NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Winning has a way of covering up areas in need of improvement for NFL teams. The Tennessee Titans started the season 5-0 and everything seemed to be going in their favor.
The Jacksonville Jaguars rolled up 480 yards of offense against the Titans in Week 2, followed by 464 yards of offense from the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3. Tennessee scored 33 and 31 points, respectively, in those games to mask their defense's struggles. After two straight losses -- including a 31-20 upset loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday -- the need for improvement is clear.
The most glaring issue for the defense has been on third downs. Tennessee has given up two of the five highest third-down conversion percentages allowed in a game this season. One was in a 42-16 win over the Buffalo Bills (second-highest, 76%) and the other was the 27-24 loss to Pittsburgh Steelers (fourth-highest, 73%).
For the season, opponents have converted an NFL-high 61.8% of their third downs against the Titans. Last season, their defense allowed teams to convert on just 36.3% of their third downs. That was with Dean Pees as the defensive coordinator.
Coach Mike Vrabel did not name a replacement for Pees, who retired. Outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen is calling plays on defense, but Vrabel has final say on playcalls. Vrabel insists that isn't a reason for the current defensive struggles.
"That's not a factor. I'm positive that's not a factor," Vrabel said after the loss to the Bengals. "We have to continue to play better and coach better. But I'm certain that's not what's leading to us giving up points and not getting off the field on third downs."
Here are three areas that have to get fixed on defense immediately:
Solve coverage mishaps
The defense consistently finds itself out of position. Quarterbacks are easily able to find open targets regardless of whether Tennessee is in zone or man coverage.
One of the best examples against the Bengals came on a fourth-and-5 late in the second quarter.
Cincinnati had the ball at the Titans' 43-yard line after Malcolm Butler broke up a third-down pass to receiver A.J. Green. Tennessee rushed three and dropped everyone else into coverage. All of the routes were covered but quarterback Joe Burrow had time to move within the pocket.
Amani Hooker was the single high safety, which means he can't let anyone get behind him. He drifted away from receiver Tee Higgins, who was running the only vertical route. Higgins saw Burrow move to his right so he broke his route off to give his quarterback a better target toward the middle of the field. Hooker was slightly late getting there and the result was a 22-yard gain that set up Cincinnati's second touchdown in the first half.
Jayon Brown was one of the linebackers underneath. There's a good chance he was partly responsible for the deep route over the middle and was also late getting there because he jumped Tyler Boyd on an out-breaking route from the slot along with cornerback Chris Jackson.
Good example of #Titans defense issues. They only rush 3. Joe Burrow has plenty of time to wait for a WR to get open. Single high safety, there's only one threat deep. Tee Higgins breaks his rte off & moves w/ Burrow. Safety doesn't get to middle of the field. Big gain on 4th & 5 pic.twitter.com/AZEavG4Wr8— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) November 2, 2020
There doesn't seem to be a high level of trust in the secondary. The Titans are consistently playing off coverage to prevent getting beat deep. Receivers get free releases off the line and run routes the exact way it was drawn up in the playbook without being disrupted.
Not having Adoree Jackson has continued to hinder the Titans. Johnathan Joseph was signed to provide a veteran presence, but it's not likely that GM Jon Robinson thought the 36-year old corner would play so many snaps. A knee injury landed Kristian Fulton on injured reserve Saturday. Seventh-round pick Chris Jackson took over the nickel spot as a result.
"You have to coach and play better with whoever is out there. That's the National Football League," Vrabel said.
More consistency in the pass rush
Entering Week 8, the Bengals had given up 28 sacks in seven games. Burrow was forced to line up against the Titans behind an offensive line that was without four of its starters. That should have been a perfect opportunity for Tennessee to bolster a sack total of just seven all season.
The Titans failed to sack Burrow and registered only two quarterback hits.
When they did get pressure, Burrow was able to escape. Jadeveon Clowney had a free run at Burrow when he rushed the middle of the line without getting touched. Burrow spun away from Clowney and completed a pass for a 2-yard gain.
Burrow made four Titans defenders miss in the backfield later in the game, turning what should have been a sack into a 7-yard gain. The Titans can't afford to squander those opportunities.
The sacks simply aren't coming, even though the Titans have invested heavily in pass-rushers Vic Beasley Jr. and Clowney, who have zero sacks between them. They aren't consistently making plays to impact the quarterback, either.
Teams are scoring touchdowns on 80.7% of their trips inside the red zone. The Bengals made five trips inside the Titans' 20-yard line and came away with four touchdowns on Sunday. That's simply too much.
Remember the trust issue in the secondary? That could be a reason why the Titans don't blitz as much.
Teams like to dial up the pressure by using blitz cover zero, which puts the secondary in one-on-one matchups. There are also times when teams will blitz with zone coverage behind it, but that's not used as frequently in the red zone. But the Titans have had mistakes in both zone and man coverage.
Tyler Boyd (83) goes 1st, breaking outside from the #2 spot on the right. Tee Higgins (85) follows. Johnathan Joseph is on the outside and Kareem Orr on the inside (36). The Dbs switch off effectively. Boyd runs an out-breaking route. Joseph doesn't keep outside leverage = TD. pic.twitter.com/ugyUKwsBNr— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) November 2, 2020
For example, a mistake by Joseph led to a 7-yard touchdown catch by Boyd early in the fourth quarter. Joseph was the outside corner lined up over Higgins while Kareem Orr was over Boyd in the slot. Boyd released off the line and ran an outbreaking route while Higgins waited for him to cross before running a vertical route that eventually broke to the outside.
Orr and Joseph did a good job exchanging receivers on the switch release. But Joseph failed to keep outside leverage. He tried to recover and undercut the pass but Boyd beat him for an easy touchdown.
These kinds of breakdowns keep occurring even though the defense can't afford to have them anywhere on the field -- especially in the red zone.