The Tennessee Titans defense may not have the household names of some of the top defenses in the NFL, but their pass rushers are getting to quarterbacks at a rate that’s nearly the best in the league.
The Titans, who host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, are sacking the opposing quarterback on 8.5 percent of dropbacks, a rate that’s bested only by the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams.
“That’s a tremendous rate, especially how we don’t get as many attempts as other guys do but we’re still able to get there,” Titans outside linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “We’re just working, me and (linebacker Derrick) Morgan and the rest of the guys, we’re just doing a tremendous job of working each and every day. Just trying to make our defense top notch, and they’re going to need us to continue to bring pressure and get sacks each and every week, so they’re counting on us and we don’t want to let our guys down.”
Sunday, the Titans face the Carolina Panthers, who against the Green Bay Packers did not allow a single Cam Newton sack.
Despite a 2-6 record, the Titans boast the third-best passing defense in the league. They have 22 sacks, and their opponents have dropped back 259 times and thrown the ball just 237 times – the lowest count in the NFL.
“They’re just really talented guys up front,” said Panthers center Ryan Kalil, who will be responsible for calling the protections Sunday as usual. “They’re really good one-on-one pass rushing. Their schemes are really good, their blitzes are really good. They’re getting guys free.
“I think they’re one of the better fronts we’ll play this year.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera called the Titans a “high velocity team in terms of pass rush,” and that comes from defensive coordinator Ray Horton and associate head coach Dick LeBeau.
LeBeau, known as the godfather of the zone blitz, is one of the league’s greatest defensive minds. Horton has long been known for his top-flight defense with Pittsburgh, Arizona and Tennessee.
“He is very intense in a calming fashion,” interim head coach Mike Mularkey said of LeBeau. “I know that doesn’t sound right, but he can get these guys to play at a level that they didn’t even know they were capable of playing. I think it is a good combination of he and Ray Horton, who have known each other. Dick drafted Ray. He has coached with him. It is just a good combination of personalities for this defense.”
The Panthers believe they have a good feel for what the Titans do and how to slow it down.
First, like always, the Panthers will try to establish the running game. Carolina has the best rushing offense in the league, averaging 142 yards per game. By forcing Tennessee to respect the running game, the Panthers can open things up in the passing game.
The Panthers will also try get the ball out quickly. Mike Shula’s offense allows for Newton to go through his progressions rather than running quick horizontal passing plays. But against the Titans, Newton can’t hold onto the ball very long.
“(You do) hard play action to slow them down, stuff like that, so that you can keep them off balance,” Rivera said. “If you get in a game with them where it’s close and it’s tight, (Horton) is going to do what he does and he’ll try to dictate it. We’ve got to be smart about that and control the line of scrimmage, control the point of attack, run the ball efficiently. And when we do throw it, we’ve got to get it out on time.”