The math doesn’t add up.
How can the Tennessee Titans subtract arguably their most dynamic playmaker in Adam “Pacman” Jones away from the last-ranked defense in the NFL from 2006 and be markedly better in 2007?
The answer to that question appears to vary among the members of the Titans defensive unit that gets another test tonight when Tennessee travels to face the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, while cognizant of the improvement from last year, said it is still too early to make an assessment.
“Don’t judge us on two games,” Schwartz said. “Everybody wants to say we’ve improved and everything else. We’re going to be judged on a 16-game season. It’s a long haul and we’re not in the mood for patting ourselves on the back yet. We haven’t done anything yet.”
But in a sense, they have. After ranking 32nd overall last year, including 30th versus the run and 27th against the pass, Tennessee is 17th overall after two games, highlighted by being seventh against the run (78 yards allowed per game) and 24th versus the pass.
“Have we improved so far? I think so, but it’s still too [early],” Schwartz said. “People get too high, too low based on a one-game performance or a two-game performance or something like that.”
One reason, however, for the success is the improvement in the defensive line, which last season produced just 18 of the Titans’ 26 sacks. In two games thus far, the d-line has accounted for all five sacks.
“The guys up front, you’re seeing the fruits of the labor from the previous three years,” Schwartz said. “Those guys are now three or four years in the league. A guy like Kyle [Vanden Bosch] has three years [here]. Continuity is really important, and I think that’s what you’re seeing.”
But even those on the defensive line say it is more of a complete team effort that has helped the Titans turn things around.
“Defense ain’t made by one guy. It’s made by all,” defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth said. “Pac can play his greatest game, and the other 10 play OK and the defense ain’t gonna be that good. But if the defense plays its greatest game, you’ll see a top performance by all 11 guys on the field.”
Another potential reason is simply the defenders taking pride in improving. The defense set a goal in the offseason to be ranked in the top 10 by season’s end statistically.
“We have a little more chemistry,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “We got to play a whole season together last year and make a lot of mistakes and a lot of good plays. At the end of the season, we didn’t come out where we wanted to be. We were dead last, and we knew we were better than what we showed.
“We’ve kind of made it one of our missions to go up at least 22 spots.”
Still, losing Jones, who was beginning to come into his own as a shutdown corner, to a season-long suspension in April has to hurt, right?
“It’s not they said in July that Pac wasn’t going to be with us and we had to scramble,” Bulluck said. “We knew early that Pac wasn’t going to be with us, and everyone else was able to make adjustments to meet the team’s needs.”
Maturity is a factor as well. Newcomers from a year ago like linebacker David Thornton and Chris Hope have another year in the system. First-time starters Cortland Finnegan and Calvin Lowry are homegrown players with a full year in the scheme as well, along with savvy additions like Nick Harper and Ryan Fowler.
“I remember those days of playing with great players who knew everything and tell you what to do instead of going with players who just got in the league and are just trying to find a clue,” Bulluck said. “Now with having a lot of people on the same page, I think it’s the making of a good defense and a great football team.”
The Titans also have continued to replenish the roster with depth, adding seasoned veterans like Kelly Herndon, Bryce Fisher, Gilbert Gardner and Corey Simon to be backups when inevitable injuries hit.
But as much as anything, Hope says the change harkens back to attitude and desire, something he has worked to change since joining the Titans a year ago. It’s better, but still not a finished product, he says.
“We’re still not all the way there yet, but when I first got here, you had a lot of people walking off the field and people not finishing plays [in practice],” Hope said. “I was in Pittsburgh watching Jerome Bettis, Joey Porter and Hines Ward and all those guys, so when I got here it was depressing, and it was a direct result of how we played. You play like you practice, and once we continued to harp on it — I know it got aggravating hearing my voice sometimes — but once we started believing that and everybody tried to pick it up, it made us that much better. We’ve still got a long way to go. A lethargic practice carries over to the game. You think you can turn it on on Sunday, but you can’t do it in this league.”
But taking care of the little things is starting to add up for the Titans.
“A lot of the guys want to be part of the reason that we’re being better and playing better,” Hope said. “There are a lot of guys that take it upon themselves to go out and be a difference maker. It’s not just ‘cover my own behind and I’m cool.’ When your teammate comes [up] short sometimes, everybody’s got their back.”