Let me start of with saying that I really like this group of young Titan linebackers. Between Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown, Zaviar Gooden, etc, there is a lot of physical talent and a whole lot of promise. The problem thus far in all their careers, sans Gooden since he is going into only his second year, is that that promise is thus far unfulfilled.
In the NFL today, having linebackers who can defend both the run and pass is essential, and the added ability of rushing the passer is becoming a must now as well for OLBs. The Titans have stockpiled a veritable cache of speedy outside linebackers over the past few years with Gooden and Brown, and they have a hybrid pass rushing OLB in Akeem Ayers. There is plenty of ability between them, but the Titans have issues finding a long term answer in the middle of the field, arguably the most important position on the defensive side of the ball.
The 2013 season was a mess in this arena Collin McCarthy and Moise Fokou split time at MLB with limited success. The play below highlights a problem existent in both of their games; hesitancy. On the play below against the Texans, Fokou hesitates badly post snap, before tracking the back (Ben Tate) to the outside. In the NFL, that is game set and match more often than not. Without maintaining gap control, Fokou allows the play to get outside, and it ends up being a huge play to start the game.
And for the record, Moise Fokou wasn't the only one with problem either. McCarthy struggled with hesitation, and seemed to lack the down-hill style he had success with in his rookie campaign a few years back now.
Zach Brown struggled in 2013 too. After starting the year in primarily a blitzing role mixed with TE/RB coverage responsibilities, his play stagnated down the stretch. Both him and Ayers struggled with over-pursuit, crossing the face of the running back, and consequently, giving up big cut-back lanes. Brown in particular seemed to struggle when put in a traditional zone scheme, and that is disconcerting for a backer as athletic as he is.
There are a lot of signs that the unit suffered from poor coaching. At this point, I look at that aspect as a major culprit, albeit not the only one. Frank Bush and Chet Parlavecchio don't exactly set a strong standard. Brown, Ayers, and now Gooden, are all more than physically capable of excelling at their respective positions, and all three can be used in a versatile way. But they haven't been thus far, and all three haven't gotten close to matching their potentials, especially Ayers, who received rave reports in camp the past two seasons and still fails to impress rushing the passer from the DE spot. That said, he was the Titan's best LB in 2013.
Fans thought McCarthy was the answer when he flashed in Barrett Ruud's absence, but that success was short lived. After multiple seasons the Titans are no more set at inside Linebacker than when Munchak and co. took over. In fact, while he was unspectacular, Stephen Tulloch would still be the best MLB on the team, and the team parted ways with him years ago.
After improving in the secondary and even in the pass rushing department, the Titans linebackers were by far the defense's worst unit in 2013, the opposite of many pre-season predictions.
With the impending "switch" to a more 3-4 centric scheme, at least in certain packages, the MLB's need to be more disciplined in attacking the ball carrier and maintaining proper gap control, and the OLB's need to show a similar mindset of containing the opposing offense, particularly against the run. Lou Spanos has a big job to do to turn the unit's fortunes around in 2014. With the possibility of adding new blood at the position, especially in the middle, the focus on sound play at the position could not be higher. The secondary stepped up in a big way last year despite troubles in other areas of the team, so the linebackers need to follow suit. Playing disciplined football, and upgrading the defense's ability to effectively rush the passer, something sorely missing in 2013, will be paramount.
Spanos brings a bevy of experience as well as an outstanding track record for coaching LBs, let's hope that translates to success on the football field in 2014.