Despite strong finish, Titans must address 30th-ranked pass rush

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Entering the 2020 season, the Tennessee Titans were determined to upgrade their pass rush. GM Jon Robinson's biggest free-agent moves involved one-year deals to Vic Beasley ($9.5 million) and Jadeveon Clowney ($12.5 million).

Tennessee didn't get a single sack from either player, but Clowney at least provided six QB hits before being placed on injured reserve on Nov. 21. The Titans released Beasley on Nov. 4.

Despite struggling to get home for most of the season, the Titans finished the regular season with four sacks in their 41-28 win over the Houston Texans. Then they posted five sacks in their 20-13 wild-card game loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Free-agent outside linebacker Brooks Reed was added to the practice squad on Nov. 28 and registered sacks in both games.

Ending on such a good note should not distract from the fact they finished the regular season with just 19 sacks (rank 30th) and have to address the pass rush again this offseason.

"We'll have to identify a lot of areas of focus and making sure that we do a great job of bringing guys in here that love football, that are talented, that put the team first, and play with great effort and finish," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said when asked about adding impact pass-rushers. "This league is a grind. Those are the types of players that we're looking for."

With those 19 sacks, Tennessee narrowly escaped a tie with the 1970 Miami Dolphins and the 1982 Atlanta Falcons for playoff teams with the least regular-season sacks (18). The Titans also had a 25% pressure rate which placed them 27th among NFL teams.

This comes after the heavy investment in Beasley and Clowney, who were supposed to help the Titans improve from last season when they finished with 43 sacks. The regression in 2020 was significant.

Trading away defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and not re-signing defensive back Logan Ryan surely took a toll on the pass rush. But the loss of 2019 defensive coordinator Dean Pees stung more than the Titans may have expected.

Pees' impeccable timing when dialing up blitzes or scheming to get pressure was something Tennessee missed all season.

Vrabel didn't name a defensive coordinator to replace Pees, but most of the coordinator duties fell on outside linebacker Shane Bowen. But the defense's regression shouldn't fall solely at his feet. The entire Titans staff has to do better, and they need impact players to execute.

"What we have to do is we have to evaluate every position on our staff as well as on our roster," Vrabel said. "We'll do that and we'll make those decisions that we feel are in the best interest of the football team. That [defensive coordinator] will be one of them."

The Titans will need to move swiftly if they plan to add a new defensive coordinator because there will be competition from other teams with new head coaches that have to fill out their staffs.

After sorting that out, the Titans' first order of business should be adding depth and talent to the outside linebacker group. Harold Landry III, who lead the Titans with 5.5 sacks, played 1,013 defensive snaps (94%) last season despite the team's preseason plan to scale back on his reps to keep him fresh.

Tennessee fielded only three outside linebackers for most of their games. They can't afford to repeat that next season.

Fortunately for the Titans, the 2021 NFL draft class has a lot of potential impact pass-rushers. There will be limited opportunities to get an extensive look at the players due to COVID-19 protocols, but Robinson will get to take a close look at some solid prospects later this month at the Senior Bowl.

The Titans hold the No. 22 pick in the draft which should provide them with a good chance of getting a player to help fill their pass-rushing needs.

Pittsburgh Patrick Jones II and Miami's Quincy Roche are edge defenders who would match what the Titans need. Both of them will be at the Senior Bowl. There are some underclassmen such as Texas' Joseph Ossai and Georgia's Azeez Ojulari who have plenty of pop off the edge as well.

Free agency is another potential avenue for improvement. At 25 years old, Cincinnati Bengals free-agent edge defender Carl Lawson is the kind of young player with upside that Robinson should target.