NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Hey, did you know that Tennessee Titans (5-3) safety Kevin Byard leads the NFL in interceptions (six) and has seven total takeaways through eight games this season?No? Ok, let me say it again: Titans safety Kevin Byard leads the NFL with six interceptions and has seven total takeaways through eight games this season.
These stats have been hammered into the public’s collective consciousness ad nauseam…and we are only four days removed from when the second-year safety hauled in his fifth and sixth picks of the year in a 23-20 home win Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens (4-5)
The way that social media influences our sports coverage today often does not allow us the time to truly soak in the gravity of players’, coaches’ and teams’ accomplishments before we are forced to move on to the next hot topic. A flurry of information on the same subject fills our timelines immediately and buries us in “takes” to the point where we often grow bored with big stories the same day they occur.
The world’s shortening attention span truly is shameful but we will try and solve that problem at a later date. It cannot be overstated, though, just how impressive not only Byard has been but also the improvements of the Titans defense.
Before the outing against Baltimore, the Middle Tennessee State product recorded three interceptions in a 12-9 overtime victory against the Cleveland Browns (0-8), making him the first Tennessee Titan/Houston Oiler in franchise history to record that many picks in a two-game span. And, since the AFL-NFL merger (1970), Byard in only the fifth NFL player to pull off that feat along with names such as Mike Haynes (1976), Willie Buchanon (1978), Albert Lewis (1985) and DeAngelo Hall (2010).
“I don’t know if you’ve ever played (NBA) 2K,” Byard joked with the media after the Titans topped Baltimore. “But in the game you start making a lot of shots and your guy turns red – you get that ring around you. It means he’s hot. Well, I kind of feel like I’m in a zone.”
MTSU fans are intimately familiar with Byard’s “zone.” During his career as a Blue Raider, he recorded 19 career picks, the school’s all-time record.
— Buck Reising (@BuckReising) November 8, 2017
Byards numbers are exceptional but he is not the only Titans defender making plays recently. In fact, the defensive efforts are contributing as heavily as anything else to this team’s success.
Much has been made about the way the Titans have been winning more than the fact that they are winning at all. Regardless of what you think of their aesthetics, this team under coach Mike Mularkey finds ways to gut out close victories.
Since the beginning of the 2016 season (Mularkey’s first as head coach without the interim tag), Tennessee is undefeated (6-0) in games decided by three points or less. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers remain unbeaten (2-0) in contests decided by a maximum of three points across that same span of time.
The wins come, even if they’re not pleasing to the eye.
The success in those margins can be attributed on both sides of the ball. Though it is the drastic improvements on defense in 2017, particularly the secondary, that has kept this team afloat.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s unit has allowed only 16 completions of 20 yards or more this season, an NFL low. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was unable to to complete a single pass of 20+ yards. And, while defensive backs Da’Norris Searcy, Tye Smith and Curtis Riley are the only other Titans with interceptions this season (one each), the remade unit featuring Byard and new additions at corner Logan Ryan (free agency) and Adoree’ Jackson (18th-overall pick in the 2017 draft) are not letting teams beat them deep.
For reference, they ranked 26th in the NFL by allowing a total of 56 receptions of 20 or more yards in 2016.
“That’s the level we are playing at,” Ryan said following Tennessee’s most recent win. “We know that Baltimore has a really good defense, and a really good secondary, and we took it upon ourselves to outplay them, and show people the Titans secondary, and show people the Titans defense. We’ve been playing at a pretty high level, and practicing at a higher level, so we aren’t surprised.”
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) November 5, 2017
This group is feeling themselves, without a doubt; they have every right to be.
Byard, Ryan and co. now rank sixth-best in the league allowing 6.4 yards per attempt by their opponents, along with a Top 10 rushing defense, superhuman efforts by vets Wesley Woodyard and Jurrell Casey and unexpected contributions like what they’re getting in fifth-round pick Jayon Brown. Add in the fact that the Titans have allowed only four total touchdowns by opposing offenses in their last four games and the result is a cohesive unit playing lights out to keep their opponents in-check.
Quite a departure from the 57-point total scored against them at Houston in Week 4.
With another interception this coming Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals (3-5), Kevin Byard could become only the fourth player in the Super Bowl era (1966) to snag six over a three-game span in one season; two picks and Byard would be the first NFL player in that same era with seven INTs over a three-game span in a single season.
He should be licking his chops preparing for the worst offense in the league and a quarterback in Andy Dalton who is tied for sixth in the league with eight interceptions.
But, as much success as the second-year pro is having, the contributions of the 10 men beside him should not go unnoticed.