Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw for 294 yards and three touchdowns and was sacked twice for minus-2 yards. Although the Titans didn't select a pass-rusher in the 2020 draft, they invested big money in two free-agent additions.
Tennessee signed former Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr., who had eight sacks in 2019, to a one-year deal worth $9.5 million in March. Then the biggest addition came in September when the Titans reunited coach Mike Vrabel with Jadeveon Clowney, who has 32 career sacks, by signing him to a one-year contract worth up to $15 million.
The Titans planned to pair Beasley with third-year pass-rusher Harold Landry coming off the edge and have Jeffery Simmons collapsing the pocket from the interior. They would also have Clowney lined up in various spots across the defense -- much like he did when Vrabel was the Houston Texans' defensive coordinator in 2017, when Clowney had a career-high 9.5 sacks.
So far, the Titans haven't gotten the game-wrecking plays they were looking for when they added Clowney. He and the rest of the Titans' pass-rushers will need to step it up against the Colts offensive line on "Thursday Night Football" (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network).
Simmons, their 2019 first-round pick, has emerged as the Titans' most impactful pass-rusher. Although he has only two sacks, he is making game-changing plays. Simmons tipped a Gardner Minshew II pass with under a minute left against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2, and it was intercepted by Landry to seal a 33-30 win.
A few weeks later, the Texans scored a touchdown to take a 36-29 lead with 1:51 left in the game. Houston elected to attempt a 2-point conversion to put the game out of reach. Deshaun Watson had Randall Cobb wide open in the end zone. The play would have worked, but Simmons managed to tip the pass. The Titans went on to tie the game on the next drive and win it in overtime.
While Simmons has blossomed, the Titans have fallen short of their goal to develop a tiered pass rush that suffocates the quarterback from the outside and interior.
Simmons said improved communication would help.
"It comes down to coordinating your rushes and making sure you're on the same page," Simmons said. "We do a lot of things that interact with us inside and them guys on the outside and the main thing is communication. That's all we talk about. In order to get a call, you got to give a call. That's what we talk about -- give them a call, I get a call. I get a call, I give them a call, so that's just a big thing -- communication -- for us."
Clowney is the remaining free-agent signing after Beasley was released prior to the Titans' Week 9 win over the Chicago Bears.
Clowney has yet to post a sack, but he does have six quarterback hits. His 25 QB pressures in seven games are the ninth most in the NFL. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Clowney has an 18.9% pass rush win rate (19th in the NFL, second best on the team behind Landry's 19.9%). It's clear Clowney is consistently getting near the quarterback but isn't finishing.
Outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen works on closing on the quarterback with Clowney and the other players in practice during the individual period. Clowney has never been a high-sacks player, but he is known as a disruptive player who impacts the quarterbacks. Clowney has been slowed this season by a knee injury that has caused him to miss practice time and kept him from playing against the Bears.
Through eight games, the Titans have 10 sacks. Landry leads the Titans with 2.5 sacks. The lack of pass rush combined with spotty coverage on the back end has caused the Titans' defense to allow an NFL-worst 55.4% third-down conversion rate.
"Somebody is going to have to whip somebody and make a play," Vrabel said. "Somebody's going to have to rush and win and somebody is going to have to be in tight coverage. What I'm focused on is us improving in those areas that we have to improve on, and part of that is the third down and our ability to affect the quarterback, and with that, hopefully, those sack numbers come up.
"Again, everybody is going to be involved in that -- the coverage, how we run games, how we pressure. All those things are going to go into creating some of those sacks and negative-yardage plays that are critical."
Not all of the blame falls on the pass rush. There are issues with coverage in the secondary -- especially when teams use the quick passing game. If the quarterback can easily hit his first or second read, there won't be time for the pass rush to get home. Opposing offenses were able to do that against the Titans because the soft coverage they were using wasn't disrupting the timing for the passing game.
The coverage was vastly improved last week against the Bears. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Titans posted three sacks, which were the most they had in a game this season. The addition of cornerback Desmond King via a trade with the Los Angeles Chargers helped. King was solid in coverage in the slot. Tennessee also got solid play on the outside from Malcolm Butler and Breon Borders.
The defensive staff has started to attack opposing offenses more aggressively by using safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Kevin Byard to blitz. As King gets more acclimated to the Titans' scheme, expect to see him being used in the blitz package, as well.
"He's got a different skill set than some of the guys we've got here," Bowen said of King. "[Blitzing from nickel] takes an instinctive dude. You have to know how to get around certain guys. It takes instincts at the point of attack and the timing, understanding snap counts, how to disguise, and the physicality when you're sending a smaller dude in there against a bigger guy. Kind of having that innate ability to do it and having done it before, that stuff is going to help him."
The Colts' offensive line is one of their strongest units; it has allowed eight sacks this season. The Colts didn't give up a sack in their 24-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens last week, but their passing game struggled because quarterback Philip Rivers was under attack from Baltimore's blitz.
The Titans' secondary isn't as good as Baltimore's, but Tennessee's defensive staff should trust the guys on the back end to hold their own and employ a similar blitz package on Thursday. Colts coach Frank Reich knows the Titans are capable of being effective with the blitz.
"They’ve got nice blitz packages," Reich said on a conference call. "They mix them up real well. They disguise well. They have relentless effort, good packages and good players. There's no quote-unquote weak links."