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AP photo by Mark Humphrey / Tennessee Titans safety Rodney Clemons (47) and cornerback Tre Swilling take part in a drill Wednesday in Nashville.

NASHVILLE — When the Tennessee Titans began their offseason program this year, All-Pro safety Kevin Byard made clear they wanted to be the NFL's top defense.

Now busy in the final stage of that offseason program, Byard is less focused on setting big goals and more concerned about doing what it takes to have a chance to reach them.

"I'm not going to necessarily put any great expectations, even though I said we're trying to be the No. 1 defense," said the 28-year-old Byard, a third-round draft pick in 2016 out of Middle Tennessee State who earned his second All-Pro first-team selection last season.

"But as of right now," Byard added, "it's mainly just about learning and trying to make sure we're getting everybody together, learning the schemes."

The Titans earned the AFC's No. 1 seed for the playoffs this past January in large part because of how much better the defense played than in recent seasons. Eight starters return this year, and three others who started at least five games apiece are also back, so it's reasonable to expect Tennessee's defense to be even better.

"Hopefully we can turn the page a little bit quicker on those types of things," defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said, "and get a little bit more involved as we go just based on their familiarity with the system, what we're asking them to do, the culture, the play style, all the stuff that comes into being on this team."

The Titans were much improved on defense after a woeful 2020 season. Last season they ranked second against the run, giving up 84.6 rushing yards per game, 12th in total defense (329.8 yards per game), sixth in scoring defense (20.8 points allowed per game) and ninth with 43 sacks. And after ranking last by a wide margin in allowing third-down conversions in 2020, they were sixth in 2021.

Byard had five interceptions and a career-high 111 tackles, while linebacker Harold Landry had a career-high 12 sacks to earn a new contract. Defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons had a career-high 8.5 sacks and earned All-Pro votes, and Denico Autry had nine sacks, making the Titans the only NFL team with three players with at least eight sacks last season. The Titans then tied a postseason record with nine sacks in their divisional playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who reached the Super Bowl.

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AP photo by Mark Humphrey / Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel talks to players during voluntary offseason drills Wednesday in Nashville.

And Tennessee's success came while using 26 different defensive starters as injuries forced the Titans to use an NFL-high 91 players overall, the most in any season without a strike.

In addition, linebacker Bud Dupree has a year in this defense after working his way back from a torn ACL, and the Titans recently added defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker, the 51st overall pick out of Florida State by the Denver Broncos in 2017 who's now with his third team. Walker has 12.5 career sacks, and being surrounded by so many pass rushers should help him play even better.

"They took a big step," said Walker, who played last season with the Houston Texans, one of the Titans' AFC South Division rivals. "My goal is to help them take another step."

The Titans will have to determine a starter opposite cornerback Kristian Fulton, with veteran Jackrabbit Jenkins a salary cap cut in March.

Caleb Farley, Tennessee's first-round pick last year, has been practicing with a noncontact jersey as he returns from a season-ending ACL tear. Elijah Molden, a third-round pick last year, started seven games. The Titans drafted Roger McCreary out of Auburn in the second round this year for more depth and also brought back veteran Greg Mabin, who started two games in 2020.

"When we're all playing well, guys get paid and guys have great stats," Byard said. "So that's definitely going to be the plan this year."

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