The Titans are AFC South favorites for the first time in a long time. There aren't many holes on this team, but the secondary is the biggest cause for concern headed into the regular season. Confidence and consistency are crucial for these young defensive backs, and their ability to stop the big play will be largely under the microscope throughout the season.
"Put the pressure on us this year," said Orakpo, a starting outside linebacker. "I don't want our DBs to have no pressure this year. I want them to go out there and play ball. Put the pressure on us to get there. If we're going to criticize the big plays, put it on us up front because we need to do a great job getting after that. We're emphasizing that among ourselves, not from the coaches. It's on us to get after these quarterbacks and eliminate those big plays."
The Titans had the third-worst pass defense in the NFL last season, giving up nearly 270 passing yards per game. They revamped the entire secondary, bringing in a pair of high-priced free agents in cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Johnathan Cyprien. Then they drafted cornerback Adoree’ Jackson in the first round to go along with young holdovers like safety Kevin Byard and LeShaun Sims. The talent is better than it was last year, so now the task is to make sure it translates to the field and the continuity is there.
One of the biggest hurdles is overcoming "X" plays down the field. It's a struggle that plagued the Titans last year -- they finished in the bottom seven in 20-plus-yard (56) and 40-plus-yard (12) passing plays allowed -- and it's creeped up this preseason as some starters and key rotational players allowed big plays in the first and final games.
"When they throw it up, we gotta make some of those plays too," said Ryan, who added that the secondary isn't worried about any preseason struggles. "You make a living off consistency."
Titans head coach Mike Mularkey hasn't publicly named the starter for the cornerback spot opposite Ryan, but Sims has manned that role for most of the summer. Sims, Jackson and Brice McCain will all likely see heavy rotational reps on defense regardless if they're listed as a starter.
Jackson learned some tough lessons from his first NFL start in the Titans third preseason game, against Chicago. Quarterback Mike Glennon picked on him with success in the first half, often finding the receiver before Jackson could close. The rookie believes that experience taught him lessons that he'll take into the regular season.
"Be loose, have fun, let the game comes to me," Jackson said. "Trust what you see, trust your technique. If you do that, you shouldn't get beat. If you do, 'next play' mentality. A lot of those big plays, we were right there. We just have to make plays on the ball."
It'll help this secondary that leadership and accountability will be primarily the responsibilities of the front-seven. Orakpo wants the defensive backs to be at ease and charismatic, letting a front seven loaded with veterans like Derrick Morgan, Jurrell Casey and Wesley Woodyard take the burden of any scrutiny.
The Titans were tied for sixth in sacks (40) last season, but they believe they can up that number and help the back end have fewer big plays to defend.
Cyprien said he was happy about the secondary's continuity at this point, especially given that the four who'll start Sunday against Oakland will all be different from the four who started in the Titans' 2016 season opener against the Minnesota Vikings. Mularkey agreed.
"It's not something I can go, 'Hey, timeout. I need another week,'" Mularkey said. "They've had plenty of reps, plenty of walk-throughs to get the communication down. I'm very confident in what they're going to do."
Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said he'll judge this defense based on whether it can stop the big play. He also noted he was eager to see which players respond to adversity and which struggle whenever it occurs.