NASHVILLE – A longtime NFL offensive lineman and current TV analyst, Brian Baldinger knows nasty when he sees it.
So, one could hear the admiration in Baldinger’s voice as he analyzed a video clip of Zach Cunningham against San Francisco last week. In it, the recently acquired Tennessee Titans inside linebacker hurled 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk to the ground like a bag of trash. Aiyuk’s helmet popped off and rolled away during the tackle, and -- for just a brief second -- it was easy to wonder if Aiyuk’s head might have been removed as well.
“It’s hard not to notice the immediate impact Zach Cunningham has had on these Tennessee Titans,” Baldinger said on the BaldysBreakdowns video he posted on Twitter. “It starts with just his overall level of violence that he plays the game with. Like taking Brandon Aiyuk down to the ground. Those types of plays where the bucket is just rolling on the ground … you can’t help but notice him.”
Violence is indeed a word that immediately comes to mind in describing the playing style of the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Cunningham, who’s totaled a combined 10 tackles in two games since the Titans claimed him off waivers from Houston. Cunningham had a team-high six tackles against Pittsburgh and followed up with four – including a tackle for loss – against the 49ers.
Some of those stops, whether it was chucking Aiyuk to the turf or flinging San Francisco running back Jeff Wilson out of bounds following a short completion, have been made with a particularly brutal flourish.
Violence? Sounds about right to Cunningham.
“Yeah, I would say so,” the former Vanderbilt standout said. “It’s something I try to bring to the game, something I try to enforce while I’m out there.”
Defensive coordinator Shane Bowen, whose unit was much improved even before Cunningham’s arrival, loves what the newest linebacker has added. It’s one thing to put up big numbers like Cunningham, whose 160 tackles led the NFL last year. It’s another when some of those hits fire up Cunningham’s new teammates, giving the defense some extra juice.
“I think he arrives in an angry mode, with some intention,” Bowen said. “One thing also I think is that he tries to hit people in the passing game. You see him try to collision guys with some violence in the passing game, which is a huge part of it.
“It definitely adds some swagger. Anytime there’s a big hit, those guys get fired up. I think it adds an element to what we’re doing, and it brings some energy, some excitement, to the group.”
In Cunningham’s two games with Tennessee, the Titans have held the Steelers and 49ers to a combined 118 rushing yards on 38 carries, an average of just 2.9 yards per rush.
Cunningham started both those contests alongside Rashaan Evans, the Titans’ first-round pick in 2018. Whether that tandem will remain the same when inside linebacker David Long is activated from injured reserve remains to be seen. But Cunningham and Evans have proven a good combination, especially against the run. Evans led the Titans with seven tackles against San Francisco and has 12 the past two games. He also forced a fumble.
“I think it’s the fact that we’re both physical players,” Evans said. “We feed off each other really well. Even when we first met each other, we hit it off immediately. I love the way he plays. He runs to the ball. That’s one of the biggest things we teach is running to the ball, swarming to the ball and getting as many hats as we can to the ball. He’s done every bit of that.”
Is it possible that the arrival of Cunningham – in addition to boosting the Titans’ tackle totals and swag factor – has also sparked Evans?
It doesn’t seem out of the question, considering two of Evans’ three best overall grades, per Pro Football Focus, have been earned during the last two weeks.
“I think (Evans) has played well most of the year,” inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett said. “But when you get beside another player that’s pretty darn good, you try to elevate. You don’t want to lag behind … They’re competitive guys. They want to be the best they can, and they’ve got to (measure) up to the guy beside them.”
Baldinger is intrigued by what Cunningham will bring in the future for the Titans, who could clinch their second straight AFC South title with a win on Sunday.
“There’s nothing he can’t do,” Baldinger said. “Cover. Play the screen. Play off blocks. Get guys out of bounds. I mean maybe it’s just being back in Nashville, back to where he went to school. Who knows? But he fit in right away. What an addition Zach Cunningham is going to be for the playoffs.”