With 8 returning starters, Titans hope for tougher defense

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Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) talks to coaches at the NFL Football Team’s training facility Wednesday, June 1, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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All-Pro safety Kevin Byard made it clear early in Tennessee’s offseason program that the Titans wanted to be the best defense in the NFL.

Busy in the last stage of the off-season program, the veteran who is entering his seventh season does not see much.

“I’m not necessarily going to set high expectations, although I said we’re trying to be the No. 1 defense,” Byard said Wednesday. “But right now it’s mostly about learning and trying to make sure we bring everyone together, learning the patterns.”

The Titans earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC last season largely because of the quality of defense. Eight starters return this season, not including three others who have started at least five games apiece, which is a big reason why they can be even better at every level.

With so many defensemen knowing the defense, coordinator Shane Bowen said it was a good line to use that familiarity to build on what the Titans were able to do last season.

“Hopefully we can turn the page a little quicker on this stuff and get a little more involved as we go along based on their familiarity with the system, what we’re asking them to do, how culture, style of play, everything that’s going on in this team,” Bowen said.

The Titans have improved a lot on defense in 2021 after a dismal 2020. They ranked second in rush defense, giving up 84.6 yards per game, 12th in total defense (329.8 yards per game), sixth in defense (20.8 points allowed per game). ) and ninth with 43 sacks.

A team that placed last by a wide margin in allowing third conversions in 2020 placed sixth in the same category in 2021.

Byard earned the second All-Pro snap of his career in 2021 with five interceptions, while linebacker Harold Landry had a career-high 12 sacks to earn a new contract. Defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons had a career-high 8 1/2 sacks and earned All-Pro votes.

Denico Autry had nine sacks, making the Titans the only NFL team with three players with at least eight sacks. The Titans then tied a playoff record with nine sacks in their playoff loss.

Not bad for a team that’s used 26 different defensive starters, as injuries forced the Titans to use an NFL-high 91 players most in a non-strike season.

Linebacker Bud Dupree also spent a year in that defense after recovering from a torn ACL last season.

The Titans also recently added defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker, Denver State’s 51st overall pick in 2017, who is now on its third team. Walker has 12 1/2 career sacks, and being surrounded by so many passers should help him play even better.

“They took a big step,” Walker said. “My goal is to help them take the next step.”

The Titans will have to find a starter against Kristian Fulton. Veteran Jackrabbit Jenkins was a salary cap victim in March.

Caleb Farley, their first-round pick last year, trains with a non-contact jersey. Elijah Molden, a third-round pick last year, started seven games. The Titans drafted Roger McCreary from Auburn in the second round for more depth and also brought back veteran Greg Mabin, who started two games in 2020.

“When we’re all playing well, guys get paid and guys have great stats,” Byard said. “So that will definitely be the plan this year.”

NOTES: Dupree was among five defensive starters who have not participated in volunteer organized team activities thus far along with Landry, Autry, Simmons and linebacker Zach Cunningham. … Treylon Burks, the 18th overall pick, deferred to Titans coach Mike Vrabel when asked about using an inhaler during rookie minicamp. Vrabel said many people use inhalers, including one of his sons. … The Titans signed WR Juwan Green and waived TE Ryan Izzo. Green has spent the past two seasons on the practice squad in Atlanta.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker

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