Glennon: Tennessee Titans did as planned, in an unexpected way
NASHVILLE – In the weeks leading up to the 2021 season, Tennessee Titans fans salivated at the prospect of a high-powered pass attack, eagerly awaited another record-breaking year for running back Derrick Henry, and hoped that the combination of these two would make for a shoddy defense.
Would the sum really be enough to win a second consecutive AFC South title? Or would those defensive holes be too difficult to overcome?
My God, how things have changed from summer to winter.
The Titans are division champions indeed, claiming the crown on Sunday with a 34-3 loss to a Miami Dolphins team that had won seven straight games before the contest.
But who would have guessed that they would do so?
Who would have believed – long before the start of the season – that the Titans would even be in a position to win the division if they had known that Henry would be lost after eight games, that Julio Jones would be a non-factor, that Ryan Tannehill would be? throw more interceptions this season than all but one in his career?
On the other hand, it would have been next to impossible to predict a defense which, on Sunday, held its fourth consecutive opponent under 20 points. A defense that was thrown consistently last season has now allowed a total of 39 points – an average of less than 10 per game – in those four games.
It was a most unexpected route, but here are the Titans – laughing, joking and wearing their AFC South champion swag – after the franchise’s first consecutive division titles since the early 1960s.
” It smells good. It’s great, ”said safety Kevin Byard. “Watching that fan base embrace this city, embrace the team, that’s been really great. So definitely happy.
“Two-time division champions, but I’m pretty sure everyone who’s coming here is going to echo that we’re not done yet. The season has only just begun. There is a lot more meat on the bone.
So who are these Titans who can claim the AFC’s seed – and the playoff week off – next Sunday with a win over Houston?
Here’s what we know, even if it isn’t what we might have predicted months, if not weeks ago.
The racing game lives on. It was easy to believe that the precipitous attack on the Titans would fall apart in the absence of Henry, the seemingly indestructible king who collapsed with a broken bone in his foot in week 8.
But he’s done more than just survive since then. In recent weeks it has even thrived. Led by D’Onta Foreman’s 132 yards, the Titans ran for 198 yards against a solid defense against the Miami rush.
As of now, three of the team’s best running totals – the other two were 270 yards against New England and 201 yards against Pittsburgh – have come in the past five weeks, without Henry on the roster. Foreman, who was at home sitting on his couch until Henry was injured, crossed the 100-yard mark for the third time in five games.
“There’s always room for improvement, but these guys got high today – (Dontrell) Hilliard, Foreman, (Jeremy) McNichols, they got high,” Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan said. . “They found holes and the boys were blocking. It’s a very good defense. Hats off to the dolphins. They’ve won seven in a row for a reason. Their defense was so dominant. We knew we had a lot to do. I’m proud of it.
The passing game is… efficient. These days, it’s hard to believe Tannehill’s stats against the Dolphins – 13 goals in 18 attempts for 120 yards – were part of a blowout victory. It was actually the fifth straight game the Titans had pitched under 200 yards. But Tannehill did what he needed to do against the Dolphins: threw a pair of touchdown passes against his former team, and he didn’t throw any interceptions – for the third time in four weeks.
Is this the passing attack envisioned with Jones on one side, AJ Brown on the other and a handful of other complementary receivers stepping in? No, this is not the case. But Brown’s presence alone gives the Titans a much-needed playmaker, someone Tannehill can count on when looking for that end of the field or a third-down connection. Brown’s presence also has a ripple effect on the rest of the passing offense, meaning the Titans’ remaining receivers are more likely to win their head-to-head battles.
The defense is shocking. It’s amazing to see so many improvements to one side of the ball in one season. A small example from Sunday’s game: the defense achieved its third game of the season with at least four sacks and two takeaways. Miami’s offense may not rival that of Green Bay or Kansas City, but the Dolphins have never even crossed the Titans’ 20-yard line.
Remember how futile the pass rush was last year, registering just 19 sacks? The Titans have 45 this season, with one more game to go. Remember how difficult it was for the Titans to leave the field last year, when opponents converted the first downs at a staggering 52% rate? In the past four weeks, the Titans have allowed just 13 conversions in 34 attempts, a success rate of just 30% for opponents.
“We kind of know what we are as a defense,” Byard said. “We are not giving up on the big games. The teams can’t throw the ball at us. We feel like we can stop anyone until they run the ball. Guys fly in there and make plays, trying to get the ball out, turnovers and things like that. We’re just a confident bunch.
It remains to be seen if this formula will prove to be enough to push the Titans on to a long playoff streak.
Will the offense have the firepower to keep pace with a shootout with a team like the Chiefs, Bills or Bengals? Will the defense be as good against elite AFC clubs as it is against teams like the Dolphins, Steelers and Jaguars in recent weeks?
We just don’t know the answers to these questions yet.
But we do know this: With one game to play in the regular season, the Titans are exactly where they hoped to be at this point – even if the trip wasn’t what nobody expected.