NASHVILLE – It's early.
The Titans have practiced just six days in training camp, the pads just went on for the first time on Tuesday, and the first preseason game is still 10 days away.
But so far, the defense has played with energy while causing turnovers and creating issues for an offense that's coming off a year when it was tough to slow down.
"The energy, the competitiveness," defensive coordinator Shane Bowen replied when asked what has stood out to him so far. "I think all these guys are battling right now in a lot of ways, in their positional groups, against the offense. I see improvement. The biggest thing for us is just the consistency. Guys are getting better. We see it by player, we see it by unit, we see it by position group. But being able to do it day in and day out, play in and play out, that is where we have to be able to take the next step."
So far in camp, the defense has intercepted 10 passes, and several defenders have impressed with disruption up front.
Safety Amani Hooker, cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins and cornerback Breon Borders have two interceptions each, while cornerback Kristian Fulton, safety Matthias Farley, defensive back Maurice Smith and outside linebacker John Simon all have one.
Simon, a nine-year veteran who spent last season with the Patriots, has shown up in the pass rush and in coverage after being signed last month. A day after making a textbook play in coverage against tight end Anthony Firkser on a ball thrown by starter Ryan Tannehill, Simon picked off back-up quarterback Logan Woodside in Tuesday's session.
"He is familiar with the system," Bowen said of Simon. "Obviously, we had him in Houston. He is about what we are about. He is tough, he plays hard, he is going to play with technique. That is how he has made his career so long. He is familiar with us too, as people. I know John (Simon) back to Ohio State just like Mike (Vrabel) in 2012. There is some familiarity there just with our personalities and who we are. I think he really fits what we are trying to get across and in terms of our culture defensively and as a team."
Bowen said he's been pleased with Jenkins, and all the plays made by defenders.
"Whenever you have a veteran like that who has done it a long time and has success, and you see the way he practices and competes and goes about it, I think it rubs off on everybody regardless of the position group," Bowen said of Jenkins. "The wide receivers see it, that is contagious. The thing with him, he is constantly talking, constantly coaching guys up, constantly trying to turn the tide because every game there is going to be something. It is not always going to be perfect, we understand that, he understands that from playing so long and I think his leadership and being able to turn the tide and get our guys to respond can kind of change the mojo when it is not going our way.
"Hooker showed up in a few different coverages making some plays. He has been savvy back there. He has always been a smart football player. I think he is starting to learn the ins and outs of playing the game a little bit, more so than just his job so to speak. Breon has been good up to this point, again, just consistency day in and day out, play in and play out for him. He showed a lot of improvement coming into camp versus where he was at in the spring even. I think he busted his butt in those five or six weeks away and he has come back ready to go. Those guys are finding ways to stay tight in man and all the other stuff that we do, they are finding the ways to get in the right spots and break up throws."
Bowen, who worked the past three seasons as the outside linebackers coach with the Titans, is in his first camp as the team's defensive coordinator after being promoted earlier this offseason.
With Bowen as the defensive play-caller last year, the Titans finished seventh in the NFL in takeaways with 23, which tied for the most by a Titans defense since 2013. Those 23 takeaways led to 71 of the 491 points scored by the Titans this season, a total that ranked fourth highest in the NFL. Also, the Titans ranked seventh in the NFL with 15 interceptions, the Titans since 2012 (19).
But the defense struggled mightily on third down and failed to sack quarterbacks on a consistent basis while allowing too many points.
On Tuesday, Bowen talked to reporters for the first time in camp.
He also tackled these topics:
-The defense has showed some swagger so far in camp, and Bowen likes seeing it.
"I think it all goes into confidence," he said. "We are working on our confidence right now. I think that is a big part of this game, is knowing you can line up across somebody and out-execute them and out-play them, out-hit them, whatever that may be. Guys improve when they gain confidence. When they gain confidence to challenge and they gain confidence in the techniques that we are teaching them, I think you see improvement. Obviously, as a unit we want to take the field with a mindset. We have to earn it. We have to earn in every single day, it is not just out here. It comes whenever that first game is. Ideally, every time we take the field as a unit, as individuals, I want these guys to think they are going to execute, they are going to get it done, and we are going to find ways to win each down."
-Bowen believes his defenders will benefit from working against receiver Julio Jones and A.J. Brown in practices.
"I think that it is invaluable," he said. "They are competing against the best. They are. For some of our guys, they are competing against guys that are challenging matchups for them, just in terms of their size and speed and all that they bring. Hopefully it makes it easier come Sunday. Game one, we have a great task out the gate with the guys that they've got. I think it is going to help them understand the techniques they have to play to play those type of receivers, one. Secondly, if we can challenge and win those matchups, it is just going to build their confidence."
-Bowen said he's adjusting to his new role and balancing not having to focus on a specific position.
"I have been able to bounce around meeting rooms," he said. "I think it goes back - and you guys heard it a lot last year, the coordination, the communication, making sure everybody is on the same page. Now, the DB's see something one way, I can immediately walk into the linebacker room and say, 'Hey man, this is what we are thinking, this is how they see it.' That way everybody sees things the same way, we are communicating things the same way. I think that has been a tremendous asset, being able to bounce room to room. Also being able to understand and make sure we're getting coach rolling with coach, that is part of it too. I want to make sure they are hearing what they want and then when we go into the unit room, they better be able to spit it back and I know they then have got it covered. I think building the relationships with the guys, that is a big part of it. That last year I don't think was there, whereas this year it is growing and it is becoming a bigger piece for me."
-Bowen believes having a clearly defined role this year will help him and the rest of the defensive coaches, and players.
"Absolutely, I do," he said. "I think it has helped with everybody, with the coaching staff, the players. I think that it has been good up to this point. They kind of understand where the bus stops and it is what it is. I am excited for the opportunity, I really am. I am excited for the ways these guys are going about working right now and kind of what we are trying to get accomplished on defense."
-Bowen he's enjoyed having Senior Defensive Assistant Jim Schwartz on the staff.
"It has been great," Bowen said. "He is a great sounding board for me as things go. Obviously, Mike (Vrabel), he knows it all so I can always turn to him. Schwartz has been great. Anything comes up, we talk through everything, we go through our plan for different scenarios. I think as we get more into situations, his experience with some of that stuff is going to pay dividends too. I am super excited he is here, he has been a great asset to me so far to this point and I expect that to continue."
-Bowen was happy to see first-round pick Caleb Farley get cleared for practices.
"It is good to see him out here actually doing something finally," he said. "We will see, as he keeps progressing, whenever that is that he can get back in there and we will see how it goes. He has been engaged in meetings. I think he is soaking everything up. Jackrabbit (Jenkins) has helped him tremendously in that regard. He is always in his ear, teaching, coaching, giving him pointers and different things. Time will tell, he has got to get out here and go. We are doing drills right now and that is great, but when he has to line up across from somebody and actually cover them, we will see what it is. … If you can match the size, that type of length, and that type of skillset, I think it is rare. If you have a guy like that, you obviously aren't as concerned with the size matchup down the field in those downfield throws."
-Bowen believes defensive lineman Denico Autry's versatility will be an asset.
"I think that is why he is here," he said. "To add value in a lot of different ways. On third down, the flexibility of moving sides and doing some of that. Having a bigger body, which we haven't really had in the past at times. Then, being able to play first or second down outside, mix him inside at times. He is a valuable piece because he does have that versality."
-Bowen said everyone learned from the struggles of a year ago.
"You have to learn from last year, I think you do," Bowen said. "In the offseason we evaluate it, and we come back to them with a plan and ways to improve. Now that we are kind of into 2021 it is more areas of emphasis for us. It is not about last year, it is about this year. We have to make sure third down, red zone, turnovers continue. We make sure we emphasize those things, but last year is over. We are a new team. We've got a lot of new pieces. Half the guys in our defensive room weren't here last year. Understanding as a unit the areas that we struggled in, we are going to make a big emphasis on this early on, but we have to be better here. If we are better here, then it is going to carry over to be better throughout a lot of different areas defensively."
-Fixing the issues on third down has been a big emphasis in camp.
"I would say up to this point, we have gotten some third-down work these past couple days, we have gotten some red zone work throughout as we have started here," he said. "Both of those have been major emphasis for us. Just the technique and fundamentals and being square and understanding the down and distance, understanding all the little things that go into every situation. First and foremost, before the ball is even snapped, I tell them all the time, if we can be 100 percent before the ball is snapped, then they have to beat us. Too many times last year we weren't ready to go. We have to be set, we have to be ready to rock and roll, and we have to make them beat us. We have to be coordinated in what we are doing. If we can handle our business before the ball is snapped the onus falls on them."