There is no doubt plenty of excitement surrounding the regime change in Tennessee, as the team has changed hands less than most NFL franchises in the past decade-plus time span. One of the most eyeballed aspects of that change will involve the new Titans Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton. We've already hear that the Titans will be running a primarily 1-gap 3-4 hybrid, probably not much unlike his defense in Cleveland during his prior stint with the Browns. Therein lies our best comparison of what kind of unit to expect in 2014.
For today, we will stick primarily with aspects of the front seven.
Ray Horton's defense runs out of a variety of fronts, with multiple coverages and blitzes designed to stifle the run and place consistent heat on opposing QBs. His system is also predicated on individuality, in that he has customized his play calls and strategies to fit the strengths of his players rather than the other way around. While this may sound like the goal of any defensive coach in the NFL, Horton has implemented his plan with success at every stop, and operates his units in a fearless fashion on game-day. In this way, he has achieved relatively immediate contributions from his players, most evident among the young play-makers that have fallen into his toolbox.
Ken Whisenhunt, was particularly excited to land Horton when he took over the Titan's post this off-season, and he has said as much to the media; highlighting some of his former, and now current, colleague's strengths on the job.
"His body of work speaks for itself over the last few years as a coordinator and a position coach. Not only was he a good player in the league for a number of years, but he has transferred that into becoming a very good NFL coach. Scheme-wise, one of the most impressive things about Ray is his flexibility. He has the ability to go between a 4-3 and 3-4 and put our players in the best position to succeed. It has been evident by what he has done and where his defenses have ranked in the league over the last few years."
- Titans HC, Ken Whisenhunt
Of all the Titans defensive pieces, several are poised to stand out in a big way in Horton's new scheme. In the past, Horton's defenses have placed a focus on three core positions: Defensive Tackle, Middle Linebacker, and Safety. Horton has had success with large Tackles primarily, but also ones with the athleticism to run down edge plays and chase the quarterback. While not a primary focus, interior DT's that can pass rush have shined in his system (See Browns NT, Phil Taylor). While the Titans lack a difference-maker for a DT/NT role, the hopes is that a combination of Sammie Hill and Al Woods can handle those duties, with the other Tackles worked in with a heavy rotation. Without further delay, below are three spots the Titans should be seeing big returns at in 2014:
Brown started last season on fire, but struggled down the stretch, both in coverage and as a run defender. He presents an interesting situation for Ray Horton, who has had success with athletic OLB's in the past, especially in emphasizing their ability to rush the passer and cause havoc with opponent's game plans.
Brown has an impressive combination of size and speed that, if pointed in the right direction, could be a fearsome obstacle for offenses to overcome. We have already seen that he has the savvy the rush the passer when called upon, and I see him being used in that capacity far more under Horton. If the new DC and Linebackers coach Lou Spanos can correct some of the bad habits that seem to have spread among the Titan linebackers (crossing the face of the runner, hesitating at the point of attack, etc), the corps, and Zach Brown in particular, should shine.
Casey was a one-man wrecking crew last season at defensive tackle, against both the run and the pass, and stands as one of the best 3-technique DT's in the NFL at this juncture. In Cleveland, Horton helped Desmond Bryant shine in a similar role, and integrated him into his system seamlessly. Along with a variety of zone blitzes and pressure schemes, this fit helped the defense collapse the pocket often, and this is likely only to increase with a player of Casey's caliber on board.
When all is said and done, Casey likely ends up playing a very similar role to the one he did last season, operating out of Jerry Gray's 4-3 under with success, which functions much like Horton's hybrid 3-4.
Middle Linebacker "X"
A third piece to the puzzle remains unclear up to this point. The Titans signed Wesley Woodyard to provide additional support in defensing the pass in the underneath zones, and also for tracking down tailbacks running screens on the perimeter. For this, Woodyard is a great fit. Horton has shown a propensity to run varied fronts, including a 2-4-5 nickel package with two down linemen, four backers, and five defensive backs. In this scheme, athletic cover linebackers like Woodyard and Brown should be effective.
The concerns arise when looking for a true, prototypical middle linebacker to handle the run-stopping duties in the middle and on short yardage situations.
Horton's defense typically features strong-tackling inside backers like D'Qwell Jackson in Cleveland and Daryl Washington in Arizona. As of yet, the Titans lack this big cog in the machine, and it is worth wondering whether they intend to fill it in the upcoming draft, or if they are comfortable with the bodies they all have on the roster, which would be a gross mistake in my eyes.
The Titans have holes still to fill on the defensive side of the ball, but they are much less pronounced than the same time last season, where the team was forced to overhaul the personnel to revamp the unit. The recent addition of Shaun Phillips provides yet another pass-rush boon to the team, giving them added flexibility at the end spots against both the run and pass. Whether they are showing their 3-4, 4-3, or hybrid looks, the defense will be put in the best position to succeed.
"As for our defensive system, I have said from day one that I don’t coach a particular alignment, I coach men who want to get after it and we will play physical and fundamentally sound. We will do whatever suits the men that I coach and whatever the Tennessee Titans can do best."
- Ray Horton
I have little doubt that Horton will have the Titans defense headed in the right direction sooner rather than later, since this is arguably the best group he's had to work with since his Pittsburgh days. If the team can address the middle linebacker spot effectively, the road ahead looks positive for Tennessee.