Almost all of the discussion regarding Ray Horton's new defense with the Tennessee Titans has been centered around the front seven, which we looked at last week. But what about the secondary? What changes, if anything? And more importantly, how does the group look heading into next season with a few newer faces likely needing to play a much bigger role?
Rise Of The Nickel Corner
Before we get into the alignment conversation, we must first discuss the increasing prominence of the all-important nickel corner role in today's pass-happy league. What in the future is likely to become a position all it's own, the Nickel Corner in today's game needs to be agile above all else, with enough straight line speed to keep pace with increasingly fast slot wideouts down the seams, or even the ultra-athletic Tight Ends that are becoming more and more popular among NFL offenses. Above this, the Nickel corner has to combine these traditional corner tenets with the ability to provide run support. This second trait is what distinguishes the best in the business from simply a third corner who couldn't make it on the outside.
Horton's 3-4 hybrid will feature a lot of different looks in order to both rush the passer, where the Titans struggled the past few seasons, as well as stuff the run. In the past season in particular, the unit's ability to effectively defend the pass on the back end was nullified due to a run defense that slowly degraded into one of the league's worst units. Both the strong safety and nickel corner will have to be stout at the line, able to sift through the blockers and track down running backs, especially on the outsides and through the cutback lanes. Whether the Titans have the personnel to accomplish this important task is yet to be seen.
Horton, like any defensive coordinator worth his salt, will do his best to give the unit a leg up through disguised fronts and coverage schemes. Where his approach differs some, especially in the secondary, is the execution. As opposed to former DC Jerry Gray's rolling coverages, Horton's switch encompasses more than just flipping the formation from strong to weak. In Horton's past, he has shown a tendency to favor the switch from cover 2 to cover 3 post snap. With the strong safety moving into the box as the eighth defender, the free safety glides to the deep middle, with both outside corners keeping the play in front of them in guarding the other two thirds of the field.
While fairly simple, when paired with different stunt and blitzes up front, this coverage disguise has proven to be effective, giving QB's a split second pause needed for the rush to get home. Transitioning from cover 2 to cover 3 post snap has become a staple of Horton's units, and I expect a lot of this in the upcoming season, with a majority of coverages operating from Cover 1 (single man high), Cover 3, with aspects of Cover 6 worked in situationally.
On such stunts, the major weakness can come against strong, fast Tight Ends, guys who can beat the stunt and find the open space underneath or down the seams to cause damage. The Titans are well equipped, theoretically, to combat this threat with athletic backers like Zach Brown and Wesley Woodyard (if rotated to outside backer situationally). This, in turn, can take some of the heat off of the secondary, especially the safeties, who have had a torrid time dealing with opposing pass-catching tight ends over the past few seasons.
So how does the current roster stack up as far as alignment is concerned? In the end of the day, not a whole lot changes.
Likely Candidate: Jason McCourty
McCourty retains his claim to the left side of the field in 2014. He has proven capable of playing both man and zone, but I would expect more "bump and run" coverage this season with a more aggressive defensive scheme. Most experts view McCourty as a guy who is capable of doing that effectively, and I tend to agree with them.
Likely Candidates: Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh
With Alterraun Verner moving on to Tampa Bay (whether we like it or not), a big vacancy has opened up on the right side of the formation, a spot which he manned for the past few seasons admirably. Last year's rookie, Wreh-Wilson, seems poised to take the spot. While he excelled in college, he played less than 100 snaps last season, and most of those coming in the closing snaps of games already in hand (one way or another). Those are big shoes to fill.
Alternatively, Coty Sensabaugh is also a candidate for the role. He played fairly well last season in the slot, coming on late in the year. That said, Gray's defensive scheme and the lack of help underneath from the linebackers (due to some appalling coaching) left Sensabaugh hung out to dry far too often. Whether he has the physical tools to play outside is yet to be seen.
Likely Candidates: Coty Sensabaugh, Tommie Campbell
If you're like me, you can hardly mention Campbell's name without becoming increasingly concerned for the Titans defense. As stated above, Sensabaugh manned this third role well enough last season to be the guy if he can't win the outside spot. In the end of the day, Campbell might not even make the roster if the team decides to add another cornerback between now and the season's opening snaps.
Likely Candidates: Bernard Pollard, George Wilson
After years of toiling under the care of some of the worst safety play in the NFL, the Titans found some stability last season with a pair of seasoned vets George Wilson and Bernard Pollard. The latter figures to start again this season, and is a fantastic fit in Horton's scheme. Playing increasingly "in the box" will only bolster the Titans' ability to finally stop the run. His coverage skills, while not close to premier, are also not as bad as often stated.
Wilson remains on board to spell Pollard/Griffin, and fill in for an injuries. He was very impressive in limited snaps last season, and can be an equally effective player in Horton's defensive alignment.
Likely Candidates: Michael Griffin, Daimion Stafford
Griffin was a resurgent player in 2013. After several disappointing years, he played with increased physical presence and his coverage abilities seemed much tighter than before. He figures to play a roaming role as the single high safety fairly often in Horton's new defense. When pressed into more up-front roles, especially in run support, is where the issues in Griffin's game become highlighted, so this deep-field responsibility should suit him just fine. I wouldn't object to drafting his heir-apparent if the right situation materialized on draft day.
Daimion Stafford was more of a special teams player during his rookie season, and could fit at either safety spot. He's no lock to make the roster, but stands a fairly good shot if the Titans don't add more talent.
All said and done, things remain fairly constant in Tennessee's defensive backfield, but several players have an opportunity to shine in Horton's revamped scheme. When the pass rush builds, the secondary often reap the benefits. From a group that was very good despite little pass rushing consistency last season, expectations are high, and the Titans secondary players should be poised to live up to that billing.