For the sake of completeness, the defense deserves the same treatment. The defense is a little more difficult to project, though. Much virtual ink has been spilled discussing Ray Horton moving the Titans from Jerry Gray's 4-3 to a "3-4," but what does that really mean? And how does the Titans' personnel fit into his new scheme? Last week, I made the claim that 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) was the new base personnel, so why are we even talking about 7 man fronts? Isn't nickel the new base?
Defensive Alignment and Gaps
One of my biggest pet peeves among football discussions is taking "4-3" or "3-4" labels and using them without context. These labels don't do anything to tell us about how the defense is going to line up and attack an offense. At best, the labels give us a naming convention for what to call positions.
Ultimately, you need to look at where the players are lining up to gain insight into what the defense will be like outside of simplistic labels. But how do you describe how a defense is lined up? There are two primary ways. Generally speaking, you will hear a defensive lineman being described as lining up in a certain "technique," and you will hear about defenders being responsible for a certain "gap." Understanding these two concepts is infinitely more useful than trying to make sense of 3-4 v. 4-3, so let's define some things before we talk about Horton's defense.
Gaps are simple. There is a literal "gap" between each offensive lineman pre-snap. If a defense can occupy each of these gaps, then it stands to reason that a running back will have nowhere to run the ball. Gaps are defined in the following way:
A-gap: Between C and G
B-gap: Between G and T
C-gap: Between T and TE
When you hear Ray Horton say, "We aren't going to 2 gap," what he's really saying is, "I won't typically ask a defensive lineman to be responsible for two offensive running lanes."
A "technique" refers to a defensive lineman's alignment relative to the offensive linemen. Where the defensive linemen position themselves along the front of the defense is extremely important in any defense, so it's nice to have a succinct way to describe where the linemen are. There are multiple conventions, but moving forward, I will be using this one:
0 technique: Aligned head up on the C
0 shade: Aligned on the C's shoulder
1 technique: Aligned on the G's inside shoulder
2 technique: Aligned head up on the G
3 technique: Aligned on the G's outside shoulder
4 technique: Aligned head up on the T
4i technique: Aligned on the inside shoulder of the T
5 technique: Aligned on the outside shoulder of the T
7 technique: Aligned on the outside shoulder of the TE
9 technique: Aligned wider than the TE
This is truly where you begin to be able to describe a defense. Instead of just saying "3-4", we can talk about where players are actually lined up and give some specificity to the conversation about defense. When you hear things like, "Casey will be an excellent 3 tech in Horton's defense," that is referring to Casey lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard as his primary alignment.
With these fundamentals out of the way, we can move on to looking at Ray Horton's defense.
Ray Horton's Base 3-4
While it's true that NFL defenses are spending an ever increasing number of snaps in nickel defenses to properly defend 11 personnel, having a dependable 7 man front defense to stop the run on standard downs and when the offense is in 21, 12, or 22 personnel is still an exceptionally important part of playing good defense. For that reason, I still consider the 7 man front (3-4 or 4-3) to be the "base" defense for which I'll pick starters.
First, what does Horton's 3-4 look like, in terms of alignment? A picture is worth a thousand words.
In the image above, I've pointed out the TE to designate the right side of the offense as the "strong side" of the formation. This is often also referred to as the "closed" side. The side opposite the TE is the "weak side" of the formation, or "open" side. The naming convention above is a mix of classic 3-4 and 4-3 nomenclature.
What stands out about this alignment is that the 2 outside "linebackers" will often line up on the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, the WOLB--Weak Outside Linebacker--is primarily used as a pass rusher or stand up lineman in this variety of the 3-4. This WOLB position, because it is more of a stand up end than a conventional outside linebacker carries several names depending on who you're talking to: Jack, LEO, etc. The Jack will most often be the team's best pass rusher, but he'll also be responsible for the weak C gap against the run. This is equivalent to a pass rushing DE in a 4-3. The SOLB aligns himself outside of the TE to be responsible for the edge when defending the run. When defending the pass, the SOLB will often be responsible for covering the TE or dropping back into a zone. In this way, the SOLB plays much the same role that a conventional 4-3 "Sam" plays.
The 2 inside linebackers are left in the middle, off the line of scrimmage. The WILB typically functions as an inside linebacker in name only. Because the WOLB is going to rush the passer and play as a lineman, the WILB in this version of the 3-4 is going to have many of the same responsibilities that 4-3 "Will" outside linebacker has. Horton's WILB will need to be able to fit the run and defend the weakside A gap, but should also be athletic enough to get into pass coverage. The SILB is primarily a run stopper out of the base defense who would be responsible for the strong side B gap in this alignment. The SILB's responsibilities align very closely with those of a conventional 4-3 "Sam" linebacker.
The 3 defensive lineman in this case are the 3 technique DT, 1 tech NT, and 5 tech DE. The 3 tech DT lines up inside the Jack on the weak side of the defense. This player should be explosive with the ability to penetrate and disrupt the offense. Often, your best pass rushing or most athletic defensive tackle will play here. The 1 tech NT is an important player for stopping the run. Typically, the 1 tech will line up in either a 1 technique or a 0-shade and play the strong side A gap. Occasionally, this player can also be asked to "2 gap," or become responsible for two gaps in order to free up a linebacker. The 5 tech DE will be a bigger defensive end capable of defending the run well.
So what's special about this alignment? If you look at the weak side of the defense, the Jack is isolated on the LT and the 3 tech DT is isolated on the LG. Isolated in this instance means that there are not enough linemen to double team these players in a pass rushing situation. There is no TE help for the Jack. The LT is occupied blocking the Jack, so he cannot help block the 3 tech DT. This alignment allows a defensive coordinator to put his two best pass rushers in situations that virtually guarantee they get one-on-one matchups to rush the QB.
When ran in this way, Ray Horton's defense is schematically identical to a 4-3 Under. So much for all that debate about whether or not our players fit into a 3-4. We're running a version of the 4-3! So then who are the starters?
WOLB/Jack - Derrick Morgan. There has been talk of Derrick Morgan moving to "outside linebacker" next season. I take that to mean Morgan will get a chance to play Jack. From the Jack position, he'll be able to generate an excellent pass rush with weak side isolation, but he's also capable of playing sound run defense on the outside in standard downs. He is a great fit at Jack. Shaun Phillips will also play here, and Kamerion Wimbley will provide depth.
WILB - Zach Brown. In the 4-3, Brown occasionally showed flashes of being a breakout star at Will. WILB in Ray Horton's defense will be an equal opportunity for Brown to make a name for himself. Wesley Woodyard will also see significant playing time, too, perhaps from this position.
SILB - Avery Williamson. While it is always a stretch to assume a late round draft pick will win a starting job, this team did not have a linebacker whose strength was fitting the run game on the roster before drafting Williamson. He may not win the job at the start of the season, but I think he'll get significant playing time here during running downs. Wesley Woodyard could also play here as the starter out of camp or in passing situations or sub packages. Colin McCarthy and Moise Fokou will also compete for this role.
SOLB - Akeem Ayers. Akeem Ayers has been the Sam linebacker since he was drafted by the Titans, and he'll fit well into a similar role in Horton's defense. He is perhaps the closest to being a sure-thing of the linebackers listed so far to start at his position. Woodyard can also back up here.
3 tech DT - Jurrell Casey. Perhaps the most exciting thing about next year's defense is envisioning Casey isolated on a weak side guard. If you thought Casey was a good pass rusher last year, you're in for a treat. If you want a glimpse at what the best DTs can do from the isolated 3 technique, go watch what Kiffin's 4-3 Under did for Warren Sapp's career, and go to sleep with dreams of a 20 sack season dancing in your head.
1 tech NT - DaQuan Jones. It is, again, risky to pick a later round rookie draft pick as a starter, but Jones brings strength, size, and athleticism to the defensive front. He is a behemoth 6'4" and 322 lbs, and if he proves he can be a run stopping force inside, he could win the job at 1 tech. If Jones isn't ready to play this year, Al Woods will likely start here.
5 tech DE - Ropati Pitoitua. Ropati played well for the Titans last year, and he's got the size and strength to fit in as the 5 tech DE. If Morgan doesn't work out as a base-package Jack linebacker, then expect Morgan to start here.
Cornerbacks - Jason McCourty and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. McCourty has proven to be one of top corners in the league, and his position in the starting lineup is practically guaranteed. The departure of Verner leaves one of the team's biggest remaining question marks at the second corner. I think Wreh-Wilson has a physical skillset that Horton will like, and he should have every opportunity to win the starting job. Coty Sensabaugh will be in contention for the 2nd CB, too.
Safeties - Michael Griffin and Bernard Pollard. Griffin and Pollard both played very well for Tennessee at Free Safety and Strong Safety respectively last year. I don't expect to see any change this year. Pollard is an excellent box safety who can be a force against the run and punish receivers over the middle of the field. Playing with a safety like Pollard keeps Griffin from having to take on as much run responsibility and allows him to be at his best. George Wilson also provides good depth at Safety.
Because teams are often in their nickel package more than they are in their base package, it would be a huge oversight to leave it out of this article. Sub packages become nearly impossible to predict at this early stage for a few reasons. Horton will show different nickel looks, including a 3-3-5 and a 2-4-5. Horton also places high value on flexible players who he can put on the field in sub packages and use in different ways, and at different positions. So settling on a different set of "starters" may be futile, but I expect to see the following changes when in nickel, passing situations:
Derrick Morgan will move to 5 tech DE and Shaun Phillips will play Jack. Moving Morgan to the strong side and putting Phillips at Jack in passing situations gets the best pass rushers on the field. Morgan's versatility allows him to be moved around situationally.
Wesley Woodyard will be on the field somewhere. Though he's not listed as a starter in my base package, I think Woodyard was one of the more important additions in free agency, and I think he will see the field a lot. He's capable of playing several different linebacker positions, and he's an excellent pass defender. He will be a staple in sub packages, even if he doesn't start in the base package.
5th defensive back. Coty Sensabaugh played the nickel back for the Titans last year and did a good job. I think he'll see significant snaps there again this year, assuming he doesn't win the starting job. Marqueston Huff, who has the versatility to play both safety and corner, may also be a good fit in the nickel. If the Titans decide to run any 3 safety packages, George Wilson could also find the field in the nickel.
While it is always fun to speculate, all the new additions to the defense and a new defensive coordinator make it very hard to predict who will play where next season. It will be exciting to see what Horton can do with what appears to be a talented defense on paper. I believe that our defense will be surprisingly good, compared to what we're accustomed to seeing from Jerry Gray.
And I'd like to give a special shout out to SuperHorn and Xanpham who have written extensively about Horton's defense, potential starters, etc., in previous articles and in the comments.