NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Most people outside of the walls at St. Thomas Sports Park, where the Tennessee Titans are headquartered, felt the sky was falling when MVP-candidate Derrick Henry was ruled out for the season because of a foot injury.
Players and coaches acknowledged the loss of their star running back was significant when asked about the NFL's leading rusher. But they vowed to maintain their "next man up" mindset that has been applied to every other injury this season.
Like their gritty coach, Mike Vrabel, the Titans (7-2) seem to rise to the top when they're facing the most adverse situations, which had them sitting atop of the AFC standings after nine weeks.
"We have a lot of guys that no matter what the situation is we are going to fight until the end," defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons said. "We knew that a lot of people were doubting us, that everyone was having thoughts without Derrick. We miss Derrick, it sucks that he got hurt. But one thing about it, defense wins championships."
Tennessee's defense is rounding into shape at just the right time. It stifled the Kansas City Chiefs in a 27-3 victory in Week 7. Most recently, the Titans held the Los Angeles Rams to 16 points in a 12-point win, with the Rams' only touchdown coming when the game had already been put away.
The recent surge in turnovers caused by the Titans' defense is one of the primary reasons the team is winning. Tennessee's defense had caused two turnovers through the first four games, and at one point, David Quessenberry, an offensive linemen, led the team in forced fumbles.
The Titans use a ball disruption period during practice which focuses on knocking the ball out of a ball carrier's hand or catching deflected passes. The focus paid off in Week 5 when safety Kevin Byard picked up a fumble caused by Elijah Molden and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown on the Titans' first defensive series of their 37-19 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Tennessee forced two turnovers in that game. The Titans would go on to force 11 turnovers over the next six games, winning each of their matchups.
During that stretch, Byard had five interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, had a forced fumble and returned a fumble for a touchdown. The veteran safety was named the Defensive Player of the Month in October and is now a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Byard's forced fumble against the Chiefs, when he punched the ball out of quarterback Patrick Mahomes' hand, is an excellent example of the results coming to the forefront.
"You can look at Kevin Byard’s ball production," Vrabel said. "We have tried to study that, and there are other guys that are doing it, it is just that Kevin has been doing that really well as far as stabbing through the pocket and not swatting. All these techniques that we see make the difference between making a play and not making a play. Again, it is the player that goes out and does it, it’s just as coaches, you try to find ways to help them improve. When you do that, there is a sense of buy-in from the player that this stuff is working."
Byard said they are gaining confidence from what they are putting on tape. The things that are discussed in the classroom and harped upon on the field have led to positive results on game day.
As a result, the Titans' defense isn't giving up as many big plays. After giving up six passing plays of 40 yards or more over the first six games, the secondary hasn't allowed any such plays since.
The defense is forcing teams to kick field goals in the red zone. Over the last three games, Tennessee's defense has allowed opposing offenses to score touchdowns on 45% of their red-zone visits, which is the sixth-best over that span.
"Some games, the offense doesn't play well and the defense has to hold it down or vice versa," Byard said. "It's all about being a team and not about saying the defense won everything."
"It just makes it that much more fun for us, knowing we have to make more plays," linebacker Bud Dupree added. "At the end of the day, it's something that we know we have to put on our shoulders. Just knowing Derrick was a big key to the offense, we've gotta be sure we make up for it."
For the Titans' front four, the additions of Dupree and Denico Autry via free agency have paid off in a major way.
Tennessee finished with 19 sacks last season, placing them 30th in the NFL. The Titans already have 23 sacks through nine games this season.
Harold Landry III has elevated his game and is converting pressures to sacks. It's kind of like a middle reliever in baseball that becomes a light's out closer.
Landry's 34 quarterback pressures last season were the 13th-most in the NFL. But he finished with 5.5 sacks. Through nine games, Landry has nine sacks, tying his career high for a season.
As for the interior, Simmons turned in a career day with three sacks last Sunday against the Rams. But his biggest play came when he pressured Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford into an ill-advised throw, resulting in a David Long Jr. interception that set up the Titans' first touchdown.
"You don't get sacks unless all 11 on the field are on the same page," Simmons said. "The quarterback had to hold the ball, we get into the pocket. Props to the guys on the back end. That's just like with interceptions. We affect the quarterback, make him throw the ball up and that helps get the interception."
The Titans host the New Orleans Saints (5-3) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) at Nissan Stadium.