VOL. 132 | NO. 159 | Friday, August 11, 2017
Down on the Corner: Titans Fix Old Problem
David Climer, Nashville Sports Correspondent
The Titans have been searching for years for an answer at cornerback. They think they found two answers during the offseason.
Through free agency and the draft, second-year general manager Jon Robinson orchestrated a total makeover of the crucial position, adding veteran Logan Ryan and rookie Adoree’ Jackson to a defense that has been easy pickings for a well-thrown football.
It’s about time the Titans made cornerback a priority. They’ve been content with lackluster play at the position far too long. That’s why Jackson and Ryan are now in two-tone blue.
The system employed by Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau usually leaves cornerbacks isolated in one-on-one matchups with wide receivers. Last season, only two NFL teams gave up more passing yards than the Titans.
Rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, the second of two first-round picks by the Titans in 2017, and veteran Logan Ryan could give opposing offenses fits with their differing skill sets and physical abilities. (AP Photos/Mark Humphrey)
Although other things factored into all those passing yards – uneven pass rush, difficulty matching up with tight ends, issues with underneath coverage – it’s fair to say that cornerbacks got burned often.
In a league with so many talented wideouts, you must to be able to match up.
That’s where Ryan and Jackson come in.
They have different skill sets. And that’s a good thing. It’s possible the Titans could use Ryan, who, at 5-foot-11 and 191 pounds, is the sturdier of the two, to go one-on-one with the opposing offense’s bigger wide receiver. Jackson (5-foot-10 and 186 pounds) is a synapse-quick speedster who could cover smaller, faster wideouts.
That’s the kind of mix-and-match coverage that would be particularly helpful in the AFC South, where each of the Titans’ three rivals have wide receiver corps that feature diverse physiques and styles.
Houston, for example, has a big receiver in 6-foot-1, 214-pound DeAndre Hopkins and a smaller speedster in Will Fuller. Hopkins has averaged six receptions per game against the Titans in his four NFL seasons.
Fuller had a combined 10 catches in two games against the Titans as a rookie last season.
In theory, the Titans could shadow Hopkins with the bigger, more physical Ryan while the faster Jackson matches up with Fuller, who is expected to miss the start of the regular season after breaking his collarbone in practice.
Veteran Logan Ryan and rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson could give opposing offenses fits with their differing skill sets and physical abilities. (AP Photos/Mark Humphrey)
The same goes for Indianapolis where the 6-2, 221-pound Donte Moncrief is a load and super-quick T.Y. Hilton is a tough matchup. Hilton averaged 19.2 yards on 12 receptions and two touchdowns in a pair of games against the Titans last season.
As for Jacksonville, the Jaguars have a big target in Allen Robinson and a speedster in Marqise Lee, who is coming off a 63-catch season.
Unlike last season, when Jason McCourty’s injury limited their options, LeBeau can be more creative with his coverages in 2017. LeBeau’s philosophy is to pressure the quarterback with blitzes, forcing man-to-man coverage on the outside.
By acquiring Ryan, who formerly played for New England, the Titans got a known commodity. Although not the fastest cornerback around, Ryan has proven he can cover different types of receivers.
He graded out at No. 17 among all NFL cornerbacks last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which analyzes every player on every snap of every game.
The acquisition of Ryan isn’t the first time the Titans have addressed the cornerback position in free agency. They tried it two years ago with Perrish Cox. Let’s hope this works out better.
Cox was signed to a three-year, $15 million contract in 2015 and installed at corner. The idea was that he would provide stability on the opposite side of the field from McCourty. It didn’t happen.
Although Cox started 22 games, he was cut late in the 2016 season after a particularly horrendous performance in a 24-17 loss at Indianapolis. Cox went for an interception on a fourth-down play but had the ball go through his hands, resulting in a Colts touchdown.
Pro Football Focus ranked Cox 110th out of 111 qualifying cornerbacks in 2016.
Jackson is an intriguing prospect. The Titans used the second of their two first-round draft picks to secure him. He ran a fast 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Southern Cal’s coaching staff occasionally used him on offense and he scored six touchdowns in a three-year college career.
The Titans obviously think a lot of Jackson. It is the first time the team has spent a first-round pick on a cornerback since Adam “Pacman” Jones in 2005.
In fact, Jones was the first defensive player selected in that draft at No. 6 overall. Let’s hope Jackson works out better over the long haul.
Jones was a dynamic athlete and brought a breakaway threat to the return game, but his personality and judgment were liabilities both on and off the field. He was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2007 season. The Titans traded him to Dallas for a fourth-round draft pick in 2008.
Historically, this franchise has not prioritized cornerbacks in the draft. The best cornerback the team has had since it landed on Tennessee turf in 1997 is Samari Rolle, a second-round pick in 1998.
Otherwise, the Titans have gotten their best production out of corners who went later in the draft – Alterraun Verner (4th round, 2010), McCourty (6th round, 2009) and Cortland Finnegan (7th round, 2006).
The last time the Titans had above-average play at both cornerback positions was 2013 with McCourty and Verner.
That’s the year Verner had five interceptions and made the Pro Bowl. He signed a free-agent contract with Tampa Bay the following year.
Ryan and Jackson aren’t the only additions to the secondary. The Titans signed free agent Johnathan Cyprien and installed him at safety. In four seasons in Jacksonville, Cyprien established himself as an in-the-box safety who is sturdy against the run and also has some pass coverage skills.
Cyprien’s arrival allows the Titans to use second-year pro Kevin Byard as a traditional free safety, which is his natural position.
And don’t overlook the possible emergence of LeShaun Sims, a fifth-round pick in 2015 who impressed the coaches in off-season work. With offenses using three wide receivers so often, someone has to step in at nickel back and match up with the slot receiver. Sims is a candidate for that job or it’s possible Jackson would get that assignment.
Whatever the case, the Titans finally have some players with real pass cover skills in the defensive backfield.
Reach David Climer at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DavidClimer.