The Titans' Defense is Talented, But How Far Can Marcus Mariota Take Them?

Tennessee's aggressive and talented defense could be one of the NFL's most fearsome, but unless their quarterback elevates his game, the Titans will again be in a fight to make the playoffs.
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The 2019 NFL season is just a few weeks away, so Andy Benoit makes a few predictions for each NFL team. Today he evaluates the Tennessee Titans, who finished 9–7 and third in the AFC South last year.

Tennessee attacks with the NFL’s most schematically aggressive and diverse defense. With three quality man or zone corners in Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler, multidimensional safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro, and sharp passing-down linebackers Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown and Wesley Woodyard, the Titans expand their scheme and aim to win by making big defensive plays. The Titans mix and match concepts from coach Mike Vrabel's years as Texans coordinator (five-man fronts, hybrid matchup coverages) and defensive coordinator Dean Pees’s days with the Ravens (six-man double-A-gap fronts, disguised Cover 2 and corner blitzes). By doing so, Tennessee assertively combats any and all styles of offense. They become the rare defense whose disguises reach far enough that zone coverage can look like man-to-man.

Kevin Byard shows why he is football’s best all-around safety. He’s the rangiest pure deep centerfielder besides Baltimore’s Earl Thomas, and he’s even better as a blitzer, box defender and at covering tight ends. Tennessee’s defense is built around their 2016 third-round pick, who was recently rewarded with a five-year, $75 million contract extension.

New coordinator Arthur Smith’s offense is a test for Marcus Mariota, and he doesn’t ace it. Smith, the former tight ends coach, would love to play with two TEs and take a run-first approach that simplifies the defensive looks for the up-and-down Mariota. But tight ends Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith are coming off injuries, and the Titans boast new receivers A.J. Brown (a second-round rookie from Ole Miss) and Adam Humphries (signed from Tampa Bay), as well as rising third-year perimeter target Corey Davis. Their personnel situation pushes Tennessee toward the three-receiver sets in which Mariota, outside of two-minute situations, has been inconsistent. So the Titans’ fate, more than ever, rides on the performance of their fifth-year quarterback, whose mechanics have been historically faulty.

Derrick Henry walks after the season. The thundering fourth-year runner, who surged late last year with 585 rushing yards in the final four weeks (out of 1,059 for the season), comes back to earth, as his limited acceleration and ability to change direction make him overly dependent on his blocking. With the arrival of ex-Rams left guard Rodger Saffold, Tennessee’s outside zone blocking is actually much better than what Henry has seen before, but the increase in three-receiver sets means that versatile lightning-bug tailback Dion Lewis takes more of Henry’s snaps. He is allowed to leave in free agency in 2020.

BOTTOM LINE: A dynamic defense but up-and-down offense leaves Tennessee once again on the Wild Card fringe.

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