NASHVILLE — For the Tennessee Titans, swapping out a bunch of players for new ones combined with others performing better has made a world of defensive difference.
The defense is coming off its best showing of the season, a 27-3 home win this past weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs in which the Titans forced three turnovers, had a season-high four sacks and held star quarterback Patrick Mahomes to a career-low 62.3 passer rating.
The improvement isn't a one-game wonder, though. Led by outside linebacker Harold Landry, the Titans rank 10th in the NFL this season with 17 sacks — two off their total for all of 2020, when they ranked 30th — and they're giving up fewer points.
"We're just playing with a lot of confidence, a lot of swagger," Tennessee safety Kevin Byard said Wednesday. "Guys are flying around, having fun, making plays."
The Titans (5-2) also believe they can be better if they can quit giving up big plays and force more turnovers. The reigning AFC South champions will return to division play Sunday, when they visit the Indianapolis Colts (3-4).
"All our games this year, the games we won, the games we have success on defense, we didn't give up the big play, made teams earn it," Byard said. "I think we have to continue that philosophy and obviously continue to get turnovers."
Kansas City avoided the shutout with a field goal in the third quarter, but it's the fewest points Tennessee has allowed since shutting out the host New York Giants on Dec. 16, 2018. The Chiefs, who have reached the Super Bowl each of the past two seasons, hadn't been held to three points since Dec. 30, 2012 — their final game before Andy Reid was hired as coach.
"It was a beautiful sight to see, seeing everybody out there make plays," linebacker Rashaan Evans said after the game. "Whenever you see something like that, it is just contagious."
Tennessee has held opponents to an average of 23.4 points a game this season, which is tied for 15th. Last year, the Titans ranked 24th at 27.4 points allowed per game.
Pressure up front has been key. Bud Dupree, a big offseason addition via free agency who was recovering from injury, got his first sack this season to end the Chiefs' first possession. Lineman Denico Autry, another offseason signee, led the Titans with two sacks against Kansas City, and his quarterback pressure set up an interception by Byard, his third this season.
Landry already has two more sacks than he managed all of last season, and the fourth-year linebacker is 1.5 off his career high of nine. Landry pressured plenty of quarterbacks in 2020, but outside linebackers coach Ryan Crow said Landry is finishing off pass rushes now, while he was an inch or an arm away before.
The Titans have had to patch, mix and match on defense because of injuries. Dupree missed three games before returning against the Buffalo Bills, while linebacker David Long has started six games with Jayon Brown on injured reserve.
The secondary has been hit hardest. Cornerback Kristian Fulton, who moved into the starting lineup this season, is on injured reserve, with a hamstring the listed reason. Cornerback and top draft pick Caleb Farley tore an ACL. Safety Amani Hooker, who replaced Kenny Vaccaro as a starter, recently returned from IR.
Yet the Titans are tied for sixth when backed up inside their own 20, having allowed opponents to score 50% of the time inside the red zone. That's a big leap from last season, when they ranked 30th at 69.2%.
"We just know what we are capable of on the defensive side of the ball," Landry said after the lopsided win against the Chiefs. "We just have so much belief and confidence that we are capable of what we put out there. Just have to keep doing what we are doing. That performance out there could be more consistent."