The Tennessee Titans reside atop the AFC at 7-2 after a five game win streak that has seen their defense play excellent football. Tennessee’s last four games have been impressive victories over the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, and most recently the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football. From a pass-rushing perspective, the Titans defensive front of Jeffery Simmons, Harold Landry III, Denico Autry and Bud Dupree is playing as well as any front four in the league over the past month. The Titans have recorded the third-most sacks and interceptions in the league during their five game win streak as their front four has overwhelmed opponents.
Tennessee’s ability to create constant pressure with a four man pass rush has been crucial to their recent success. Football is a numbers game, and every coach would love to generate a consistent pass rush with four rushers which allows for seven defenders in coverage. If a team can’t get home with four rushers, they are forced to bring five or even six, which limits coverage options. By allowing for seven defenders in coverage, the Titans can call any coverage concept in their playbook.
The Titans constantly feature multiple stunt concepts out of their four man sub defensive line with T/E, E/T, and T/T stunts all part of their pressure packages. They also play snaps out of Wide 9 fronts that allow rushers to generate speed and velocity off the edge.
This alignment was particularly effective against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7 as Tennessee put constant pressure on left tackle Orlando Brown and right tackle Mike Remmers. They were able to sack Patrick Mahomes four times and hit him nine times as they limited a talented Chiefs offense to just three points. The Titans did not feature five man pressures in this game (allowing them to leave seven players in coverage), instead showing some four man zone exchange pressures.
During their past four games, the Titans have utilized zone exchange pressures to create pressure on opposing offensive lines. In this scheme, either linebacker David Long Jr. or slot cornerback Elijah Molden (who took on this role against Kansas City) is the fourth rusher. They replace one of the players along the front four who subsequently drops into underneath zone coverage.
In Week 6 against the Buffalo Bills, Landry’s first sack came on an inside stunt during a key third-and-ten on Buffalo’s second possession. Landry was the standup three technique in a Joker alignment and he was the picker/penetrator with Simmons, who was lined up over the center as the 0-technique, deployed as the looper behind Landry.
This front alignment plays to the strength of Simmons, whose power and bull rush ability forces the offensive center to engage with him at the snap, setting up the center to be hit by Landry who waited just a bit before exploding into the center. The coverage behind this inside stunt was something we have seen from the Titans all season: disguised late movement to cover 2 Tennessee’s coverage out of dime was disguised late movement to cover 2, with the objective of making the quarterback a post-snap decision maker, deciphering and processing as he is dropping and setting in the pocket. That’s a lot to deal with when you’re facing quick inside pressure.
Tennessee’s Week 8 game against the Indianapolis Colts saw a T/E stunt featuring Landry and Autry run to great success. On third-and-six in the second quarter, the Titans came out in dime cover 4 with a four man pass rush. Autry was the penetrator and Landry the looper, and they executed the stunt brilliantly. Autry forced the offensive guard to turn to the sideline, and Landry did a great job selling the up-field edge rush before looping back behind Autry. Colts running back Jonathan Taylor was offset to Landry’s side and prepared to chip him but Landry disappeared inside on the stunt.
The overlooked part of the play was the coverage. The colts ran the drive concept – shallow cross-dig. Kevin Byard read it and squeezed the dig, taking away the throw for Carson Wentz. Back to Autry. Over the last month, Autry has played very well as an inside pass rusher in the Titans sub fronts. He has consistently shown the ability to win one-on-one against offensive guards and has now registered 3.5 sacks in the last three games. Meanwhile, Landry ranks third in the league with nine sacks, 6.5 of which have come during the Titans five game win streak.
Against the Rams in Week 9, the Titans were able to limit an explosive offense to just 16 points as they recorded five sacks, 11 quarterback hits and two interceptions. Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford had been outstanding out of empty sets through the first eight games of the season, but completed nine of 15 attempts for just 81 yards and was sacked three times out of empty sets against the Titans.
The Rams’ first snap out of empty resulted in an Autry sack as the Titans ran a multiple stunt concept. A T/T stunt was combined with a T/E stunt as Autry looped into the A gap and beat right tackle Rob Havenstein, who was trying to slide laterally with Autry. Autry continued his play as one of the most dominant defensive lineman in the NFL over the last month with the ability to line up at both defensive end and defensive tackle depending on the Titans front alignment. The Titans’ high frequency of multiple stunt concepts with their four man defensive line pressures continued against the Rams, and was again successful.
Simmons was dominant against the Rams, especially in the first half. On his first sack, he took advantage of Autry beating right guard Austin Corbett and forcing Stafford off his spot. Simmons’ second sack saw him drive left guard David Edwards right into Stafford as the Rams were in an empty set. That was some serious country strength. His third sack came out of a loaded front (3 defensive linemen aligned to one side of the offensive center) as he ran a stunt with Dupree. As the picker/penetrator, Simmons beat center Brian Allen so quickly that he ended up recording the sack.
Tennessee’s coverage over the past few weeks has been a mix of man and zone coverage. Against the Rams, the Titans played predominantly man coverage when in dime and mostly zone coverage when in nickel. They intercepted Stafford twice in the span of 15 seconds, returning the first one to the two yard line and the second one for a touchdown. On the pick-six, out of nickel, safety Kevin Byard had an undefined look pre-snap and dropped down as the flat defender in cover 3.
He read Stafford on the quick game speed out throw to wide receiver Robert Woods, showing recognition and reaction skills as he returned the interception 24 yards for a touchdown. There is no question that Byard is one of the best and most instinctive safeties in the NFL with his recognition of formations and routes, and his uncanny ability to read both routes and the quarterback.
The Titans have found that Landry and Bud Dupree off the edge with Simmons and Autry inside is their best sub front pass rush. Their individual talents combined with a scheme that features multiple front alignments and multiple stunt concepts has been the driving force behind their recent defensive success and been a key part of their consecutive wins over talented teams.
With star running back Derrick Henry out for the foreseeable future, Tennessee’s defense is more crucial than ever. The pressure their defensive linemen have been able to generate allows them to play coverage with seven defenders and that will continue to be essential as the NFL season starts the second half.
Aadit Mehta contributed to this story