There’s no clearly dominant team in the AFC right now, but even without Derrick Henry, the Titans have a defense that could set them apart.
The Tennessee Titans were going to be up against it when they faced the Rams last Sunday night, or so it seemed. They were without Derrick Henry, the foundation of their offense as very few running backs have been in the modern era, and given the severity of Henry’s foot injury, that absence could last until the end of the regular season, or even through however far Tennessee makes it through the postseason.
Not great news for a 6-2 team that had the AFC’s top seed, but could easily lose it with a slide that might have started against a Rams offense that was averaging 30.6 points per game through Week 8, and was led by a quarterback in Matthew Stafford and a head coach in Sean McVay who were demolishing enemy defenses with as multi-faceted a passing game as there’s been in the NFL. Asking Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill to keep up with that with Henry out of the picture was a lot. Especially with a defense that came into the Rams contest ranked 20th in Defensive DVOA.
Tannehill played decently in the Titans’ surprising 28-16 win, completing 19 of 27 passes for 143 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, but if there’s one thing we know about Tannehill at this point, it’s that he’s the kind of quarterback who will go exactly as far as scheme and surrounding players will take him. There was no way for Tannehill to compete with Stafford unleashed in the Rams’ offense, so the thought was that the Titans, and specifically offensive coordinator Todd Downing, would have to scheme things up something fierce to get around that limitation. The common perception was that the defense would not do much to help.
It was an earned perception. The Titans ranked 29th in Defensive DVOA last season, and as late as Week 6 of the 2021 campaign, they ranked 28th. Then, things started to turn around rather dramatically. In Week 7 against the Chiefs’ busted offense in a 27-3 win, the Titans limited Kansas City to fewer than 10 points for the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era. Defensive lineman Denico Autry knocked Mahomes out of the game with one of his to sacks, and the score was 27-0 at halftime. Against the Colts in a 34-31 Week 8 overtime win, they took advantage of Carson Wentz’s proclivities for “improvisation” with two interceptions in the last eight minutes of the game.
And then, the masterstroke against the Rams. Over the last four weeks, in wins over the Bills, Chiefs, Colts, and Los Angeles, the Titans have the NFL’s fourth-best defense by DVOA behind only the Cardinals, Rams, and Saints. They’ve gone from 20th to 10th overall in Defensive DVOA in that time, and improved to eighth against the pass. They landed four players on Touchdown Wire’s midseason All-Underrated defense (Autry, interior defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, edge-rusher Harold Landry, and safety Kevin Byard), far more than any other team.
The NFL’s All-Underrated defense in the first half of the 2021 season
If they can keep this up, it might not matter whether Derrick Henry is in the game or not.
How did the Titans improve so quickly on the defensive side of the ball? There have been several burgeoning factors at play.