Last season, Logan Ryan was the answer to a lot of Tennessee’s problems on defense. With a defensive front heavy on sub-packages and a rush plan predicated on twisting both first- and second-level defenders, they needed a slot cover corner who could fill against the run and contribute as a legitimate blitzing threat. And when they left him in zone coverage behind their blitz packages, they needed him to be quick to recognize route concepts and able to make quick plays on the ball to immediately limit YAC.
Ryan was as well-suited to this role as any player in the league, and his production matched the many requirements of the Titans defense. Ryan had 113 tackles, 4.5 sacks, four tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, 18 passes defended, and four interceptions—those numbers were all top five among defensive backs in the 2019 season.
But for all of his production, Ryan actually struggled in coverage overall. An aging player whose movement skills are perhaps more suited to safety than corner, Ryan was targeted more than any slot corner in the league in 2019, and his 1.71 yards allowed per coverage snap in the slot were seventh-worst. Teams understandably preferred targeting Ryan over outside corners in Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler, but he wasn’t just the worst of a good bunch—he was actually pretty bad.
So the Titans let him walk in free agency, clearly hunting a better cover player in the slot; they even tossed around the idea of moving Jackson into the slot to improve the play there. It’s important to remember that Dean Pees is no longer the defensive shot-caller in Tennessee, with Mike Vrabel taking over the defense upon Pees’ retirement—they were going to change their priorities.
Well, through the first half of the Ryan-less season, the Titans defense kinda blows. With Jackson sidelined with a knee injury, Johnathan Joseph started at outside corner with mixed results—he’s produced nicely on the ball, but has also given up a healthy 16.6 yards/reception. Seventh-rounder Chris Jackson and second-rounder Kristian Fulton alternated starting spots in the slot, both struggling mightily as Jackson lacks the talent, and Fulton is built for playing outside corner.
As expected with Jackson out and Ryan not fully replaced, coverage is suffering in Tennessee—and the pass-rush isn't helping. Jeffery Simmons leads the team with two sacks through six games, with Harold Landry falling off of last season’s nine-sack pace and free agent add Jadeveon Clowney yet to turn any of his six QB hits to an actual sack—as has always been the story with Clowney. Even before the Titans’ loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and their suffering offensive line on Sunday, they were 17th in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate: just average.
The return of Ryan wouldn’t solve all of the Titans’ problems, but it would solve some of them. He would be a veteran addition to the slot, even for his coverage struggles, and would bring back the quality blitzing that the Titans relied on last season. Unfortunately for Tennessee, Ryan was no longer available—but Los Angeles Chargers slot defender Desmond King was.
King was a fifth-round pick out of Iowa in 2017, a potential corner-to-safety convert because of poor athleticism and quality zone awareness. A physical tackler who was aggressive working into run plays or blitzing downhill, King was comped by a few people to Ryan during his draft cycle. Through King’s first 3.5 seasons as a pro, that comparison holds—but King is likely better.
King has regressed a bit in man coverage as compared to his All-Pro campaign in 2018, when his three interceptions and 10 PBUs from the slot contributed to an astounding defensive backfield in Los Angeles: Derwin James, Adrian Phillips, Jahleel Addae, and Casey Hayward. With that said, King’s 1.19 yards/slot coverage snap allowed in 2019 were still better than anything Ryan did last year, and his 0.44 yards/slot coverage snap allowed this year is the third-best figure in the league. It’s been a while since King was blitzed like Ryan was last season, but when King was a rookie, he generated three sacks and seven pressures on 25 pass-rush reps, grading out with top-10 pass-rush productivity among all defensive backs for PFF.
King only became available because of acrimony with the Chargers coaching staff, as he’s levied complaints about playing time across the 2020 season. With the Titans, he should have no such concerns—and prove motivated to justify his frustration with Anthony Lynn and Gus Bradley with quality play. There is a sound argument to be made that the Chargers just got a younger Ryan, and with that acquisition and the return of Jackson to full health, could have squared away most of their coverage issues on the back end. Of course, integrating King will take time, and he’ll play more man coverage in Tennessee than he did with the Chargers, where Cover 3 reigned supreme—so don’t expect immediate perfection. But this is a savvy move for a low cost. Even if the Titans choose to let King walk after this season, they should expect to return a compensatory pick around the sixth-rounder they sent for him.
Jon Robinson remains one of the best general managers in the game, and kudos belong to Vrabel, Jim Haslett, and the defensive coaching staff in Tennessee for their willingness to recognize the strength of the 2019 defense that they thought they could smooth over in 2020. This team’s structure needs a Logan Ryan in it, and King can fill those shoes perhaps better than Ryan ever did. It takes humility and awareness to make this move, and if it comes with an accompanying shift in defensive structure to give King the Ryan role, it should prove profitable for Tennessee’s struggling defense.
- Dec 06, 2022
- Dec 05, 2022