Defensive Pressure: Risk vs Reward?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans defense in 2013 was a tale of two halves. What happened to the unit late in the year?

The Titans came out of the gate swinging in 2013, with a defense that threatened to bring extra heat on the QB on any down. Against the Steelers, we saw the dividends of that aggressive style, with Zach Brown, Derrick Morgan, and even Ropati Pitoitua shining in a big way. Bringing extra bodies to the QB, blitzing, is a risk versus reward prospect in today's NFL. Defensive Coordinators have the weigh the dangers against the benefits; including scoring situation, field position (down and distance), and most importantly, the individuals the defense are lined up against, especially at QB.

For instance, blitzing Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers may not be a good idea more often than not. The most cerebral quarterbacks can anticipate the blitz, and when they don't, they always know where their outlets are. Too much zone coverage, and you can expect to sliced and diced. This is when the team's with the best secondary personnel shine, since they are forced to go to a more man coverage centric gameplan. Beyond this, though, the key to facing the top-tier signal callers remains through disguise. The Titans did some of that too, shifting around on the D-line and bringing pressure from varying areas of the field, dropping linebackers who were showing a blitz look into coverage, etc.

Early in the season, the Titans were doing this more than almost anybody. That aggressive play paid off in the form of wins and some impressive defensive numbers. Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty were playing a lot of press coverage on the edges, giving the defensive line time to get home. Verner especially, displayed a supremely physical style that earned him a number of interceptions, and league-leading numbers from the season's first half. The drop off in both corners later in the year was black and white, and you saw less and less of the "risky" single man coverage, and more of the "off" coverage, or the soft zones, that had plagued the team in the past several campaigns.

The play from week 2 against the Texans illustrates what I am talking about. The Titans show blitz pre-snap, and proceed to run a "loop" LB blitz scheme, with Fokou heading straight up against the RG and creating a void for Zach Brown who swings around and has a clear lane to Matt Schuab. The Guard tries to get a hand on both Brown and Fokou, and in turn, fails to block either.

Both blitzing backers beat the offensive line, getting in the QB's face. Beyond this, Jurrell Casey beats the Center, Chris Myers, badly, providing additional pressure.

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The result is ideal. Schuab can't step into the throw and under-shoots his target badly. Pollard shows strong instincts on the back end to step in front of the errant pass and make the play.

I am not the only one who noticed the reins being pulled back as the year went on. The defense became less dynamic, the whole team suffered for it. The 2013 Titans started to regress into the 2012 version of themselves. And the disguise part of the game plan? That too, waned down the stretch. Predictably, the defensive statistics plummeted, both against the pass and the run.

This was a disappointing regression, and while the unit was still far and away superior to the 2012 one, it didn't feel any better when the year was over. The off coverage on the edges was back in full force, and linebackers still couldn't cover anyone. The pass rush became less consistent as the year marched onward as well, having frustrating performances such as the game against Oakland, where they failed to register a single hurry, let alone hits and sacks. That is inexcusable, especially on a line with Jurrell Casey and Derrick Morgan.

Ray Horton and Lou Spanos will have plenty of work on their hands to revive this aggressive play from the defense, as we have already seen that the team can get great results out of the personnel already on hand. Getting the linebackers "fixed" will be a good place to start, but you have to pay to play or so to speak. Horton's defenses have never been afraid of bringing extra heat and mixing things up to give pause to QBs, and that is the recipe for success in today's NFL.

I think the SAS motto explains it best: "Who Dares, Wins"

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