo Blackson also contribute in reserve roles – that may now be changing now due to injury. In spite of the lack of big name additions this the defense has made a huge leap from year one to year two for Lebeau.
This season, his team has improved to 18th in points per game allowed. But the Titans have been victimized by special teams and defensive scores all season which impacts this figure (more on this later). The isolated defensive stats rank the Titans 12th overall in points allowed per drive. This is a much better figure than they have posted in either yards, or time of possession per drive, where they rank 20th in each. The Titans excel in a few areas; sacks, where they are ranked ninth in the league, and big plays allowed (25+ yard pass plays, 10+ yard rush plays), where they rank seventh. However, there is one area where they are truly dominating.
Second Half Dominance
It is in the second half of games that LeBeau’s team has really shined. The Titans have earned narrow victories by holding the Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, and Kansas City Chiefs to just three second half points apiece. They have also kept games close by shutting out the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans in the second half, in losing efforts. Overall, the defense has only allowed 112 second half points all season. That is an impressive eight points per game. (Adjusted numbers isolated for defense only).
The list of names the Titans have held down at quarterback is also impressive. Derek Carr was held scoreless in the second half. Matthew Stafford managed just three points. Andrew Luck scored 13 points total over the second halves of two games. Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers finished with nine and ten points respectively.
In fact, nearly every team the Titans have faced have been held down in the second half. Only the Cleveland Browns (13 points), Jacksonville Jaguars (22 points) and Chicago Bears (14 points) were able to score big on the Titans after halftime. In each of these games, the Titans held big leads and may have prematurely let off the gas allowing these games to be closer than they needed. If you remove the 46 points these three teams scored, the Titans second half stats are even more impressive. They have allowed only 66 second half points in their other 11 contests – six points per game average. The players always deserve the credit for what happens on the field. But when a team’s performance in the second half is this consistent it is impossible to ignore the coaching and adjustments that are being made at halftime. LeBeau is proving his is still a master in this area.
A Closer Look
The Titans six losses reveal the defense was rarely to blame for the outcome, and often defensive and special teams touchdowns against them were the difference between winning and losing. This is a trend dating back to the very first game of the season:
Week 1 – Minnesota Vikings, L 25-16 – The Titans led 10-0 at halftime. Although the defense did surrender four second half field goals it was two turnovers returned for touchdowns that were the difference in the game. (Defensive Points Allowed/Second Half -12/12)
Week 3 – Oakland Raiders, L 17-10 – The defense surrendered 17 first half points, three were because of a fumble lost in Titans territory. After halftime they stiffened and shut down the Raiders but the offense was not able to mount a comeback. (DPA -17/0)
Week 4 – Houston Texans, L 27-20 – The defense did not allow a single point in the second half. After the Titans tied the game at 20 a piece with a field goal the Texans returned a punt for the winning touchdown. (DPA -20/0)
Week 7 – Indianapolis Colts, L 34 -26 – The Titans have had trouble with Andrew Luck his entire career, this season being no different. Although the Titans took the lead 23-20 midway through the fourth quarter, the defense immediately gave up a 12 play touchdown drive. This only put the Titans down four, but the offense promptly had a fumble returned for the touchdown to effectively end the game. (DPA -27/10)
Week 9 – San Diego Chargers 43-35 – Another mediocre performance against an all-star quarterback. But the defense still only allowed ten second half points. The team was again victimized by the offense which had another game with both an interception return and fumble return touchdown. With an eight point margin of defeat these plays were again the difference. (DPA -29/10)
Week 11 – Indianapolis Colts – 24-17 – Andrew Luck again. This time he managed 24 points, but only three of them came in the second half. The defense did all it could in this one – intercepting Luck on the Titans 38 down just seven points with over five minutes to play. The comeback ended at the Colts 19. (DPA -24/3)
In year two, the Titans have truly become Dick LeBeau’s defense. The names are not all the same, but no big money players were brought in to save the day. Instead the difference has been LeBeau molding players to fit within his system. Recent big-time wins over teams like the Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, and Kansas City Chiefs have announced this team is ready to win. The Titans defense has been as big a part of the teams overall success this season as any other unit and their massive improvement after halftime shows that coach LeBeau is still a dominating force in this league.