The lack of success from the Tennessee Titans defense was well-documented in 2020.
Yet, Tennessee still won 11 games often in spite of its defensive performances. Now imagine how dangerous the Titans could be if their defense stole a few games for them.
That’s exactly what happened Sunday at Nissan Stadium as Tennessee held off an Indianapolis Colts fourth-quarter rally to hang on for a 25-16 win over its AFC South division rival. It was the second week in a row Tennessee’s defense came up big down the stretch.
What made Sunday’s win all the more impressive wasn’t just that the Titans held the Colts to 265 yards of total offense, or that they silenced running back Jonathan Taylor, who ranked third in the NFL in rushing last season, holding him to just 63 yards on 10 carries.
No, the remarkable part was role players like Dane Cruikshank, David Long Jr., Breon Borders and Ola Adeniyi were Tennessee’s biggest assets with the game on the line. And they weren’t just serviceable, they were exciting.
“We had a lot of contributions from guys that we normally…that play for us but don't play quite as much, and so proud of that,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said.
“We had some guys come in and play some big-time ball,” safety Kevin Byard added. “…It’s huge, you never know when you are going to get your number called. Dane (Cruikshank) got his first start today, played pretty well. It’s just something we believe in, you know? Any time we prepare throughout the week, we tell everybody even if you are on the practice squad you have to prepare like a starter because you never know when your number is going to get called.”
Cruikshank made his first start with Amani Hooker on the shelf, and he did more than just show up. The 26-year-old safety had six tackles, played on all 61 of the Titans’ defensive snaps and eight special teams snaps, and blew up Taylor in the backfield on a blitz in the first quarter that forced Colts quarterback Carson Wentz to rush a throw that ended in an incompletion.
Borders only played three defensive snaps, but he made them count. He came on in the fourth quarter after Kristian Fulton took a big hit, and the Colts targeted him immediately. He broke up a would-be touchdown pass to Zach Pascal on one play, and on a second pass he had Pascal covered tightly again.
“We just talked about big time, just celebrated with Breon,” Byard continued. “Kristian goes down, (Borders) comes into the game and makes two big plays forcing a field goal in the red zone.”
As impressive as both defensive backs were, Adeniyi may have stolen the show. The 24-year-old said last week Titans coaches told him to create a role for himself, and so far, that role is destroyer of quarterbacks. He saw his defensive snaps jump from three against Seattle to 29 against Indianapolis.
Against the Colts, Adeniyi had four tackles, a tackle for loss, three QB hits, 1.5 sacks, and had another sack wiped out due to a defensive penalty. He currently leads Tennessee with 2.5 sacks, and as a unit, the Titans have seven sacks through three games. They had 19 in 16 games last year.
"They brought me here to play special (teams) and that's what I focused on,” Adeniyi said. “We had Bud (Dupree) down, so I had to step up…I'm getting more snaps here. They're giving me a chance to go out there and rush the passer, so I'm going to take full advantage of every rep that I get."
Adeniyi’s success on the opposite side opened the floodgates for Harold Landry, who had a career day rushing the passer. Landry had a half a sack, career-high 12 QB pressures and five QB hits Sunday. His 37.5 percent pressure rate is tied for the third-highest in a single game since 2016, according to NFL’s NexGen Stats.
“I feel like I’m playing my best ball right now,” Landry said. “I’m just doing my part to affect the game.”
Through three games, the Titans defense ranks 16th in yards allowed, 19th against the pass and 13th against the run. They also have the sixth-most QB hurries (11) and are tied for the ninth-most QB pressures (22).
That’s a huge win for a unit that was the No. 28th-ranked defense a year ago.
“We take stuff like that personal,” safety Kevin Byard said of the defensive criticism from last season. “Obviously, we know we didn’t play well last year. We knew coming into this year that was going to be the expectation.
“…So, it proved today. It’s just one of those deals where it’s about being complementary. When the offense is playing well, the defense has got to step up. That’s just team football and that’s what we believe in. So, like I said, that’s a good win today.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_