3 Keys For the Jaguars' Defense Against the Titans, Tannehill and Henry
The Jacksonville Jaguars shocked the NFL world this past Sunday when they defeated Philip Rivers and the Indianapolis Colts. Yet it will be the next matchup when the Jaguars defense really learns who they can be in the 2020 season, as the Jags travel to Nashville to take on divisional opponents, the Tennessee Titans.
“We’re going to find out exactly where we’re at. It’s early on in the year, but it’s a good measuring stick to see where we’re at right now,” admitted Defensive Coordinator Todd Wash to reporters on Thursday.
The Jags split the series with the Titans in 2019, winning the Week 3 matchup 20-7. When the latter part of the series rolled around on November 24, the Titans—and for that matter the Jaguars—both had different quarterbacks (Marcus Mariota and Gardner Minshew II faced off in the September game; Ryan Tannehill and Nick Foles were in place for the November game).
So what can be learned from that Week 3 win? Or the late season loss? And of course, from the Titans 2020 season Week 1 win against the Denver Bronco’s?
Todd Wash and defensive end Josh Allen help explain the strategy with these three defensive keys for the Jaguars defense versus the Tennessee Titans.
Stop Derrick Henry
This is easier said than done. Safety Josh Jones didn’t try to understate the importance either, telling reporters on Thursday, “we know a majority of their offense runs through him. To be able to stop him and to hold him to less than what he’s used to, it will be big for our defense.”
But how does one stop the NFL’s 2019 rushing leader?
“You hit him,” Allen plainly stated.
“Hit him hard, hit him fast, hit him early. Basically, just hit him as hard as you can before he takes off running. It’s easier said than done, sure. But we have a good game plan this week, so we’re real confident on him and the offensive line.”
The familiarity with the offensive line brings a modicum of comfort to Allen, given that he’s seen them twice already in his young career.
“I mean, it’s the same offensive line. You know, they had—well, this is my second year playing, so it’s basically the same offensive line. I’ve played against [Dennis] Kelly already. So, it’s relatively the same, basically. You know, they’re a good offensive line. I mean, you have to be a good offensive line when you’ve got a back like that in the backfield. So, I’m excited about this challenge, but like I said last week, I’m worried about us and I feel comfortable.”
There is also the familiarity with Henry himself that can be a positive on Sunday, at least according to Wash.
“[In] the first game, I thought we played pretty well. I’m thinking in the first half of last year’s second game we played pretty well. I think it was 7-0 at the half and then the wheels kind of fell off, but I think that’s a little bit of credit obviously to Tennessee.”
The first game, they did play “pretty well” by statistical standards, holding Henry to 44 yards on the ground. For comparison, he averaged 96.3 all of last season. It was his second worst performance of the entire season. He averaged 2.6 yards per carry that first game, with a long rush of 11 yards.
“We play them twice every year, so we’re kind of used to that,” Allen said of Henry and the Titans.
"And we’re just excited for this matchup. Again, I feel like a lot of guys still are doubting us and our talent level on this team, on this roster, actually. It’s an exciting weekend, I’m excited to play against him.”
Contain Tannehill’s Play Action
According to research compiled by Matt Harmon of Yahoo! Sports, Tannehill lead NFL quarterbacks in quantifying play-action passes, i.e. led or was high in completion percentage, passer rating and adjusted yards per attempt. He was ninth in the league on the total number of play-action passes, executing a play fake on 26.6 percent of his 2019 drop-backs.
Having a back like Derrick Henry helps since the Jags defense will have to respect the run. But they can't take their eyes off Tannehill either, as Wash explains.
“I think the quarterback really thrives off his play action game and they do a lot of things to try to get the guys at the second level to suck up at the line of scrimmage and take some shots over the top or right over basically the outside part of the tackles and everything like that.
"So, [the] play action game. [Ryan] Tannehill does an extremely good job with the play fake the offense does. The play action game is really predicated off of the run game, but that’s the thing that really concerns you. He’s a high percentage type player. He makes really good decisions, so the play action game is a big concern.”
Off of the play-action, Tannehill can begin to pick and choose his spots from options spread across the field. Receivers like A.J. Brown—who was in the Top 25 in the NFL of receivers with most yardage, and No. 14 in yards after the catch— or Corey Davis along with slot receiver Adam Humphries can cut underneath the defense.
"That's the challenge that this team poses," explains safety Andrew Wingard.
"They got a great offensive line, a great running back in Derrick Henry obviously, and they're gonna run the run the crap out of the ball and that's the hardest part is your, you got to be able to stop them and get them to you know 2nd and eight and stuff like that.
"But that's when you know, [they] fake it and you got A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, you know, coming over the top. So, like I said, we got a lot of respect for them. They do their stuff really well and you got to be prepared to stop both of those so it's gonna be big on—more me being the free safety—it's going to be big on me, you know, eliminating those explosive past plays. And if we can stop the run, then we're gonna be in business."
Adds Wash, “They have three guys that can really obviously hurt you in the pass game and then they have a vertical threat. So, they’re a very talented group. They’re big, they’re strong, and they’re physical and we have to do everything we can with these play actions to try to get our hands and disrupt some routes.
"They’re totally different from what we’ve seen last week and it’s going to be a good challenge for our corners to see how they match up with those guys. They’re some of the cream of the crop in the league.”
Worry About Themselves
And finally, worry about themselves. As cliche as it sounds, it’s the motto coaches and players are living by as they prepare to play in a place they haven’t won since 2013; Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee.
For Allen, this can be slightly more literal, telling reporters, “I feel like I’ll take my d-line over any offensive line any day and we’re just excited about this weekend.”
For defensive coordinator Todd Wash, that means preparing for a physical battle.
“They wear you down. I think we have the numbers we need to go in there and rotate and stay fresh for 60 minutes. The biggest challenge that we’re talking about [to] our guys is we have to win the physical battle. I think [Titans Head Coach] Coach Vrabel does a great job at developing his team [in] that they are physically going to pound you for 60 minutes. That’s got to be the mindset we have, that we have to come back and counter that and battle them for 60 minutes. Once again, let’s keep this thing close and let’s find a way to win it late.”
But for Head Coach Doug Marrone, the most important aspect of this game plan isn’t necessarily the Titans physicality; it’s focusing on the job they are there to do, not the other team.
“Before I used to look at things like that when you have a lot of guys returning and stuff, but I think, with this team, it’s such a different atmosphere, such a different team and such a young team. At least we’re going up there [and] I know it’s not going to be cold. [In 2017] it was the coldest game I think I’ve been in and I’ve been in some cold places.
"This is our first road game and I’m really curious to see how our young guys on our team play on the road. I mean it’s the first time we’re going on the road, so I’m more concerned just about the operation of that and trying to get into some type of structure for them so this way we can go up there and play well.”