NASHVILLE – On a cold gray afternoon just about a year ago, the Baltimore Ravens ran the Tennessee Titans right off their home field and straight out of the playoffs.
The Ravens’ 236 rushing yards that day – 136 of them by quarterback Lamar Jackson on just 16 carries – were an extension of a problem the Titans never fixed in 2020, the final illustration of a repeated failure to stop the run.
But the depth of those issues also served to make this season’s rise through the ranks in that department all the more remarkable. Heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale in Houston, the Titans rank number two in the NFL against the run, allowing an average of just 85.9 yards per game.
The 1,374 rushing yards allowed in 2021 is behind only the Ravens’ top-ranked run defense (1,357), meaning a good day for Tennessee against the Texans might push the Titans to the No. 1 run defense for the season. That’s not nearly as important as grabbing the No. 1 playoff seed, obviously, but it’s a goal that the defense – especially the big men up front – would love to attain after getting trampled too often last year. The Titans finished 19th against the run in 2020, surrendering 121 yards per game to opponents.
“We take a lot of pride in stopping the run,” defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons said. “We’re chasing that number one spot … to be the number one run defense.
“The Texans have been running the ball more. They believe in their running backs and apparently their O-linemen because they’re blocking guys. (But) I think that’s the mindset for us. No matter who it may be, we still won’t let nobody run the ball on us.”
The Titans certainly couldn’t have made that claim last season when they allowed 10 teams in 17 games (including the playoff contest) to run for more than 100 yards. In addition to Jackson, Green Bay’s A.J. Dillon (124 yards), Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (181 yards) and Jacksonville’s James Robinson (102 yards) topped 100 yards individually.
This season? Just three teams – Arizona, Jacksonville and New England – managed 100 rushing yards. Robinson (16 carries, 102 yards) is the only rusher who has hit the mark on his own.
The Titans’ run defense arguably has been at its best over the last month during games against Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Miami. Opponents in those contests have averaged a combined 50 yards on the ground and 3.3 yards per carry.
Coach Mike Vrabel did point out that game situations sometimes forced opponents to go to the air more often than they might have wanted. Miami, for instance, found some success running against the Titans in the early going before turning to the passing game because of a large deficit.
“I think stopping the run is about a mentality, being great tacklers and everybody doing their job,” Vrabel said. “I am proud of how we have stopped the run, but I thought there were too many loose runs last week against the Dolphins. They just had to stop running it. There are a lot of things that go into it and not just looking at the numbers that some people love to do.”
There are plenty of factors that have gone into the big turnaround.
Defensive coordinator Shane Bowen has to get some credit. He’s played a larger overall role with the defense than last year, when he spent more time with the outside linebackers.
The addition of defensive lineman/edge rusher Denico Autry has been huge, and the presence of Bud Dupree – though hampered by injury – has helped as well. Bowen noted that the tackling of the secondary also deserves some attention in the improvement against the run game.
“Other than that (first) Jacksonville game, I think we’ve tackled pretty well for the most part,” Bowen said. “I think guys are playing with technique in the run game. They’re square. They’re able to set edges. Guys are getting downhill when they have to get downhill and filling up some gaps. So we’ve been able to really build that wall.”
If the Titans – who will be without two key interior defensive linemen in Teair Tart and Naquan Jones – are able to make up the difference against Baltimore, it would mark the first time since 2001 that Tennessee finished No. 1 in the league against the run.
That would be an impressive accomplishment, made that much more so after last year’s struggles in the trenches.
“I think the D-line guys are all about (finishing first),” Bowen said. “Obviously that’s really what they do – stopping the run and rushing the passer. So … hopefully we can hold them and stop them.”