The Tennessee Titans will provide Carson Wentz and the Eagles with a tough test on Sunday. New Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel is a student of the Bill Belichick system, having played in New England for a large chunk of his playing career and having coached with Belichick disciple Romeo Crennel in Houston with the Texans. In that scheme, there are a lot of disguises in the secondary, with the defense showing you one thing before the snap only to play something completely different once the play begins. There’s a ton of post-snap rotation, which can be confusing for young quarterbacks.
It’s not just Vrabel at the helm of this defense, however, as he was able to coax Dean Pees out of an extremely brief retirement to join him in Nashville as the defensive coordinator. Pees was the long-time coordinator in Baltimore and coached under Belichick as well back in the 2000s. Pees has always been very good with overload pressures, bringing more blitzers than an offense can protect.
The marriage of these two coaches has resulted in a pretty fun defensive scheme to study. Every third down is an adventure with this team, and on passing downs they do whatever they can to throw offenses for a loop and bring them a different look. With their various pressure packages and sneaky coverage disguises, this is going to be the biggest test yet for the Eagles' offense.
Blocking up overload blitzes may seem simple. Why not just slide extra protection that way? That should work, right? Well, it’s not that easy. Sure, there are times where the defense lines up with extra blitzers on one side and they all come after the quarterback at the snap. A lot of times, however, that is not what happens. When the offense sees the defense "overload" one side of the formation the players have to figure out if all of these players are coming, or if the defense wants the players to THINK everyone is coming, just to change the protection. Because what often happens with this defense is that what you see before the snap is not what you get afterward (up front or on the back end).
This is a huge preparation week for the Eagles' offensive line and backfield players. With all of the different looks, there are a lot of things that Jason Kelce, Carson Wentz, and the rest of the unit have to prepare for when it comes to protection responsibilities. Tennessee also loves to work in different stunts along the defensive line. Whether they are "simple" two-man stunts (with the end and tackle or with both tackles), three-man games (like what the Eagles saw from Indianapolis numerous times), or stunts with a defensive lineman and a linebacker. Those games can be some of the most difficult to pick up.
There are examples of all of those schemes in the clip above. From just a three-game sample to start the season, you can see the wide variety of things Tennessee tries to do up front. The Eagles have given up sacks on stunts in consecutive weeks, so the Titans will incorporate them on Sunday. At the forefront of those stunts will be No. 99 Jurrell Casey. The veteran is one of the top interior disruptors in football, and I’d argue he’s the best one the Eagles have faced through the first four games (a list that includes Gerald McCoy and Grady Jarrett). He’s a strong, stout run defender with extremely nimble feet and impressive movement skills to play sideline to sideline. He’s the best player on this Titans defense and must be accounted for on every play.
Let’s get into the rest of this Tennessee personnel because this defense has legitimate talent at all three levels. I want to start in the secondary, where I was very impressed with all three of their corners.
The Titans have two former New England corners in Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. Butler is one of the most competitive corners in the league. He does not back down from anyone and has the instincts in man coverage to stay in an opponent’s hip pocket up and down the field. Ryan is a smart, tough, versatile player who gets reps both inside and outside in this defense. Second-year corner Adoree Jackson gets a ton of playing time as well, and he’s an extremely talented player with great athletic traits and plus ball skills down the field. This trio of corners is one of the best groups the Eagles will face this season. Their ability on the back end is what gives Vrabel and Pees so much confidence to be aggressive up front.
At safety, the Titans have a strong duo in budding star Kevin Byard, a former second-round pick from Middle Tennessee State. I loved this kid in college and thought he would transition into being an NFL starter. He had impressive ball skills (which he showed in that pass breakup in the clip above), a competitive nature, and was a fearless tackler even though he wasn’t the biggest or fastest (Byard wasn’t even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine!). Opposite Byard is former New Orleans first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro, a versatile, do-everything player who can wear a lot of hats on defense. Need him to line up in the slot over big receivers or tight ends? Done. Need a deep player in the secondary? He can do that. Need a guy to line up in the box as a run defender? He’s got that covered. He’s an impressive athlete who fits in well at strong safety in that scheme.
At linebacker, the team has veteran Wesley Woodyard manning the middle. He’s their three-down player who lines up in all of their subpackages. He’s an instinctive, versatile player who can defend the run, drop back in coverage, and be used as a blitzer all at levels of the field. The team also spent a first-round draft choice on Rashaan Evans from Alabama. An extremely physical prospect, Evans got his first start last week in Jacksonville and played in their base defensive packages. A former pass rusher early in his college career, Evans switched to inside linebacker in the Crimson Tide's 3-4 scheme and flourished. He really came into his own and became one of the top linebackers in the country. Expect to hear his name often on Sunday. Second-year linebacker Jayon Brown comes on the field for Evans in their nickel subpackages, and he’s an athletic, instinctive, aggressive player for that defense as well.
Up front on the defensive line, keep a close eye on rookie pass rusher Harold Landry out of Boston College. The second-round pass rusher has freakish flexibility off the edge, and he turns the corner like a race car on the speed track. Landry only plays in subpackages at this point in his career, but he is going to be a force off the edge once he gets stronger and fully develops his hand-use as a pass rusher. I thought there were some similarities between Landry and Derek Barnett coming out of college. Veterans Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are the starters off the edge for the Titans, and they both provide solid run defense and physicality at outside linebacker. The team acquired former Baltimore linebacker Kamalei Correa as well this offseason to give them some added punch off the edge in their subpackages.
With such an aggressive scheme, it’s easy to say that this will be a big "screen" game for the Eagles this week, and that may be true, but it won’t be easy.
The Titans are an aggressive defense that plays fast, much like the first three teams the Eagles have faced this year. They will provide a stiff test for Wentz and the rest of the offense.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.