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The Titans are betting on a new aggressiveness to fix their ailing pass defense

“Confidence, resiliency, relentless. I am a hell of a player. I love my game. I don’t fear anything. I am not afraid to lose, but I am going to win most of my reps.”

That’s what former Chiefs and new Titans cornerback L’Jarius Sneed said in his first press conference in Tennessee after the March 22 trade that sent Sneed to his second NFL team. And it doesn’t take a football expert to realize that Sneed is exactly all that. Last season for the Super Bowl champs, Sneed allowed 53 catches on 102 targets for 545 yards, 216 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 12 pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 66.0. It was his best season in a remarkable four-year career, and Sneed was rewarded after the trade with a four-year, $76.4 million contract with $55 million.

This, or something like this, needed to happen.

Last season, the Titans’ cornerbacks allowed 141 completions on 235 attempts for 1,805 yards, 12 touchdowns, four interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 94.0, eighth-worst in the NFL.

The Titans also signed former Bengals cornerback Chidobie Awuzie to a three-year deal, and this is where it gets interesting for new defensive coordinator Dennard Wilson. During his appearance with Buck Reising and Greg Cosell on a post-draft episode of “The Install,” general manager Ran Carthon got into why the Titans are switching to a new coverage philosophy.

“It’s huge, especially for our defense, and what Dennard wants to do,” Carthon said about Sneed’s press ability, and alpha playing personality overall. “He wants to challenge guys at the line of scrimmage, which is also a reason we went after Chidobie Awuzie. Get two guys in here who are going to match that, and that’s also how [slot defender] Roger [McCreary] plays. Roger is a linebacker on first and second down, and on third down, he can play the C-gap, stick his face in there against the run. But he can also challenge guys [in press coverage] on third down. So, adding someone like LJ to the mix is what’s going to drive this defense, and what will make it go.

“[You have to disrupt receivers] at the line of scrimmage. That forces the quarterback to hold the ball a half-second or a second longer, and it gives your rush another step to get there. It will be cool to see both of those units together, the coverage and the rush, and they’re going to benefit from each other.

Carthon also had thoughts on why Sneed is so cherished now, as opposed to when he was selected in the fourth round of the 2020 draft.

“When he was coming out those years ago, the game and the way we play coverage has changed. A few years ago, illegal contact was a real thing. They were calling it a lot more, especially down the field, and you needed more guys who played off. Plus, Seattle had that nice run, and everybody wanted to adopt the Seattle defense, playing Cover-3 and playing off. Now, you have so much exposure to Cover-3, you have all those Cover-3 beaters. Now, teams are like, ‘You know what? We’re going to play more man. We’re going to get in these teams’ faces, and we’re going to challenge them.’ Guys slip [in the draft], but the NFL has a nice way of correcting itself. Players like [Sneed] rise to the top.”

Under former defensive coordinator Shane Bowen, the Titans were not big believers in press coverage. They had no cornerbacks in press coverage on 63% of their snaps — the NFL’s second-highest rate behind the Panthers’ 73%. They had one cornerback in press coverage on 25% of their snaps; only the Panthers had a lower rate at 23%.

That is absolutely going to change now.

Last season, Sneed had more snaps in press (393) than any other cornerback not named A.J. Terrell of the Falcons, who had 413. And when targeted in press, Sneed allowed 24 catches on 50 targets — which is a pretty nice percentage when you’re on a receiver from step one, and you’re on an island more often than not.

As for Awuzie, he’s always been a better press cornerback than when he’s playing off — that was true during his time with both the Cowboys and the Bengals, and it was certainly true in 2023. Awuzie can be befuddles at times in off coverage, but with minimal exceptions, he can match and carry all over the field from the first step in press, and it doesn’t matter how fast and slippery the receiver is.

The aforementioned McCreary stuck around because he’s a great fit in a more aggressive set of schemes, especially in situations where it’s tougher to win as a press and match defender.

The Titans may find this drastic transition to have its rough spots, but it’s nice to see them swerving decidedly in the direction of what the NFL requires in 2024.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire