NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans stuck with continuity this offseason over making splashy additions — until now. They landed the biggest fish left in the free-agent market Sunday when they agreed to terms with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney on a one-year deal worth up to $15 million that should bring much-needed juice to the front seven.
Last season, the Titans made a surprise run to the AFC Championship Game. But their inability to impact quarterback Patrick Mahomes doomed the Titans in their 35-24 loss to the eventual champion Kansas City Chiefs. Tennessee focused on stopping the passing game by dropping seven defenders into coverage and using four pass-rushers. The Chiefs’ offensive line was able to neutralize the Titans’ four-man pass rush, limiting them to two sacks for minus-2 yards.
The Titans are hoping the additions of Vic Beasley Jr. (8.0 sacks in 2019) and especially Clowney, 27, will give their pass rush enough help to keep quarterbacks like Mahomes from being able to extend plays and put extra stress on the secondary. Their additions could potentially elevate the Titans’ defense to a championship-level unit.
Clowney should play a mix of outside linebacker and defensive end with the Titans, who will rotate as many as six players on the outside.
Clowney will take the field for Tennessee about a week before the season opener on Monday Night Football in Denver against the Broncos. But Titans coach Mike Vrabel was Clowney’s position coach and defensive coordinator from 2014 to 2017 while with the Houston Texans, so his previous experience along with familiarity with outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen and defensive backs coach Anthony Midget should make for a smooth transition.
“Anytime you have a guy that’s been in a system that has familiarity, it would help with the transition, just like Johnathan Joseph coming in here,” Midget said. “There’s things that I can say to him in the meeting, just saying terminology that we used in Houston that translates to what we’re doing here that will help him out. Just using Johnathan Joseph as an example, it helps with the transition, helps those guys learning the playbook.”
Clowney had 9.5 sacks, 18 QB hits and 21 tackles for a loss in 2017 when Vrabel was calling the shots on defense. Those are all career highs.
Tennessee’s defense was hit hard this offseason with the losses of cornerback Logan Ryan to free agency and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who was traded to the Denver Broncos for a 2020 seventh-round pick. Casey had been a team captain for the Titans since 2014. The veteran defensive lineman tied Kamalei Correa for second on the team last season with five sacks. Ryan was third on the team with 4.5 sacks.
Perhaps the biggest loss was defensive coordinator Dean Pees retiring. Pees did a masterful job designing ways to get to the quarterback without having a premier pass-rusher.
While Clowney didn’t put up big sack numbers last season (3), he won on 31.9% of his rushes in one-on-one situations — fourth highest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Decided to string together a thread on some things Jadevon Clowney does for defenses. This is Texans vs Jags. Jacksonville gained 4 yds on this play. But, the purpose of showing this play is to illustrate how Mike Vrabel moved Clowney around in 2017. pic.twitter.com/jNRPFnwmWc
— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) September 6, 2020
As the primary pass-rusher for the Seattle Seahawks last season, Clowney faced double-teams on 26.3% of his pass rushes, the third-highest rate among qualifying defenders. Yet his 24.8% pass rush win rate was fifth highest in the NFL.
Having a player who can face double-teams and win on a consistent basis will help open the door for third-year outside linebacker Harold Landry to take the next step.
While impacting the quarterback is important, the Titans need to stuff the run, too — and Clowney is equally as strong in run defense. Since 2016, Clowney has recorded 64 run stuffs (tackles on run plays that result in no gain or a loss) on 1,112 snaps against the run, according to NextGen Stats. His 5.8% stuff rate is the best in the NFL over that span among 176 players to play at least 1,000 defensive snaps against the run.
Before adding Clowney, the Titans didn’t have a player in their front seven who could potentially take over games. Now general manager Jon Robinson added a player who is capable, which undoubtedly makes the Titans better.