NASHVILLE, Tenn. – One of the Titans' biggest defensive priorities last season – if not the biggest – was to avoid surrendering the long pass.
That emphasis paid off pretty well.
In reaching the playoffs for the first time in a decade, the Titans effectively sealed off deep-ball attacks by opponents.
They allowed just 37 catches of 20 or more yards – the third-best figure in the league – and only 10 receptions of 40 or more yards, which was tied for 10th-best in the NFL.
One of the big reasons, of course, was the play of rangy All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, who picked off eight passes and knocked away 16 more in 2017.
When opposing quarterbacks attempted throws of more than 15 yards downfield in any direction, Byard or one of his teammates was in the way more often than not. The Titans recorded nine interceptions and gave up just five touchdowns in those situations, according to sharpfootballstats.com.
So what's the challenge for new Titans coach Mike Vrabel and his staff this year when it comes to pass defense?
It's to clamp down just as impressively against short- to mid-range passes as they did against the longer shots.
Short- and mid-range passes – throws under 15 yards – were a struggle at times for last year's Titans' defense. On third downs, for instance, opposing quarterbacks throwing at those distances totaled 10 touchdowns without an interception against the Titans – and posted a strong quarterback rating to boot.
To that end, the Titans believe a new defensive coordinator, an influx of new pass-defense personnel and another year's worth of experience for defensive back will move the team in the right direction.
We'll start in the secondary, where the addition of free agent Malcolm Butler gives the Titans another top-level cornerback, one who's very familiar with press coverage. The trio of Butler, Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson shouldn't have to give a lot of cushion next season, which should in turn mean fewer receivers open within 15 yards.
Vrabel liked what he saw in OTAs and mini-camp from that threesome, not to mention fourth cornerback LeShaun Sims, who flashed repeatedly during the offseason.
“I go home and I think, `I really hope they're this good,'” Vrabel said at the end of mini-camp. “It's tight coverage.
“Here's what I like. I like when I see individual drills and then I watch practice and I see the same drill, the same movement in the drill translate in practice, whether that be a pass-rush drill, a blocking drill, a coverage drill, a break-and-drive drill. Then I know we've got the right staff, that we've got the right guys that are trying to give players skills needed to win in football, to do their job, to give them confidence to do their job. I have seen that and we need to continue to see that.”
A couple of rookies could also impact the Titans' short- and medium-range coverage if they progress sufficiently.
First-round pick Rashaan Evans is probably a better run-stopper and pass-rusher than he is pass-defender right now, but the inside linebacker certainly has the athleticism and skills to become a three-down player. There's also fifth-round selection Dane Cruikshank, who has the size and speed to play a hybrid safety/linebacker role, covering both tight ends and backs coming out of the backfield.
New defensive coordinator Dean Pees should improve the Titans' short- and mid-range passing defense as well, based on Pees' numbers in Baltimore last season.
The Ravens held opposing quarterbacks to a rating of about 70.0 on throws under 15 yards last season, picking off 16 of those passes while allowing only 10 touchdowns, per sharpfootballstats.com. Baltimore's numbers were even better in those situations on third down, as the Ravens forced a lower quarterback rating while intercepting eight passes.
Should the Titans' shallow coverage reach the level of last year's downfield defense, opposing quarterbacks could be in, well, deep trouble.
-- Reach John Glennon at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.
TitansOnline.com looks back at CB Malcolm Butler's 2018 offseason. (Photos: AP, Donn Jones)