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Titans' Stingy Defense Gets Stronger with Jeffery Simmons' Return

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned to work on Monday after a much-appreciated bye week and are now deep in their preparations for the next opponent, the Tennessee Titans. The Buccaneers will travel to Nashville for their Week Eight showdown with their AFC South opponent, and while that's a much shorter trip than their pre-bye jaunt to London, it's still the fourth of five straight games away from their home stadium. The Bucs started that long road swing with a rousing win over the Rams in Los Angeles but then stumbled into the bye with consecutive division losses to New Orleans and Carolina.

What the Bucs' next game has in common with the previous two is that they will be going up against a quarterback that didn't open the season as his team's starter. While the Saints and Panthers lost starters Drew Brees and Cam Newton to injuries – and have since thrived behind Teddy Bridgewater and Kyle Allen, respectively – the Titans elected to change course after a Week Six shutout loss to Denver. Out is Marcus Mariota, the second-overall pick in the 2015 draft, and in is Ryan Tannehill, the former Dolphin who came over in a March trade and is now 1-0 as a starter in Tennessee and 43-46 on his career. Tannehill was impressive in his Titans debut, completing 23 of 29 passes for 312 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

After two straight games of failing to crack 300 yards with Mariota under center, the Tannehill-led offense put up a season-high 403 yards on Sunday. However, the Titans' defense has arguably been the more impressive unit so far this season, ranking eighth in net yards allowed per game (328.0), including 10th against the pass and 12th against the run. Tennessee's defense is led by an experienced, ball-hawking secondary that goes at least five deep in proven playmakers – corners Logan Ryan and Malcom Butler, nickel back Adoree' Jackson and safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro. Tennessee's plus-four in turnover margin is tied for the fifth-best in the NFL as Byard and Ryan have already combined for five interceptions. Also, as noted below, the Titans' defense just got their 2019 first-round pick onto the field for the first time Sunday, and he was an instant difference-maker. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will confront against Tennessee in Nashville on Sunday:

TITANS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

Tannehill appeared to make a difference in his first start with the Titans, who called him the "spark" the offense needed after a lackluster first six weeks. Now he'll get a chance to build on that first good game against a Buccaneers secondary that is giving up a league-high 304.5 passing yards per game. Tennessee's defense, which ranks 13th in sacks per pass play and has 12 different players with at least a half-sack, will try to get after Jameis Winston, who's been dropped 13 times in the last two games. Here are four specific Titans who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:

1. S Kevin Byard. Byard has three interceptions already this season, giving him 15 since the start of the 2017 campaign. Not only is that five more than any other safety in that span, but it's the most for any player at any position. The former third-round pick out of Middle Tennessee State was a first-team All-Pro selection and a Pro Bowler in 2017 when he led the NFL with eight picks, and he nabbed four more last year to prove it was no fluke. The 5-11, 212-pound Byard is also an important part of the Titans' rush defense, ranking fourth on the team with 36 tackles, 18 of which have come against opposing ballcarriers. He's at his best, though, as a deep safety, with the quickness to cover from sideline to sideline while playing centerfield, elite ball skills and the instincts and intelligence to diagnose quickly what the opposing quarterback is trying to do. Byard is one of the most complete safeties in the NFL.

2. RB Derrick Henry. The Titans' primary ballcarrier ranks 10th in the NFL rushing yards through seven weeks (506) even though he is just 34th among qualifying players in yards per carry (3.75). Obviously, the Titans, who are averaging 27 handoffs per game, are determined to establish their power running game with the 6-3, 247-pound Henry. He has a career average of 4.4 yards per carry and is capable of the occasional enormous play, such as his 99-yard touchdown run last year against Jacksonville and his 75-yard catch in a Week One win over Cleveland this year. Henry has also scored 14 touchdowns in his last 12 games, so the Buccaneers' top-ranked rush defense is sure to have him as their number-one priority heading into Sunday's game.

3. CB Logan Ryan. Even higher than Byard on the Titans' tackle chart is another fixture in the team's loaded secondary, as Ryan has filled up his stat line through seven games. The seventh-year corner who spent his first four seasons in New England has 43 stops, two interceptions, 2.5 sacks, nine passes defensed, two forced fumbles and four quarterback hits. Ryan and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins are the only two players in the NFL who have at least two sacks and at least two interceptions so far this year. The 5-11 Ryan can match up with taller receivers and has the physical style of play to contend with strong receivers like the Buccaneers' Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Ryan isn't the fastest cornerback in the league but he's smart, has very good instincts and gets his hands on a lot of footballs.

4. DT Jeffery Simmons. The Titans used the 19th-overall pick in this year's NFL draft on the big defensive tackle from Mississippi State even though Simmons had torn an ACL in February. Simmons got on the field for the first time on Sunday against the Chargers, and it was quickly evident why Tennessee felt he was worth the wait. All the 6-4, 305-pound wrecking ball did in his NFL debut was rack up four tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, all while playing just 21 defensive snaps. Simmons' share of the workload is sure to go up in the weeks to come, and he's joining a defense that is already eighth in overall yards allowed and 11th in yards allowed per carry. The Titans already have one of the NFL's best interior linemen in Jurrell Casey, and they're even stronger with Simmons on the field, as was evident when both helped seal Sunday's win with their goal-line stand against the Chargers' Melvin Gordon.

STRENGTHS

Tennessee's defense has been stingy, allowing just 16.0 points per game, the fourth-lowest average in the NFL. The Titans have been good at getting off the field, allowing a third-down conversion rate of 31.0% (fourth in the NFL) and 18.4 first downs per contest (tied for fifth). The Titans' offense hasn't been as effective but it has protected the ball well with just five giveaways and it's got the 12th-best touchdown rate in the red zone (61.1%). Here are some more specific areas in which the Titans have excelled through the first seven weeks of the 2019 season:

·    Tennessee's excellent ball security on offense has made things easier on the defense. The Titans have allowed just a single touchdown on possessions created by turnovers, the fifth-lowest total of points in the league. Tennessee is one of just five teams that has not yet allowed double-digit points off giveaways.

·    The Titans' defense has also not allowed too many extended drives this season. Tennessee ranks second in fewest drives lasting five or more minutes allowed, with four (the league average is nearly nine), as well as third in fewest drives allowed of 10 plays or more, with seven.

·    Tennessee has had some turmoil in its placekicking game while waiting for Ryan Succop to return from injured reserve, but veteran punter Brett Kern just keeps plugging along. In his 12th season overall and 10th full season in Tennessee, Kern is tied for seventh in the NFL with a net average of 43.0 yards per punt and is ninth with a 46.9-yard gross. Kern has already dropped 25 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line – more than three per game – while suffering just two touchbacks.

·    The Titans' offense hasn't thrown the ball downfield particularly often but they've done a good job of completing such passes, relatively speaking. Tennessee's passers have attempted only 14 passes that traveled more than 20 yards downfield in the air – tied for second-fewest in the league – but they've completed half of them, which is the fifth-best rate in the NFL.

WEAKNESSES

Tennessee's offense ranks 26th in overall yards generated per game (306.6), and specifically is 27th in passing (204.6) and 19th in rushing (102.0). The Titans have converted 32.6% of their third-down attempts, which is the seventh-best average in the league. On defense, the Titans have had very few struggles but do rank 20th in opponent red zone touchdown rate (61.1%) and 25th in goal-to-go touchdown rate (81.8%). In addition:

·    Pass protection has been a serious problem for the Titans, who were without stalwart left tackle Taylor Lewan for the first four games. Tennessee quarterbacks have been dropped 31 times and the Titans' sacks-per-pass-play allowed mark of 15.12% is the worst in the NFL. Marcus Mariota took 25 sacks before he was benched but he doesn't appear to have been the main problem, as Ryan Tannehill has absorbed six more in the five-plus quarters he's played since taking over.

·    The Titans' running game is picking up 102.0 yards per game, which is pretty close to the league average. However, the team's 3.78 yards-per-carry average ranks 24th in the NFL and some of that is due to too many handoffs not making it back to the line of scrimmage. Of the Titans' 189 runs so far, 25 have resulted in lost yardage; that 13.2% of carries going for negative yards is the third-worst average in the NFL, ahead of only the league's two winless teams, Cincinnati and Miami.

·    As noted above, there is little to complain about in Tennessee's defensive performance this season, with the red zone touchdown right being a relatively minor blip. More specifically, opposing quarterbacks have been able to throw the ball with success in that tight area of the field. Tennessee's defense has allowed an opponent passer rating of 116.9 in the red zone, which ranks third-to-last in the NFL. The league average is 90.6.

·    As also noted above, the Titans have committed only five turnovers, which ties for the second fewest in the NFL. Only one of those five giveaways was a lost fumble, which also ties for the second fewest in the league. However, that doesn't mean that Tennessee's quarterbacks and ballcarriers have been particularly sure-handed. The Titans have actually fumbled the ball a whopping 12 times; they've just managed to recover almost all of them. Quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill have combined for five fumbles but lost none of them. The team's only lost fumble was by a defensive player, actually, as CB Adoree' Jackson committed that error on a punt return.

NEW FACES IN 2019

As noted above, Tennessee made a change in their QB depth chart in the offseason, trading some third-day draft assets for Tannehill to replace Blaine Gabbert, who later signed with the Bucs and then ended up on injured reserve. The Titans' 2019 draft was headlined by Simmons and also brought in second-round wide receiver A.J. Brown, who leads the team in receiving yards. The Titans also dipped into free agency in the spring for some key additions, including these three starters:

1. WR Adam Humphries. Over four years in Tampa, Humphries developed from a little-known undrafted free agent into one of the most productive and reliable slot corners in the league. That rise got him a lucrative deal from the Titans in free agency last March, and he is currently the team's leader with 25 receptions.

2. G Rodger Saffold. The Rams didn't try to bring Saffold back in the spring when he hit free agency following his ninth season with the team. The Titans quickly pounced and put Saffold right into their starting lineup at left guard, replacing Quinton Spain, who is now with the Bills. The 6-5, 323-pound Saffold has 118 career starts, including all seven games this season.

3. OLB Cameron Wake. The long-time Miami standout finally moved on after a decade with the Dolphins, and he remains an impact player in his new home, ranking second on the team with 2.5 sacks. Wake also has eight quarterback hits plus a safety through the Titans' first six games. His last sack got him over 100 on his career and he's trying to top double digits in that category for the sixth time. Wake returned last week after missing two games with a hamstring injury and played 22 snaps on defense.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. LB Jayon Brown. The third-year defender out of UCLA started the first six games – and nine of 16 contests last year – before sustaining a groin injury in Week Six in Denver. Brown was inactive for Sunday's game against the Chargers and if he is sidelined again on Sunday would be replaced in the lineup by Wesley Woodyard.

2. CB Chris Milton. The fourth-year corner, in his first season with the Titans, doesn't have any defensive numbers yet this year but he leads the team in special teams tackles with four. That's true despite him missing the past two games with a calf injury, an ailment that could also have him in doubt for this week's game.

3. TE Delanie Walker. The Titans' productive veteran tight end was on the injury report prior to Sunday's game with an ankle injury but did suit up against the Chargers. However, he didn't start and he logged only five snaps on offense, so his ankle is worth watching again in Week Eight.

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