By MIKE HERNDON, columnist

The Titans' defense made an enormous leap in performance last season and largely carried the team to the 12-5 record it earned while a hobbled offense took multiple steps back.

The defense jumped from 24th in points allowed in 2020 to sixth in 2021 and from 29th in defensive DVOA to 12th.

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Pool photo/ Donald Page, Tennessee Titans

If you asked most followers of the team for the catalyst behind that improvement, an improved pass rush that jumped from an anemic 19 sacks in 2020 to 43 sacks in 2021 as the primary driver.

A few weeks ago, SharpFootballAnalysis.com ruffled some two-tone feathers by ranking the Titans' defensive line and linebackers as the 20th best front-7 in the NFL coming into the 2022 season.

For a team that tied for ninth in regular season sacks and then tacked on an NFL playoff-record nine sacks against the Bengals during the Divisional Round loss at Nissan Stadium, that seems awfully low at first glance. With their ranking being vote-based among the staff at Sharp Football, there are all kinds of opportunities for bias to creep in.

HerndonColumnArtMoneyThe Titans don’t have a Bosa or a Watt-level star anchoring their pass rush. Jeffery Simmons is the biggest name brand nationally, but even he hasn’t crossed the household name, bonafide superstar threshold yet.

Harold Landry, Bud Dupree, and especially Denico Autry are names that fly under the radar despite all three being among the top-34 league-wide in sacks produced over the last three seasons.

However, Sharp’s site did cite a couple of numbers to back up its viewpoint, noting that Tennessee finished 25th in pressure rate and 28th in pressure rate on non-blitzes.

Other advanced metrics draw similar conclusions.

ESPN’s pass rush win rate ranked the Titans front 21st overall with no individual players cracking the top-10 among either the interior or edge groups. For those unfamiliar, pass rush win rate measures the percentage of passing snaps in which a defender beats his block in less than 2.5 seconds (widely considered the average time from snap to throw for NFL quarterbacks).

So, what gives?

How can the eye test and traditional metrics see a top-10 unit while more advanced metrics view Tennessee as a bottom-half unit? And how sustainable should we expect the sack numbers to be if the advanced metrics don’t significantly improve?

I think the answer to the first question is found in the Titans' overall defensive philosophy. While Tennessee ranked near the bottom of the league in blitz rate (19.9 percent, 28th in the NFL), the Titans are the most prolific in the league when it comes to the use of simulated pressures, or “creepers” as they’re called in some circles, by a wide margin.

For those unfamiliar, a simulated pressure involves the defense sending an off-ball linebacker or defensive back in the pass rush while dropping a defensive lineman or edge rusher into pass coverage. Effectively, you are still just rushing four and dropping seven, but it both keeps the offense guessing as to which four are coming and usually is intended to create overloads on one side or area of the offensive line.

An example of this kind of look is below. The defense lines up with four down linemen, two off-ball linebackers, and a nickel corner lined up over the slot. However, instead of sending the four traditional pass rushers, they drop the strong side defensive end into the seam/hook zone while sending the nickel corner on a blitz from the left.

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The desired result is to either get the nickel corner coming clean off the edge, or at the very least, get him one-on-one against the running back.

The Titans have a wide variety of these pressures in defensive coordinator Shane Bowen’s bag. The player they “add” to the rush can be a nickel corner, an off-ball linebacker, a safety, or even a boundary corner, but the concept is the same. Bring pressure from an unexpected rusher while dropping a defensive lineman or edge rusher into coverage to replace.

Because a free rusher is not classified as a “pass rush win” in these advanced metrics, many of the Titans' pressures and/or sacks don’t get captured as “wins” despite accomplishing the goals of the defense.

Similarly, a player like Landry, who has always been dinged for his low pass rush win rate, is probably underrated to some degree.

With the Titans frequently asking Landry and the rest of the defensive front to run various stunts and schemed pressures, they are introducing an abnormally high number of pass rush snaps where the individual pass rusher’s goal is not necessarily to beat the man in front of him, but rather to run a pick or draw a double team to free up another rusher to get home.

Landry leads the NFL since 2019 in unblocked pressures and sacks. While NFL evaluators (appropriately) value edge rushers who win one-on-one matchups on a consistent basis, there is real value to the skill set that Landry brings to the Titans.

His elite athleticism provides two huge benefits to this style of defense.

First, it allows Landry to be an outstanding finisher inside and outside the pocket. Getting a free run at a quarterback is one thing, but getting him on the ground – especially in the era of ultra-athletic QBs – is another. It also allows him to be a real help in coverage when he is asked to drop off the line.

I think it’s fair to say that the Titans' pass rush is better than the sum of its parts. The team prioritizes hunting quarterbacks in packs rather than turning loose four lone wolves on third downs.

The question of whether the sack rate can remain high without significant improvement in pass rush win rate metrics is slightly more complicated. For one, pass rush win rate and sack rate are not strongly correlated when using regression analysis of 2021 team data.

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Pass rush win rate is slightly more predictive for pressure rate, but not by much, which tells me that pass rush win rate ultimately is just a small piece of the overall equation when it comes to getting a quarterback on the ground.

Other elements, such as blitz rate, scheme, strength of coverage, and ability to disguise looks play large roles as well.

Kuharsky megaphoneThe Titans' defense that closed the 2021 season remains largely intact with 10 of 11 starters returning for 2022 as well as the coaching staff, with only a change at the inside linebacker spot.

I would suspect that we see pretty similar results from the Tennessee defense, though adding a healthy Dupree and Rashad Weaver into the mix could make for some improvement.

Tennessee’s pass rush scheme is unlikely to ever set it up to be darlings of advanced stats like pass rush win rate.

But some steps forward in that department would likely push this unit closer to the top-5 in more important metrics like sack rate and pressure rate in 2022.

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Mike Herndon has previously written about the Titans for Music City Miracles and Broadway Sports. He’ll now have a weekly column at PaulKuharsky.com. Become a member here. Inquire about sponsoring his content by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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