When Tennessee Titans cornerback Caleb Farley thought back to his first NFL joint practices, he noted that they weren’t too bad at first. Except then, "I remember coming out the second day and Tom Brady and Mike Evans just picking me apart.”
"I remember it being very fast," Farley added, "and just being 'Wow' at some of the timing."
Along those same lines, fellow Titans second-year cornerback Elijah Molden winced as he went back and watched himself against Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers last August in Tampa.
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“I was terrible," Molden said. "I was awful."
The memories returned as the Buccaneers are headed to Nashville to reunite with the Titans for joint practices Wednesday and Thursday leading up to Saturday’s preseason game at Nissan Stadium.
No Brady, though. The future Hall of Fame quarterback is on a personal absence and won’t be with Tampa’s team this week. That's a bummer for anyone concerned, including Titans players and onlookers like yours truly. It's all more appealing and interesting if Brady is there.
But he won’t be there, won't be dominating headlines and attention at Saint Thomas Sports Park, won't be visiting with old pal Mike Vrabel after practices – and won't be again helping indoctrinate young Titans defensive players to the NFL.
A year ago, Brady and the Buccaneers helped the Titans where they most needed help, on defense. Don't discount the advantage the Titans gained by testing themselves last preseason against the reigning Super Bowl champs – who at the time had a loaded roster full of experienced talent.
On offense, the Titans didn't get much out of those practices. They sat Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown and Julio Jones (who coincidentally, plays for Tampa now and is set to return) and others on the O-Line. Existing injuries and risk management meant that quarterback Ryan Tannehill was surrounded by mostly second- and third-stringers.
On the other field, though, the Titans’ defense was largely intact. Same for the Buccaneers’ offense. The Titans’ defense saw the full cavalcade of Tampa's offensive stars: Brady, Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski.
I remember teachable moments, sure, like those described by Farley and Molden.
But I also vividly remember that Brady was impressed by the Titans’ defense anyway.
And he said so.
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“They’re good,” Brady said at the time. “They’ve got a lot of good players, and it’s a good scheme. They keep things moving. They blitz. They play coverage. They have some disguises. They do what good defenses do – they challenge you to think.”
Brady’s comments might not raise an eyebrow these days, but last August, with the Titans’ defense rebounding from a horrible 2020 season, they stood out. They were surprising, so much that I believed Vrabel’s old buddy was just trying to be polite.
Turns out, though, Brady wasn’t just blowing smoke. He was spot on.
He was one of the first to detect – and warn about – last season’s dramatic turnaround for the Titans defense. A unit with so much to prove this time a year ago, the defense went on to thrive in key moments, closing the season by sacking Joe Burrow nine times in a playoff game.
A surprisingly strong 2021 has set the table with higher hopes in 2022. The Titans' defense this time is supposed to be one of the most formidable units in the AFC.
“Yeah, we’re getting good,” edge rusher Bud Dupree said. “That comes with working. That comes with practice. That comes with knowing each other.”
And it goes back, in many ways, to those two practices against Brady in Tampa. Such an experience helped “tremendously,” said Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen. Players agreed.
“I think I came a long way,” Molden said, “and I think the secondary has come a long way as well.”
“I'm excited,” Farley added, “to get out there (against Tampa again) and see where I'm at.”
Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tom Brady foresaw the Tennessee Titans' defensive turnaround