What a difference a pass rush makes.
A year after being much maligned for finishing last overall in total defense, the Tennessee Titans have a complete about-face defensively.
The Tennessee defense has not only helped to cover for an offense that has struggled to produce points, but has taken over games with its play in the Titans’ 6-2 start.
The numbers bear out the improvement in the play of the defensive line and the defense overall this season compared to last.
Through eight games, the Titans have 13 interceptions after having just 17 all of last season.
As for sacks, Tennessee’s front four has already surpassed last season’s total produced by the defensive line. In 2006, the d-line produced 18 of the Titans’ 26 quarterback sacks; This season, Tennessee has 22 sacks as a team through eight games and the line has been credited with 20 of them.
The players in the secondary are quick to credit the line’s play with the improvement in their numbers, especially with three of the four main starters in the secondary being different from a year ago.
“The front four, enough said,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. “Those guys have been doing a wonderful job and giving us a chance on the back end, and we’ve been making the plays we need to make.”
Not only are the Titans making the plays that need to be made by grabbing more interceptions, they are surrendering fewer big plays than they did a year ago. Through the first half of this season, Tennessee has surrendered 11 pass plays of 25 yards or more. Last season, the Titans yielded 30 plays of 25 yards or more through the air, and the confused look of members of the secondary wore after many of those plays occurred last year has all but disappeared this season as well.
Extra work, preparation and competition have helped eliminate much of that.
“Some games we felt like we were the weak link, and we’re always trying to improve by working extra after practice, so we can be a solid defense,” Finnegan said. “I think it’s been more like our film work and competition, because that guy behind you is always ready to take your job.”
Other than a couple of breakdowns in Tampa Bay and Houston, the deep pass has rarely bitten the Titans in 2007.
“During the OTAs, [defensive backs] coach [Chuck] Cecil put up a diagram that gave percentages, and it said that when a team has a passing play over 20 yards, their chances of scoring a touchdown increases by like 50 or 60 percent,” nickelback Vincent Fuller said. “And if they don’t, their chances of going on a drive and scoring a touchdown decreases. That comes from the secondary. If you don’t give up a big play, teams have less chance of scoring.”
And some of that credit goes to the pass rush as well, says defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
“We’ve had a couple of them come up this year, but the pass rush is good enough that you don’t see it,” Schwartz said. “We’ll have a guy that maybe got loose, and one group will sort of cover up another.”
That the secondary has benefited from the rush is certain, but defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said strong play on the back end has also helped the defensive line of late.
“I think early in the season we weren’t getting as many sacks, but we were getting a lot of pressure and hits on the quarterback and they’re throwing the ball up for grabs,” Vanden Bosch said. “We were getting a lot of pressure interceptions. Now lately, it’s been more coverage sacks. It works both ways. They’ve done a good job of covering, giving us a chance to get more sacks. It’s kind of turned around a little bit.”
Much like the play of the entire defense.
INJURIES: Benji Olson sat out a second straight day with a sore back.
“It acted up a little bit last week, but it’s nothing different than usual,” said Olson, in his 10th NFL season.
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (hamstring) and defensive end Travis LaBoy (concussion) did not practice again Thursday, as did linebacker LeVar Woods (team decision). Ryan Fowler (shin) was back after being sidelined on Wednesday, while the Titans elected to back down Chris Brown (ankle) after he practiced fully on Wednesday. LenDale White (toe) was limited for the second straight day.