NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans' offense received most of the buzz this offseason due to Marcus Mariota's return and their new receiving weapons, but Saturday against the Carolina Panthers it was the defense's turn to make their presence known. Two turnovers within the first five defensive plays did just that.
Dick LeBeau's diverse blitzing scheme puts a lot of pressure on defensive backs to hold up. Last season, the Titans didn't have the talent to do it consistently. In 2017, a handful of new faces with plus athleticism and ball skills are hoping to change the mentality of this defense.
"I told coach LeBeau I’m expecting two turnovers in the first three drives every game," Titans head coach Mike Mularkey said with a wry smile Sunday. "That’s what it’s all about. If you don’t see that, if you can’t believe that we can do that, then the odds are less. So, I like what our mindset is, I do."
Saturday, the Titans' defense were the hunters they've sought to become all summer. It was a complete turnaround for the defensive backs and cornerback Logan Ryan, who forced a fumble that was recovered by his backfield partner Kevin Byard on the Titans' first defensive play. The turnover led to the Titans first touchdown.
“We wanted to start fast," Ryan said. "[Former Titans linebacker] Tim Shaw gave a speech to us the other night about being in the moment, and if you’re in the moment you can take advantage of your opportunity."
Two drives later, the Titans got their hands on the football again. A little linebacker-to-linebacker love when rookie Jayon Brown made a great drop into coverage and got a hand on a Derek Anderson pass across the middle. Justin Staples was right there for the interception, which led to another touchdown.
It's only preseason, but Mariota spoke of Saturday's performance as the blueprint to the Titans' success on all phases. For the defense, turnovers may be the area where they want to make the biggest jump. In 2016, Tennessee notched 18 takeaways, which tied for 23rd in the NFL. To be a true AFC contender, they'll need to rise in the rankings and force opponents into uncomfortable positions.
"I was happy with them. I thought we had tighter coverage," Mularkey said. "I like how physical our DBs are. Our secondary is a physical bunch, they take pride in it. I thought they played well. That first play was a big play with Logan. Again, clinic tackle wrapping, using his arms to knock the ball out. Instead of saw tackling, he used his arms and that’s where turnovers are created."
Just like quarterbacks, defensive backs are graded on how they respond to getting beat. Saturday's performance proved this unit can bounce back from a lackluster performance to produce something special. The next step is consistency.