You don’t need to remind Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen of what happened on third down last season. Of the historically bad efficiency in those situations. Of the pass-rush woes and coverage lapses that fueled an inability to get off the field.
Last season was last season, Bowen has stressed. So the areas for improvement are looked at from a different perspective.
“Now that we are kind of into 2021, it is more areas of emphasis for us,” Bowen said last month. “It is not about last year, it is about this year. We have to make sure third down, red zone, turnovers continue. We make sure we emphasize those things, but last year is over. We are a new team. We’ve got a lot of new pieces. Half the guys in our defensive room weren’t here last year. Understanding as a unit the areas that we struggled in, we are going to make a big emphasis on this early on, but we have to be better here.
“If we are better here, then it is going to carry over to be better throughout a lot of different areas defensively.”
NFL COACH HOT SEAT RANKINGS: Matt Nagy, Zac Taylor on notice ahead of Week 1 in 2021
‘HE PLAYS LIKE A VET’: Why Patriots players believe in starting QB Mac Jones
That progress has showed entering this season.
The Titans’ defense flashed encouraging signs for 2021 in the preseason, even if it came against second- and third-string offenses. It marked a positive development for a unit that was the team’s Achilles heel in 2020.
Tennessee finished the preseason ranked No. 1 in total defense, allowing just 199 yards per game. The defense gave up only three touchdowns in three exhibition games, including none through the first two. Opponents were held to 7 of 36 on third down (19.4%).
The defense won several practices in training camp, too. Team defenders, returners and newcomers spoke of the confidence and swagger the unit is playing with.
One big difference with the group entering 2021? A more aggressive mindset. Bowen said players have taken to heart winning one-on-ones, whether at the line of scrimmage or in pass coverage.
Off-man coverage on third down was a frustration for safety Kevin Byard last season. The team’s defensive backs are doing a better job of challenging receivers, he said.
“The communication has definitely been there,” Byard said last month. “Honestly, the way I look at it, third down is the money down, especially for a DB. You go out there and you challenge receivers, especially if it’s third-and-short, third-and-medium. You go out there, more than likely it’s going to be man coverage or whatever it’s going to be. You go out there and you challenge a guy and go win 1-on-1. That’s the big thing.
“And then with the pass rush, go get the quarterback,” he continued. “You can play a lot of different defenses and kind of switch it up in different ways, but that’s the bottom line, ‘Pass rush, go get the quarterback,’ and ‘DBs, go challenge receivers and go win 1-on-1s.
“Last year, I feel like we were pretty terrible as far as challenging receivers, being tight,” Byard added. “It was a big thing when we were playing off on third-and7 or whatever, guys were 9 yards off, stuff like that. So that’s been a big difference this year. But we have to go out there and put it all together when real ball starts.”
Bowen, who was promoted to defensive coordinator in January, agreed with sentiments during the summer that having a clearly defined role has reaped rewards for the entire defense. When coach Mike Vrabel didn’t name a defensive coordinator last season, Bowen doubled as the de facto play-caller and outside linebackers coach.
Bowen has found comfort this season in being able to bounce around to different defensive meeting rooms. If the defensive backs see something one way, for example, he can go to the linebackers room and communicate that so everyone is on the same page.
“I want to make sure they are hearing what they want and then when we go into the unit room, they better be able to spit it back and I know they then have got it covered,” Bowen said. “I think building the relationships with guys, that is a big part of it. That last year I don’t think was there, whereas this year it is growing and it is becoming a bigger piece for me.”
The efforts to improve defensively started personnel-wise in the offseason. The unit was overhauled, highlighted by the acquisitions of former Steelers pass rusher Bud Dupree in free agency and selecting cornerback Caleb Farley in the first round in the draft. New veterans Denico Autry and Jackrabbit Jenkins will step into starting roles, too. And third-round rookie Elijah Molden is expected to be the No. 1 nickelback.
But the Titans have also pointed the finger inward. When the opponent is at second-and-long, keeping it there. Being fully set before the ball is snapped. The little things.
The progress was there in exhibition play.
Will it be carried into the games that count?
“Any time you have another opportunity at improving yourself individually and improving as a defense, I think there’s a lot of sense of urgency to do that this year,” inside linebacker Rashaan Evans said last month. “I’ve been seeing a lot, a lot of great things from a lot of players on that defensive side.
“The No. 1 thing we got to do now is take exactly what we’ve been doing this preseason and take it into the regular season and be consistent.”
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: How Tennessee Titans zeroed in on fixing biggest flaw this summer