NASHVILLE – Over and over and over again through the season’s first several weeks, Mike Vrabel stressed the importance of forcing turnovers.
The Tennessee Titans coach ribbed his defense early, noting repeatedly that offensive lineman David Quessenberry – at one point -- led the team in forced fumbles.
Vrabel went the analytical route as well, pointing out how difficult it was to regularly stop opposing defenses without forcing turnovers from time to time.
But what better way for Titans defenders to learn than by watching a team captain put on a takeaway clinic?
Safety Kevin Byard has done that especially well in the last three games – all victories – as he’s scooped and scored a touchdown following one fumble recovery, intercepted two passes, and forced a Patrick Mahomes fumble that was recovered by teammate Matthias Farley.
Overall, Byard literally has had a hand in five of the Titans’ eight takeaways, adding an interception in the season opener to the four previously referenced.
“He’s our leader. He runs the show,” defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “He’s our communicator, and he’s getting himself in position to make some plays and he’s making them. That’s what we expect of him. That’s what he expects of himself and it’s kind of showing up right now, so hopefully it will continue.”
This season’s numbers have been a relief for Byard, considering how big a role he traditionally has played in forcing turnovers. From 2017 through 2019, Byard intercepted 17 passes and recovered two fumbles, earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in 2017 when he had eight interceptions and the two fumble recoveries.
Then came 2020, a down year for both the defense as a whole and Byard in particular. He intercepted just one pass and forced one fumble, undoubtedly part of the reason the Titans finished with the league’s 28th-ranked defense, surrendering an average of 398 yards – and 27.4 points – per contest.
“There’s a ton of excuses I can make (about last season) – COVID, all this other stuff,” Byard said. “I just didn't feel like I was playing my best self last year. I really took all that in and just grew from it. I think just my mentality is a lot different now. It was kind of humbling a little bit.”
Byard turned his disappointment into motivation, calling the past offseason the most important of his career for physical and mental growth, and saying he came into the 2021 season with a different mindset.
Things looked different on the field as early. In Week 1, Byard picked off Arizona’s Kyler Murray and set up the offense for a touchdown. Overall, the Titans have scored 24 points following the turnovers Byard had a hand in. The only one of the five that didn’t lead to points was his game-ending interception against Jacksonville in Week 5.
“I think I’m playing faster, just seeing the ball, playing more free,” Byard said. “I’m not concerned about other stuff that’s going on around. I’m kind of in a zone right now. I’ve just got to keep that going and hopefully I can get as many turnovers as I can to help this defense.”
It was Byard’s intent to create a turnover that was especially evident against the Chiefs. When Mahomes scrambled out of the pocket late in the second quarter -- carrying the ball away from his body as usual -- Byard not only tracked the quarterback down but used his left arm to slap the football free. Farley recovered it in front of a fired-up Tennessee sideline, players overjoyed the Chiefs wouldn’t grab any momentum headed into halftime.
“All the time I was running over there, you know I was seeing bad, poor ball security,” Byard said. “So I was thinking I could get close enough to try and hammer it out.”
Byard actually came close to forcing another Mahomes turnover on a similar play early in the fourth quarter. He tracked down the Chiefs quarterback on a scramble toward the right sideline this time, corralling him with his right hand and very nearly knocking the football out with the left.
Expect Vrabel to reference that play in film work this week – not in a critical way.
“Those are the ones we have to show, the ones that maybe don’t get (the ball) out, but (show that players) are making an attempt,” Vrabel said. “Those are the ones that you have to continue to preach and show them like, `Hey, this one is actually better than the one you got out because now you are aware of it, and you are focused on it.’”
Another case of the captain leading by example.