At his season-ending press conference on Jan. 11, a day after the Baltimore Ravens bounced his team from the playoffs, Mike Vrabel faced questions for the final time about who coordinated the defense and if it hurt the unit by not having a titular head of that unit.
The Tennessee Titans coach said the topic took on a life of its own during the season and explained that then-outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen led meetings, walkthroughs and called the defense on game days. He just never had the defensive coordinator title.
On Friday, the Titans gave Bowen just that. Even after the unit Bowen led finished the season as one of the worst third-down defenses in league history, recorded the third-fewest sacks in the league and finished 28th against the pass, he deserves this vote of confidence.
He gets another shot at the job because the Titans’ struggles had just as much to do with underperforming players, disappointing injuries and personnel decision failures – if not more – than it did coaching. All of those factors overwhelmed the defense from start to finish.
In 2019, it was that side of the ball that played an instrumental role in the run to the AFC Championship game. Several players performed at levels they ultimately could not sustain in 2020.
Middle linebacker Rashaan Evans led the team in tackles (139) and tackles for loss (11) in 2019. At the outset of 2020, the 2018 first-round pick talked about Pro Bowl and All-Pro aspirations. None of that came to fruition. Instead, he led the team in penalties -- a lot of costly ones -- instead of tackles (96).
Kevin Byard admittedly did not play up to his standard either. The three-time Pro Bowl safety led the league in interceptions and topped the Titans in that category from 2017-2019. While he topped the Titans in tackles this season with 111, the ball didn’t find his hands nearly as often. He snagged just one interception in 16 games.
Underperforming players were present on all levels of the Titans’ defense. Outside linebacker Harold Landry solidified himself as a legitimate pass rusher in 2019, leading the Titans with nine sacks and 13 1/2 tackles for a loss. This season, Landry did not make as many of those high-impact plays. While he still led the team in both categories, his numbers dipped to 5 1/2 and 10 1/2, respectively.
A series of frustrating injuries plagued the defense from the outset. Hours before the Titans’ Week 1 contest, Adoree’ Jackson landed on injured reserve with a knee injury. The 25-year-old cornerback, who had his fifth-year option picked up in the offseason, missed 13 games and did not practice until late in the season. Jackson made his first appearance in Week 15 and played in the four games that followed, but even then, the injury looked to limit him.
Linebacker Jayon Brown had been a glowing bright spot for the Titans’ defense until an elbow injury ended his season in Week 11. He had led the team with 76 tackles until that point while also contributing five tackles for a loss and one sack.
Free-agent failures coincided with frustrating injuries. The Titans signed Pro Bowl edge rusher Vic Beasley to a one-year, $9.5 million deal in March and were optimistic he would return to the elite level he played at in 2016 with the Atlanta Falcons, when he led the league with 15 1/2 sacks. His addition underwhelmed from the start as he showed up late for training camp, failed a physical due to a knee issue when he arrived and contributed zero sacks in five games. All of it culminated in the Titans releasing him in November.
When the Titans signed Jadeveon Clowney to a lucrative one-year deal weeks before the season started. Many thought it was a move that would put Tennessee’s defense over the top because the three-time Pro Bowl defensive end enjoyed his best season to date in 2017 with the Houston Texans with Vrabel as his defensive coordinator. Those hopes too never surfaced. Clowney played in eight games and, like Beasley, did not record a sack. The No. 1 overall pick in 2014 underwent knee surgery for a torn meniscus in December, effectively ending his season.
While the deficiencies and disappointments certainly carried more weight, small positives came out of the season. The Titans made a handful of big plays in big moments. Cornerback Malcolm Butler had his best season yet as a Titan, finishing tied for the team lead in interceptions (four). His two interceptions in Week 5 against the Buffalo Bills, who went to the AFC Championship game, propelled the Titans to a decisive victory. A late-game stand in Week 11 limited the Baltimore Ravens to a field goal and forced overtime. The defense got off the field after three plays in the extra frame, and the Titans offense promptly won it.
David Long Jr., Brown’s replacement, came on strong at the end of the year, consistently showcasing his fast and aggressive style of play. In six starts -- five in the postseason and one in the regular season, the 2019 sixth-round pick made 45 tackles.
The Titans could have gone another route at defensive coordinator. Instead, they decided to give Bowen another try – and the title.
There is enough evidence to suggest that he was not the source of this season’s problem. There is no doubt, though, that it is job now to fix things.