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'Once we’re at our best, we’re unbeatable:' How Jeffery Simmons gives the Titans bite
This team has no business being the No. 1 seed. But, somehow, the Tennessee Titans just kept winning through their injuries. The No. 1 reason? This defensive tackle who's always wrecking games.
The Tennessee Titans are the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Shocking, I know. Most playoff coaches try to brand their team as underdogs this time of year with tough-guy, blue-collar’d press conferences. Players claim to be disrespected. Social media departments work overtime spamming Instagram accounts with anything negative said about their team.
All of the us-against-the-world tropes get old.
But then, there’s the Titans. Outside of the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, no top seed has been ignored to this extreme in years.
Think about it. When did you stop caring about the Titans? Maybe it was on Oct. 31 when Derrick Henry suffered a foot injury. (He hasn’t played since.) Maybe it was on Nov. 21 when they lost to the Houston Texans. Or six days later when they placed A.J. Brown on injured reserve. (He missed five weeks.) Or when you saw Ryan Tannehill throw one of his 14 interceptions and declared him the Same ‘ol Tannehill, nothing but a poison pill come January.
All the Titans did the final 2 ½ months of this season was take on the identity of their head coach, Mike Vrabel, who our Bob McGinn profiled here. There should be zero debate for coach of the year. The Titans lost the heartbeat of their team, Henry, and still went 6-3 to secure homefield advantage in the AFC.
Of course, this sort of run also takes a player embodying everything Vrabel’s preaching.
The one most responsible for these beautifully grimy wins, on the field, is defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. On a severely overlooked team, he’s the severely overlooked star. After getting snubbed for the Pro Bowl, Simmons was rightfully honored as an All-Pro defensive tackle. The numbers say plenty — 54 tackles (42 solo) with 8.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits — but, with him, the numbers never do justice. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Simmons, in his third pro season, finds a way to directly affect every single drive.
He’s the one picking up and moving other humans one direction or the other to hijack plays more than anyone else. To date, it hasn’t really mattered if Simmons is facing a pass-first team or a run-first team, either. He wrecks games regardless. Tennessee faces the red-hot Joe Burrow next and the Cincinnati Bengals are more than capable of pulling this upset. It’s do-or-die time for these Titans, a team that’s too often fallen short this time of year since their lone Super Bowl appearance in 1999.
Simmon served as this team’s Atlas when the sky should’ve fallen, when this 2021-22 season should’ve collapsed on everyone.
Now, he can give everyone no choice but to respect the Titans.
“Everything is a playoff mindset,” Simmons says. “You can’t lose from here on out, so that’s the mindset. I have to be my best. I have to own that 3-technique. I have to own the interior D-Line. No one’s going to run the ball my way. Even with the double-teams, I want to have an effect on the play. Even when I’m getting double-teamed. That has to be the mindset, not only from me, but everybody around me. I don’t think any team wants to see us when we’re at our best. Once we’re at our best, we’re unbeatable. So we go in with that type of mindset — ‘When we’re at our best, nobody can beat us.’ Me personally, when I’m at my best, I make everybody else around me play their best.”
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The great news for Tennessee is that Henry could return Saturday. He likely would’ve shattered the NFL rushing record if he stayed healthy. If his foot’s healed (a major “if,” of course), all of that time off will prove to be a blessing. He could return fresher than ever. Brown has been back. His 11-catch, 145-yard night against San Francisco reminded all he can take over a game in his own right.
And, on defense, bank on Simmons making the play the Titans need.
Right when most teams are in pain, the injury-ravaged Titans are healing.
“We’re just getting started,” Simmons says. “Everyone’s kind of just coming back. I think that’s the best thing about our team right now. We’re getting everyone back and hopefully through this run we can put it all together and win the ultimate goal. That’s the Super Bowl.”
From his contour of the field, it’s historically difficult to change a game. Some of the best defensive tackles ever have finished with three or four sacks in a season. They’re often clogging lanes so others can shine. (Which is why Olin Kreutz was right on our Happy Hour. Ted Washington should get more Hall-of-Fame buzz.) Where the 300-pounders roam, if you’re talented, it’s fairly easy for an opposing offense to simply run the ball away from you or call a protection that neutralizes your pass rush. Even the greats like three-time defensive player of the year Aaron Donald can go 30 or 40 snaps without making an impact.
Yet those greats — like Donald, like Simmons — still find a way over the course of a game.
Simmons absolutely puts himself in this Donald stratosphere, and for good reason. He, too, is Priority No. 1 for opposing coordinators yet he, too, finds the football.
“I want to be dominant,” says Simmons, whose 58 quarterback pressures ranked second amongst all interior players, per Next Gen. “I want to be that guy — no matter what, whether it’s a run, pass, screen — I want to be around the ball. I want to be around every play or at least help my teammates make the plays. I watch other D-Linemen around the league and I think what separates me is no matter where the ball’s at, when you turn on the film, I’m going to be coming. … I want to show my team that, no matter what it is, they can count on me to be around the ball. That’s what separates me. To be around the ball no matter what.
“I get double-teamed a lot. But when I do get the single block, I’m trying to win for sure. When I get doubled, that’s when it stands out to everybody around—the coaches and everyone else—that, most guys get double-teamed and they think the play is over for them. I think that’s when you have to work harder to get off them double-teams and go help and make the play. That’s my thing. Even when I’m getting double-teamed, I’m still finding a way to get around the ball.”
In the Titans’ first game without Henry, against Donald’s Rams in LA, Simmons supplied the initial sense of calm that everything would be A-OK.
He was the one lassoing Matthew Stafford to the turf in the end zone, forcing a JV-level interception to linebacker David Long. Simmons had three sacks in all on national TV and the most impressive was his bench-pressing of 6-foot-6, 308-pound Wisconsin-grad David Edwards. Simmons embarrassed Edwards by tilting him immediately onto his heels and driving him into Stafford to sack the quarterback. With a rare one-on-one opportunity, he knew he needed to seize the opportunity.
The Titans won, 28-16.
The next week, Simmons had two sacks in a 23-21 win over New Orleans. He comically trashed the 6-foot-4, 314-pound Caser Ruiz and, post-sack, punched the air and stomped his foot. A season that should’ve fallen apart stayed right on track.
Meanwhile, other teams in the AFC ebbed.
Buffalo worked through its physicality crisis. Indianapolis and New England collapsed at the worst possible time. The L.A. Chargers couldn’t stop going for it on fourth down and petered out.
Tennessee? Vrabel’s crew chugged right along. Whenever he does get the chance to go mano-a-mano with an offensive guard, Simmons strikes. He doesn’t tap out to catch his breath much, either. Simmons has played 50-plus snaps in 12 games this season which, always, lends itself to a game within the game. He’s always trying to take up residency inside the brain of a lineman.
“I don’t know if there’s another guy who talks as much smack as me on the field,” Simmons says. “I talk a lot of smack. Guys get a little annoyed but I don’t care. To me, that’s part of the game. That’s how I play. I’m going to talk. I was always told, ‘If you’re going to talk, you’ve got to back it up.’ … Of course, playing that many snaps against a guy the whole game, you’re getting double-teamed and you finally get that 1 on 1? You’re like, ‘Thank you.’”
In the Titans’ 34-3 wipeout of the Miami Dolphins, Simmons was getting doubled so he was blunt to guard Robert Hunt, the 39th overall pick in the 2020 draft. He tested his manhood during a timeout by stating, bluntly, “You can’t block me 1 on 1.” The very next play, Hunt was all alone. Hunt took the bait.
The best trash talk, he adds, cannot be shared publicly.
“Other than just telling guys they suck,” he says, “or whatever it may be.”
He comes awfully close to crossing the line. Ravens guard Marshal Yanda once accused Simmons, then a rookie, of spitting in his face. To which Simmons said he knows what he did and didn’t do. Whatever went down in that playoff win, Simmons tends to marinate this Titans defense with the belligerence it’s always needed. That same year, nine months after tearing his ACL, he pancaked the ultimate pancaker: Quenton Nelson.
More players on this defense are following him, too.
Simmons sees players feeding off each other. Whenever someone makes a play, they celebrate. They yap. And he is no fan of offensive linemen pushing the pile toward the end of plays. This season, for some reason, officials have been late to whistle plays dead which is why you’ve seen behemoth guards shoving their running backs forward an extra three yards in piles. All bush league to Simmons. If one of these rugby-style scrums breaks out, count on No. 98 busting through it like a one-man Cue Ball.
Doing this got him flagged against the Colts this season, but whatever. Simmons won’t allow the double-standard.
“My mindset is, if I’m running to the ball, and it’s right there, that’s my play to make. No matter what, I want to be around the ball. You never know. The ball might come out.”
So, turnovers aren’t complete luck. Last year, Simmons had three fumble recoveries.
To Terrell Williams, the team’s defensive line coach, the key is stamina.
Simmons keeps himself in “unbelievable” shape, he says, so he’s able to truly finish games. When offensive guards are starting to wear down, Simmons still has enough juice to waste them with a swim move or a bull rush. Not unlike Henry heating up as a running back deep into the fourth quarter. These Titans thrive late in games. Williams coached both Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake when they make Pro Bowls in Miami and what’s most impressive about Simmons to him is the “unseen.” All of the plays that don’t translate to a metric.
“It’s taking on a double-team late and not getting knocked back to allow a linebacker to make the tackle,” Williams says. “For me, I know everybody looks at stats and says, ‘He has this many tackles and sacks and QB pressures and all of that.’ For me, as a position coach, I’m looking at his effect on the other guys who are playing with him. He allows other people to be better. To me, that’s what a great player is going to do. He makes his plays, the plays he’s supposed to make. But he also makes other players around him better.”
So, similar to Donald, intelligence may be his greatest asset.
Too often, we think the line of scrimmage is just a bunch of 300-pounders mashing into each other. That’s not the case with technicians like Simmons, Donald and Kansas City’s Chris Jones.
Typically, players are off on Monday and Tuesday. What they choose to do is up to them, Williams notes. But by the time the Titans reconvene on Wednesday, Simmons has already ripped the film of the Titans’ next opponent. He’s already plotting ways to win that coveted one-on-one. He investigated where a running back’s toes are pointed presnap or how a lineman takes his first step. This took time. Williams admits Simmons wasn’t this way as a rookie. Now, he’s a leader ready for this moment.
“He is top-shelf as far as his football IQ,” Williams says. “He understands what teams are doing and how they’re trying to attack him individually and how they’re trying to attack us defensively. And that comes with film study.”
Along the way, the Titans have been patching a roster together. No team in league history has been hit this hard by injuries. By Week 12, with five games to spare, they broke the league record for most players used in a season: 86.
“We’re a bunch of fighters,” Williams says. “We try to find a way. He embodies that.”
At no point did the Titans’ defense discuss the need to step it up with Henry sidelined, Simmons adds, let alone dwell on it. The goal is always to be the No. 1 rushing defense and they were a mere two yards away from that feat.
Tennessee allowed only three runs of 20-plus yards in 17 games, best in the NFL.
Says Simmons: “No matter who’s on the field, all 11, we’re hunting. We’re hungry. Everybody’s trying to make the play.”
Into 2021, the thinking was that the Titans would put up 30-plus points with ease. There were simply too many weapons here. Injuries hit. They needed to win low-scoring games to get by and the identity of the team shifted toward guys like Simmons, Harold Landry (12 sacks) and Denico Autry (nine sacks) up front. On the back end, Kevin Byard is arguably the best safety in the league. He finished with a team-high 88 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles. Now, Simmons has every right to think Super Bowl. If Henry and Brown and Julio Jones (remember him?) are all healthy, Tennessee will easily surpass its 24.6 points per game average on the season, which ranked 15th in the NFL.
The mentality needed for this moment is rooted in Macon, Miss., of course.
His mother raised five kids by herself. Simmons says he and his older brother were the only boys and, simply, “couldn’t be soft.” Not with their Mom laid off, out of a job and forced to drive an hour away to Meridian, Miss., whenever she did find work. They were the men of the house. When it was time to have fun, they went at it in the backyard. Boxing was a go-to. They’d put gloves on and fight.
“You had no other choice but to be tough growing up in our household,” he says.
Simmons is also very close to his uncle, Jason Hatcher, an NFL defensive lineman himself from 2006 through 2015. They train together, communicate regularly and even launched the sports agency, “Walking Business Sports Group.” Hatcher, who had 11 sacks in ‘13, is always quick to supply advice before and after games.
You bet Simmons was pissed when he wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl, too.
He won’t completely let it go.
“When I watch the film,” he says, “and I’m watching other teams play, I don’t see guys playing the way I play. I don’t see it.”
He believes Jones was deserving. He has a ton of respect for the fellow Mississippian. Simmons thanks fans for their votes, too — he was their No. 1 vote-getter at defensive tackle. But players and coaches make up the other two-thirds of Pro Bowl voting and he sure sounds stunned that Indianapolis’ DeForest Buckner and Pittsburgh’s Cam Heyward got the nod over him.
“It was kind of a smack in the face,” he says, “In my mind, when we play — especially the teams in my division — I’m going to make them, for sure, feel that. I’m here. That was my mindset. It was a smack in the face from a team I played this year that had a vote, a say so on that side.
“I’m always one to say ‘the eye in the sky don’t lie.’ I got over it. The year I got drafted by the Tennessee Titans, 2 ½ years ago, that shows they believed in me. They know what player I am. The other teams didn’t trust or believe in me enough. Those 18 other teams didn’t pick me. So that helped me get over all of that stuff. I have a team that believes in me and great teammates around me that know what type of player I am and that each and every Sunday, I’m going to give it my best.”
Now, Simmons can get the last laugh.
The Colts didn’t make the playoffs. A shocking loss in Jacksonville ruined their plans.
These Titans are now only two home wins away from the Super Bowl. If they get past Burrow, don’t expect them to be too blinded by Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, either. Back when they were at full strength, the Titans beat both MVP-caliber quarterbacks. They clobbered the Chiefs when the Chiefs were at their lowest of lows. And on Monday Night Football, Simmons was the hero. He knocked Pro Bowl Bills tackle Dion Dawkins on his backside and smothered Allen on a fourth-and-1 sneak to win the game.
Know this about Simmons, too: He loves to fish.
Whenever he is back home, a pond is his happy place. Nothing else matters when he’s got a bobber in the water. His best story? Probably the time his line got stuck and he jumped right into the water to retrieve this gift from his grandfather.
“I was not going to lose that,” Simmons says. “That was probably the worst smell I had on my body.”
And he kept fishing that day, too.
These Titans didn’t win in a visually pleasing fashion this season. It’s been quite gross at times, but they kept winning. Nobody should be too surprised if that trend continues, too.