The Tennessee Titans thoroughly dominated the Los Angeles Rams in shocking fashion at SoFi Stadium in primetime on Sunday night, passing their first post-Derrick-Henry test with flying colors. The 7-2 Titans continue to embark on an active and impressive five-game winning streak while continuing to place distance between themselves and the rest of the AFC for the race for the No. 1 seed in an unpredictable and jumbled conference.
The Titans relied on a dominant defensive performance in Inglewood. Star players Jeffery Simmons and Kevin Byard were on their worst behavior and continue to perform at an All-Pro level. First-year defensive coordinator Shane Bowen (now in an official capacity, at least) has led a blindsiding defensive renaissance in Tennessee this season. While players such as Byard and Simmons have helped turn this unit around, a free agent acquisition in his first year with the Titans deserves a lot more credit than he's currently receiving nationally.
31-year-old defensive lineman Denico Autry was a constant thorn in Los Angeles' backside and has been playing at that level all season long. Autry recorded five pressures and 1.5 sacks against the Rams, via Next Gen Stats, bringing his season total to five quarterback takedowns. Autry, who signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Titans in the offseason, is threatening to surpass his career-high of nine sacks recorded back in 2018 as a member of Tennessee’s division rival Indianapolis Colts.
Autry's excellent play has had a profound impact on Tennessee's surging defense. Playing for more than just himself, one of the most underrated aspects of Autry's current form is the trickle-down effect he's having on his teammates. Outside linebacker Harold Landry is experiencing a career season, having already matched his previous high in sacks (nine) with eight games left to play. Simmons, who recorded three first-half sacks and a career-high 10 pressures against the Rams, has already posted a career-high 5.5 sacks.
It's a stark and unexpected turnaround for a defense that recorded a pathetic 19 sacks a year ago, despite already featuring the services of both Landry and Simmons. While it's fair to assume both players have simply improved in 2021, neither player had an ounce of help from a teammate in 2020. Autry's ability to collapse the pocket has oftentimes led signal-callers into the path of Simmons and Landry, and all three defenders are reaping the benefits of their current form. The Titans have not only surpassed last season’s sack totals, but have established themselves as one of the elite’s in that category, and are currently tied for the fifth-most sacks in the NFL with 23.
Simmons, who has particularly bonded with Autry over their shared history at Mississippi State, has been quick to shower Autry with compliments.
"That's [Autry] my dog, man," Simmons said following the victory over the Rams. "When he first came in, I immediately realized the knowledge I could get from him. We talked about technique and working your hands. Hearing and learning from a guy like him, who plays both inside and out on the edge, it's great to have him on our team. I couldn't be more excited. I'm thrilled the Colts allowed him to come to us."
The Titans have moved Autry all over their defensive formation to great success. On any given down, he may line up next to Simmons inside at his natural position. When prized free-agent acquisition Bud Dupree needs a breather due to his ongoing recovery from offseason ACL surgery, Autry has kicked outside and given opposing offensive tackles fits while screaming off the edge. It's the type of versatility and front multiplicity that has given this Tennessee team a new attitude on defense.
Tennessee has the appearance of legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the AFC, and the addition of Autry just may help them achieve their lofty goals in 2021.