TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Tennessee Titans defense has a mantra that keeps their energy high at practice. "Top 10, top 10," they yelled for weeks. Now, it's, "Top five, top five."
Those words represent NFL top defensive rankings, which are categorized by yards per game. Those simple words mean something significant for the Titans defense: respect.
"We’re a defense that knows we’re going to have to earn our respect," said safety Kevin Byard, who is tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions. "I know we weren’t ranked well at the beginning of the year. We started to play better and we look up -- then we’re top 10."
The Titans defense, particularly their secondary, has been an overachieving bunch and Reason No. 1 why the team is 8-5 and in good position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They rank ninth in the NFL, giving up just 323.3 yards per game. It's nearly 35 yards fewer a game than they gave up last season.
Byard points to an embarrassing 57-14 loss at Houston in Week 4 as the mark of their turnaround. They've been a different bunch since that day, allowing more than 22 points just once.
"It was a punch in the gut," Byard said about the early-season loss to the Texans. "We responded and now we’re playing at the highest level we’ve played at."
Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau deserves a lot of credit for getting the most of a group that most considered a weakness for the Titans coming into the season. The leadership and consistency of veteran cornerback Logan Ryan, playmaking ability of Byard, and rapid progression of rookie cornerback Adoree' Jackson have helped the Titans rank among the NFL's best in preventing big plays.
"I just call the defense and get out of the way," LeBeau said. "I let them go."
Maybe the least surprising part of the Titans' top-10 defense is their front seven. It's a group of solid NFL players, led by Jurrell Casey and Wesley Woodyard, who likely don't have a ton of national name value outside of Nashville. That bunch is the primary reason the Titans have 20 sacks over the past three games. It's the best run in Titans history, and something LeBeau said he doesn't remember seeing in his 59-year NFL playing and coaching career.
It's a topic of pride in the locker room, but they're not yet satisfied with being a top-10 defense. Respect comes with long-term consistency and more turnovers. They'll seek more of both Sunday at San Francisco.