AFC South Reporter
Most NFL observers know that the Tennessee Titans have an offensive line issue. That their pass protection is far below NFL standards.
Tennessee last season allowed a 41.4 percent pressure rate, second-worst in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats. It has played a key role in injuries to both Ryan Tannehill and Will Levis, to the team’s regression from playoff contender to a bad team over the last season and a half.
But when asked about the pass protection struggles, new Titans head coach Brian Callahan preached holism.
“You have to win versus tight coverage,” Callahan said at his introductory press conference earlier this month. “Protection is an everybody problem. The quarterback has got to get rid of the ball on time. They have to work through progression quickly. So to say that specifically the offensive line needs to fix the protection problem, I don’t agree with that. I think it’s a holistic offensive issue.
“You can help weaknesses, highlight strengths and everybody is involved in the process.”
That offers key insight into how Callahan could build his offense.
The Titans will surely focus heavily on beefing up their O-line through free agency and the draft, where they have the No. 7 overall pick — a prime spot to get their hopeful franchise left tackle. And Callahan’s father, Bill, will also be leaving his post as the Browns offensive-line coach for the same role on his son’s staff, according to The Plain Dealer. He will provide invaluable insights as one of the most respected offensive-line gurus in football.
But there will be just as much of an emphasis on the rest of the offense.
That should lead to a significant investment at wide receiver for the young quarterback Levis.
Callahan comes from a Bengals team that has arguably the league’s top receiving trio in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Chase and Higgins were top-33 picks in their respective drafts. Boyd, though drafted before the Callahan-Zac Taylor era in Cincinnati, went 55th overall in 2016.
Titans hire Bengals OC Brian Callahan to replace Vrabel as head coach
Tennessee’s only major receiving threat last season was 31-year-old DeAndre Hopkins, who became the team’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2020 (A.J. Brown). The Titans’ second-leading wide receiver was Chris Moore, who had just 424 receiving yards.
The team has just one wide receiver on its roster drafted in the last 10 seasons that was a first- or a second-round pick: Treylon Burks, who through two years has been a disappointment.
Under Callahan, that figures to change as soon as this spring.
“Selfless, that’s a big part, You have to have selfless guys (at receiver),” said Callahan, who confirmed that he’ll be the play-caller. “They’re a huge part of the run game. … They work in tandem together. That’s an important part. As far as physical traits go, you want guys that are big, strong, fast and can catch. That’s a pretty easy way to go about it. The more of those guys that you have, the better you’re going to be.”
That leads to another point: the Titans are expected to pass significantly more with their offensive-minded coach.
Last season, with Tim Kelly as offensive coordinator, Tennessee ranked 22nd in passing rate on first and second down — at 46 percent and 53 percent, respectively, per NGS — and eighth in passing rate on third down (80 percent). That fits into a larger theme in six seasons under former coach Mike Vrabel: run, run, pass.
The Bengals, on the contrary, ranked near the top of the NFL in passing rate on the first three downs last season (even with Joe Burrow missing seven games and being hobbled for many of the 10 games he played) — fifth on first down (52 percent), first on second down (68 percent) and sixth on third down (81 percent).
“The teams that win the most games are generally the teams that pass the ball the best,” Callahan told Bengals media last year, via WRKC in Cincinnati. “That’s usually because they have really good quarterbacks and because they have guys that can make plays on the football on the outside. You’re seeing teams invest in that part of the game, really across the board.”
In Cincinnati, Callahan built a reputation for finding players’ strengths and building concepts around them as a non-play-calling offensive coordinator. He instilled things into the Bengals’ offense that worked for Burrow at LSU.
Among the 33 quarterbacks with at least 250 dropbacks, Levis last season was third in passer rating and completion rate, and seventh in yards per attempt out of a shotgun alignment, according to Next Gen Stats. Yet, in the nine games Levis played as a rookie, the Titans were in shotgun just 56.2 percent of the time, which ranked 25th in the league, per NGS. More shotgun plays is one way Callahan could look to accentuate Levis’ strengths.
For Tennessee, Callahan’s arrival is obviously a philosophy shift on offense.
Only time will tell if it works.
“Resilient, relentless. You want your team to have those two qualities,” Callahan said. “And If you’re resilient and you can handle the ups and downs and you can handle the good and the bad, and you’re relentless in how you approach every day at work, every day at practice, every day you play, your results will come.”
Skip Bayless, Richard Sherman and Michael Irvin react to Titans firing head coach Mike Vrabel after six seasons
What Titans can expect in Dennard Wilson
Former Ravens defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson has signed his contract to be the Titans’ new defensive coordinator under Callahan, according to NFL Media. He brings nine years of NFL coaching experience in the secondary, a weakness for the team.
The Titans have ranked in the bottom half of the league in pass defense (passing yards allowed per game) each of the last five years. Tennessee in 2023 had just six interceptions, the fewest in the NFL. Starting cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Sean Murphy-Bunting are also scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.
Under Wilson’s tutelage, the Ravens’ Kyle Hamilton became a first-team All-Pro for the first time and fellow safety Geno Stone — a former seventh-round pick — was second in the NFL with seven interceptions The Eagles’ passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach the year prior, Wilson’s departure appeared to have a significant impact in Philadelphia, too. The Eagles dropped from first in pass defense in 2022 to 31st this past season. Eagles cornerback Darius Slay told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Philly’s defense “would have been better” if Wilson stayed.
Highly coveted by multiple teams, Wilson is well-regarded around the league as a teacher and tactician, according to FOX NFL analyst Bucky Brooks.
“He will push and challenge them, but also love them up,” Brooks said. “He has a grittiness about him that works in Tennessee.”
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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