How the Titans' defense can solve its Achilles heel: third downs

The Titans brought in aggressive corners such as Jackrabbit Jenkins this offseason to better challenge receivers. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans' defense allowed opposing offenses to get first downs on 51.9% of their third-down opportunities last season. That was the high percentage given up over the last 30 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

"I think it has been emphasized for us all of training camp and all of the offseason," defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said of getting better on third downs.

Added coach Mike Vrabel: "It is about trying to play better when you have them at second-and-long and keeping them there."

Getting better on third downs essentially comes down to three things for the Titans:

Challenging wide receivers

Safety Kevin Byard said the Titans were "pretty terrible as far as challenging receivers" last season. The defensive backs allowed far too many free releases.

They played off the ball in situations where they should have utilized tighter coverage. That is something Byard expects to change.

"Third down is the money down, especially for a DB," Byard said. "You go out there and challenge receivers, especially if it's third-and-short, third-and-medium. More than likely it's going to be man coverage. You just have to go win one-on-one."

Bowen agreed the mentality as a unit had to be focused on challenging receivers. Being more aggressive can disrupt the timing of the passing game and buy a little more time for the pass rush to get to the quarterback.

A lot of the quick passes can be negated by aggressive coverage, causing the quarterback to hold on to the ball a little longer.

Communication, confidence mesh with playing aggressive defense

In the secondary, communication helps defend teams that employ bunch formations and run rub routes to free up receivers against tight coverage.

Defensive backs use hand signals to designate who is taking the receivers who are breaking outside versus breaking inside against bunch formation. Sometimes offenses add motion to make it more confusing.

That's where play recognition from film study allows defenders to be confident they'll know what to expect.

"A lot of it is about anticipating," Vrabel said of the communication. "A lot of times you will see motion to those types of things. That may help us if we can anticipate what the next step might be. Like, ‘OK, it looks like it is going to be half of a bunch over here; where is that other piece going to come from? Will it come from the running back in the backfield? Is it going to come from the receiver on the other side?’"

Confidently communicating what to expect when offenses use formations and motion is the best way to stop well-schemed third-down plays. It also requires trust that teammates will be in the spot they need to be in to make the plays.

That goes for all three levels of the defense, especially in Week 1, when they face a dangerously mobile quarterback in the Arizona Cardinals' Kyler Murray.

"Maintain rush lanes, communicate better up front," defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons said. "Mobile quarterbacks can scramble and make big plays by getting outside of the pocket or stepping up in the middle of the pocket and finding guys down the field. That's on the defensive line."

The Titans were implementing a new scheme last season after former defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired, so getting on the same page was difficult.

With a full season under their belt in Bowen's scheme, the Titans' defense should be able to draw confidence from their familiarity, which in turn should make it more effective for them to communicate before and after the ball is snapped.

Personnel changes

GM Jon Robinson brought in some new faces. Edge-rusher Bud Dupree should give the pass rush a tremendous boost.

Defensive lineman Denico Autry was also added to help make the front more aggressive. Rookie Rashad Weaver rounds out the group of new pass-rushers. Weaver and Autry may have additional roles in third-down situations.

The Titans used Weaver as an interior rusher at times during the preseason. Weaver said he welcomes the opportunity to use his length against interior offensive lineman.

Autry worked with the outside linebackers a few times during the individual period of practice just in case Bowen wants to utilize him as a stand-up rusher.

Adding Jackrabbit Jenkins gives the Titans a corner who is eager to press receivers at the line. His feisty coverage is ideal for a team that wants to be more aggressive.

Rookie Elijah Molden came on strong toward the end of camp and figures to see significant snaps as the nickelback. Molden is already making calls and adjustments in the secondary before the snap during practice, which is an example of the much-needed communication the team lacked last year.

But it's nothing new to Molden, who said he studied former Titans standout nickel defender Logan Ryan's game and practice snaps.

"At Washington, the defense runs through the nickel, so I was comfortable communicating," Molden said. "It's similar here, but I think that comes with confidence. You make a couple of plays, and the next thing you know, you're able to see the big picture of the defense."

Although he isn't a newcomer, linebacker David Long Jr. has gotten more time on the field on third downs during the preseason. In two games, Long delivered a number of pass breakups and a diving interception.

"He [Long] has come in, and he has always been an instinctive player for us," Bowen said. "I think he is more consistent right now. And on third down, I think he brings a different element for us, just in some of his coverage abilities in zone coverage, and some of his man stuff, and just being able to blitz."