Where we stand today in the NFL calendar year is no suitable time to make concrete definitions of what teams will and won't do in the upcoming season in any phase. That aside, we have heard bits and pieces from both Ray Horton and Ken Whisenhunt on the defensive alignment and the fronts they want to run. After looking into the Horton's past stops and seeing how he operated his defenses, I thought it would be a good opportunity to evaluate the Titans roster and see how the alignment looks to play out when opening day rolls around.
Under Tackle (2/3 Tech DE)
Likely Candidate: Jurrell Casey
In Horton's 3-4 Hybrid scheme, the under-end has to be a space eater with the athletic ability to both pass rush, and halt blockers from reaching the second level. Casey fills this role perfectly, with the strength to demand attention and be a disruptive weapon. Casey also possesses the explosive first step needed to get penetration and cause chaos in opposing backfields. When all is said and done, this role is very similar, if not identical, to the role Casey played last season, of which he did excellently.
The Titans have stocked up on defensive ends that could fill this role in a pinch, but Casey fits this mold as the primary starter, and will have a chance to make a big impact. Secondary guys on the roster like Mike Martin and Karl Klug could also shine at this spot.
Defensive Tackle / Nose Tackle
Likely Candidates: Sammie Hill, Al Woods
Like in the traditional 3-4, Horton's demands his Nose Tackle anchor the line, be quick off the snap, and be strong enough to command the occasional double team. Whether Hill or Woods are capable of this, I am still unsure. Both are unproven as of yet in their NFL careers, though they do possess the body type and skill set needed to play well in this spot. Hill in particular needs to shine early on, or he could be jettisoned from the team after only one season due to an over-shot contract last offseason.
Despite those who question the Titans "loading up" at DT, the team don't actually have many other options for players in this spot, so it will be interesting to see how Horton moves things around as needed as the season wears on. I would expect a healthy rotation, with a few less-suited guys getting secondary snaps if needed.
Defensive End (5/6 tech)
Likely Candidates: Ropati Pitoitua / Derrick Morgan
The end opposite the under spot needs to be manned by a player strong enough to occupy their man, and play the run equally well. Pitoitua shined in previous 3-4 alignments, and played well as an end last year in Jerry Gray's scheme. Like Casey, his role will remain much the same, albeit with differing nomenclature.
I also placed Derrick Morgan in this spot, as I am fairly certain he will be moved around somewhat situationally, per Horton's former comments. Morgan will shine in this role as he has in the past, the real question is how he fares when stood up, and possibly moved around to the Elephant role.
Secondary options like Lavar Edwards should also see some time in this spot, depending on Morgan's snap/split, if any, at another spot in the front seven.
Buck End / Elephant / OLB ("Leo")
Likely Candidates: Kamerion Wimbley / Shawn Phillips / Derrick Morgan
The Elephant plays a crucial role in Horton's 3-4 hybrid scheme. Outside contain is essential, primary rush ability even more so. Wimbley, fresh from a re-worked, team friendly deal, is the natural choice for this role. Despite a background emanating from the DE role, Kam's best work in the pro's has been when he has been "stood up" as an OLB. With the strength and speed combo to beat outside tackles, his skillset should be all the more highlighted this season under Horton, after a disappointing 2013 campaign that saw his snap count drop dramatically.
Phillips can play either OLB roles, and would certainly be a weapon as a rotational guy, whether he earns more playing time than Wimbley or not, to provide a pass rushing boost. Whoever "starts" at this spot may end up being irrelevant, but this may clear up after training camp.
Horton's defenses, and Tennessee's have been no different over the course of recent history, are heavy rotating units. Having more than one guy to play a role as critical as the Buck End/Elephant spot is paramount. Horton's past comments alluded to Morgan's ability to play in this capacity as well, and it will be interesting to see what happens when this plan is put into place. While far from a sure thing, Morgan could really come into his own here, and no doubt give the Tennessee pass rush a shot in the arm that it desperately needs.
Strong-Side Linebacker ("Sam")
Likely Candidates: Akeem Ayers, Shawn Phillips, Zaviar Gooden
The Sam Linebacker in Hoton's defense must be versatile; playing both the run and pass, able to cover as well as blitz. Akeem Ayers fills this role perfectly, as a "jack of all trades" type backer. While unspectacular, Ayers was far and away the Titans most consistent linebacker for the Titans in 2013. I see no reason to expect that to change this coming season.
Horton will use him in a lot of ways, but I would imagine we are unlikely to see him play as a "hand in the dirt" DE as often as last season. Ayers primary advantage as a pass rusher is in his ability to give chase from the second level on stunts and speed rushes on the outside, not by beating up his smaller frame against NFL tackles on a snap-to-snap basis.
Phillips, as mentioned before, is versatile enough to play edge contain at the outside linebacker spots, as well as provide a marked bump in the unit's ability to effectively rush the passer.
Gooden could also contribute in this role, especially in situations which dictate more speed and coverage abilities. As of yet, Gooden has yet to shine, and will be expected to make a big leap in his sophomore season as a pro.
Left Inside Linebacker ("Ted" / "Will")
Likely Candidate: Zach Brown, Zaviar Gooden
Horton's "Ted" linebacker typically plays closer to the line in efforts to stop the run. That position also plays a role in taking on blockers at the point of attack. I have concerns of Brown playing on the interior and being relied on to stop the run consistently, since that has been a problem prevalent among the Titans linebacking corps stretching over the course of the past few seasons. However, his physical skillset will allow Horton to dial up some creative blitzes and use Brown's savvy as a pass rusher to best effect. We saw a lot of this at the end of the 2012 season and the beginning of 2013, only for Brown to be relegated to a more traditional role, which ended up with him getting benched late in the season. There is talent to be exploited where Zach Brown is concerned, and if anyone in this league can uncover it, it's Ray Horton.
Right Inside Linebacker ("Mike")
Likely Candidate: Wesley Woodyard
Horton's "Mike" linebacker, much like the "Sam" role, must be versatile enough to drop into coverage, as well as play the run. Woodyard fits the mold of a newer, faster linebacker who can regularly compete for passes in the underneath and perimeter zones, even against the bigger and faster Tight ends, a constant bane for the Titans over the past three seasons. Woodyard will also excel when given the task of manning up against the opponent's running back. While he isn't a hard-nosed run stuffer (a pivotal role the Titans have yet to fill), he is more than capable of tracking down screens and delayed release routes by running backs. How well he fares in stopping the run on the inside, especially on obvious running downs, is yet to be seen.
In the picture above, the Seahawks are lined up in the 3-4 under. Equating this to Tennessee, and based off of pre-camp fits, from left to right would be: Shawn Phillips / Kamerion Wimbley (LEO), Jurrell Casey (DT), Zach Brown (WILL), Sammie Hill (NT), Wesley Woodyard (MIKE), Derrick Morgan / Ropati Pitoitua (DE), and Akeem Ayers (SAM).
The Titans have yet to take the field in 2014, and with the draft several weeks away, many of these alignment slots may change with new additions to the roster, especially on the interior of the linebacking corps (fingers crossed). What it does tell us at this juncture, however; is that the Titans are already entering 2014 better equipped to play tough, gritty defense, than they were at the same time last season. When all is said and done, that is all that matters.