November 12, 2021

Saints Defense Offers Litmus Test for Derrick Henry-less Titans

The Tennessee Titans are sitting pretty atop the AFC with a 7-2 record and deserve to be taken seriously with their five-game win streak encompassing victories over the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, and Los Angeles Rams.

Despite their extremely impressive run, it is far too early to crown the Titans as the class of the conference, particularly with their now Derrick Henry-less offense still needing to prove itself.

Yes, the Titans comfortably defeated the Rams last Sunday, 28-16, but it was not a game in which their offense dominated.

The Titans averaged just 4.2 yards per pass against Los Angeles and just 2.7 yards per rush, with turnovers caused by their defense, which continually pressured Matthew Stafford as the likes of Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry and Harold Landry excelled, resulting in 14 points.

Tennessee will not be able to lean on its defense and set the offense up with a short field every week, meaning at some point Ryan Tannehill and the passing attack will have to do the heavy lifting.

And the Titans' Week 10 matchup will provide a solid indicator as to whether Tannehill and Co. are capable of shouldering the burden on a regular basis as Tennessee hosts the 5-3 New Orleans Saints.

Saints' elite but imperfect on D

Though it could not prevent an inspired Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons from escaping the Superdome with a win, the Saints' defense remains one of the most efficient in the NFL.

Indeed, the Saints rank third in Football Outsiders DVOA, which measures a team's efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent, on defense.

New Orleans is first in the league in run defense DVOA, but the Saints have been markedly less successful on pass defense, ranking 13th in the NFL. 

In other words, New Orleans' defense is one that should shut down any hope of Henry's replacement, Adrian Peterson, and the other members of the Titans' backfield controlling the game on the ground. However, the Titans may have success exposing apparent vulnerabilities in the pass defense.

Falcons provided the blueprint

Ryan and the Falcons took advantage of those weaknesses to the tune of a 343-yard passing game. Matty Ice was sacked twice, but the Falcons otherwise succeeded in frustrating the Saints' defense through predictably heavy use of play-action, getting Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts in favorable matchups with linebackers and safeties and, occasionally, getting Ryan on the move.

The Titans don't have weapons as multi-faceted as Patterson and Pitts but what they do have is a quarterback in Tannehill who is eighth in Expected Points Added per play, per, and thrives in the play-action game and throwing on the run.

Julio Jones' acquisition has been far from a home run, yet the Titans have a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the form of A.J. Brown with the skill set to deliver game-changing performances against even the best defenses.

Having seen former offensive coordinator and now Falcons head coach Arthur Smith beat the Saints defense with the same system he used to turn Tennessee into playoff contenders, the Titans can afford to be confident of producing against one of the NFL's top defenses even without Henry.

Whether they succeed in doing so could provide a window into how deep Tennessee can go come January.

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