Let’s be clear: The Titans offense should be much better than it was in a 16-15 loss to the Saints in Week 1. 

But considering Sunday was his first time passing in a game since Dec. 18 of last year, quarterback Ryan Tannehill deserves some grace for his dreadful three-interception performance and for his shaky decision-making and timing.

Tennessee’s red-zone struggles (0-for-3) could be more of an outlier, too, considering the team has ranked in the top-six in efficiency inside the 20 every season for the past five years. With a new playcaller in Tim Kelly and new personnel, including four new offensive-line starters, some hiccups to start the season should be expected. 

But the defense began 2023 on a positive note — giving up just 16 points, a total that gives any team a strong chance to win — even if the Titans are justified in not being happy with the totality of their performance on that side of the ball. 

“If we want to be a great defense,” coach Mike Vrabel said postgame, “you have to be a great defense all the time.” 

Defense is positioned to lead the Titans this season, as it has for the last two years. Week 1 served as confirmation as to why there are high expectations surrounding Tennessee’s defensive front in particular. It boasts the return of 2021 Pro Bowl outside linebacker Harold Landry, plus the signings of edge rusher Arden Key and inside linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair in free agency. 

The Titans gave up just 69 rushing yards in the opener, fifth-best in the NFL. They had the league’s No. 1 run defense last season (76.9 rushing yards allowed per game) and figure to be in the mix to retain that title in 2023. 

Their presence was felt Sunday in the pass rush, too, posting the second-highest pressure rate per dropback in Week 1 at 51.4%, according to Next Gen Stats. They tied for sixth with four sacks, including fourth in sacks without blitzing (three), per NGS. 

The big standout was Key, who signed a three-year, $21 million deal — including $13 million fully guaranteed — with Tennessee. He proved that he can be more than the rotational and sub-package edge rusher he was utilized as in Jacksonville

Key had a league-high 11 pressures against New Orleans, four more than any other player, proving to be a nightmare for Saints left tackle Trevor Penning

Key also had what appeared to be a sack fumble in the second quarter, after hitting Derek Carr‘s hand as he attempted a pass. Safety Kevin Byard recovered the ball and took it the length of the field for a touchdown, which could’ve given the Titans a 13-3 lead in a game they ultimately lost by one point. But the play was blown dead and ruled an incomplete pass. The call on the field stood after Vrabel challenged the ruling.  

Key’s 36 pressures since Week 14 of last season rank third in the league in that span, according to Next Gen Stats. 

“I know what Arden is going to do,” star defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons said Wednesday of coordinating his rushes with Key. “I know if I see this matchup over here on the right side, I know what’s there and I know he’s going to take it. And the same thing with me. He knows that if I’m rushing against the guard and I tell him, ‘I got him,’ he knows that we’re going to work together. I’m going to cover him, he’s going to cover me. Whatever it may be. It’s just that feeling knowing that you can trust your guys on the field, that [they’ll] make you right.” 

There’s plenty of room for growth defensively. Pass coverage was an Achilles’ heel last season — Tennessee allowed 29 passing touchdowns in 2022, tied for second-most — and that was an issue at times in Sunday’s game.

Most notably, cornerback Kristian Fulton — after returning to the contest with a hamstring issue — gave up a 41-yard completion down the sideline to wide receiver Rashid Shaheed, setting up the Saints’ game-clinching first down. 

“We can’t give up the explosive plays,” Al-Shaair said Monday. “You look at a lot of the drives, those were the things that were hurting us. Giving up those chunk plays. And then obviously the last drive of the game. … It was obviously tough.” 

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The Titans’ revamped offense will likely determine how far this retooled team can go in 2023. But the defense will guarantee that Tennessee remains competitive in the progress — and there’s room for growth there. 

“I just think that as a defense we have to take over games,” cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting said Sunday. “It’s not enough to be able to stay in them, you know? … We have to generate as many turnovers as we can every opportunity that we get. We got to punch the ball. We got to force fumbles.” 

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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