When Derek Carr looks across the line of scrimmage and makes his pre-snap reads, the Las Vegas Raiders quarterback will be looking for No. 98 and No. 31 on the Tennessee Titans defense. And for good reason.
Those two particular individuals — Jeffery Simmons and Kevin Byard — are one of the league’s best defensive tackle and safety, respectively, and if not accounted for, both can wreck the Raiders game plan. Regardless of the Titans 0-2 mark (coincidentally the same record the Silver & Black sport) Simmons and Byard are every bit effective.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Simmons is a domineering defensive tackle in the middle of Tennessee’s defensive line. He’s equal parts power and suddenness which makes him capable both rushing the passer and snuffing out the run. He’s got two sacks on the season (both against the New York Giants in the season opener) and has six combined tackles with two stops for loss on the young season. He wasn’t much of a factor against the Buffalo Bills (only a pass deflection on his stat sheet) this past Monday night, but that was due in large part Tennessee’s offensive ineptitude in the lopsided 41-7 loss.
“Simmons is an elite player,” Raiders offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi noted in his mid-week media session as Las Vegas prepped for Tennessee. “He obviously has great size, great length, great explosiveness, can play the run and the pass. There’s a reason he was an All-Pro player. He just has a high motor. For a guy that big, who’s that strong and explosive, he plays every snap to the end. You have to be competitive and fight hard for the whole entire game against him because he’s productive first, second, third down and in the red area.”
The Raiders don’t have to go very far to get some insight on Simmons as hard-hitting safety Johnathan Abram went to Mississippi State with the defensive tackle. In fact, the pair are only separated by eight picks when both were taken in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft (Simmons at 19th overall, Abram at 27th).
Which brings us to the Titans’ own talented safety. Like Simmons, Byard is a master of his domain in the defensive backfield. Equal parts enforcer and ball hawk, if the 5-foot-11, 212-pound Byard isn’t hitting a receiving option, he’s taking the ball away. His coverage skills aren’t up to snuff through the first two games — defending gunslinging Bills quarterback Josh Allen will do that to any defensive back — if the Raiders aren’t deliberate with the aerial attack, Byard can make Las Vegas pay. Much like the Raiders are attempting with Abram, Byard is an every-down, multi-faceted safety.
“He’s all over the place,” Lombardi said of the Titans safety. “They use him in very different ways, whether it’s coverage, whether that’s in the deep portion of the field. He reads the quarterback fairly well. They use him as a blitzer. So, you have to be ready for him in terms of every scenario and every situation.”
Tennessee is champing at the bit to get notch their first win of the 2022 campaign and are likely going to pull out all the stops at home against visiting Las Vegas in order to get a W. That’ll entail relying heavily on Simmons and Byard to combat a Raiders offense that clicked in the first half of an eventual overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
“Where do those guys make their plays? They make them on early downs, but they also make them on third down and in the red area,” Lombardi said of Simmons and Byard. “We have to make sure that if they create negative plays in the game, we have to try and eliminate those. But, again, they’re coached very well — Mike Vrabel does a great job with those guys. They have a high motor, and they compete hard. They’re a tough team, so we have to be ready to go on Sunday.”
Part of attempting to lessen the Titans defensive players’ impacts will flow through Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. His pre-snap read will facilitate itself into sticking with the play as called, checking or barking out alerts, and dummy calls to shroud what Las Vegas intends to do. While some questioned Carr’s ability to audible, Lombardi noted DC4 has the greenlight to do so.
“Yeah, Derek plays quarterback and he runs our offense on the field. So, he’s running our offense and whatever the game plan is for that specific Sunday, he’s going to try and do that,” Lombardi noted.
Against the Raiders
—Simmons has played one career game against the Silver & Black (Dec. 8, 2019) and finished with five total tackles, one sack and two stops for loss in Tennesee’s 42-21 dubbing of then-Oakland.
—Byard has played the Raiders three times in his career (2016, 2017 and 2019) and has a total of 20 tackles to go along with a quarterback hit. None of his 23-career INTs has come against the Raiders.
—Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill struggled mightily against the Bills throwing two interceptions (one returned ), and getting sacked twice in a 11 of 20 for 117 yards performance. Against the Silver & Black, however, Tannehill is 4-0 (three wins as the Miami Dolphins signal caller, one with the Titans) against the Raiders going 79 of 111 (71.17 completion percentage) for 1,158 yards, nine touchdowns, two interceptions while getting sacked twice.