NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Titans will be without the services of a player who once led the NFL in tackles this Sunday in Indianapolis.
One man who might help replace him? Another player who once led the league in tackles.
Coach Mike Vrabel ruled out starting inside linebacker Zach Cunningham for Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts. Cunningham sustained an elbow injury last Sunday against Las Vegas.
It’s another blow for the Titans, as Cunningham has averaged six tackles in the seven games he’s played for Tennessee. He posted an NFL-best 164 tackles in 2020, his last full season with the Houston Texans.
The player most likely to step into Cunningham’s starting role is Dylan Cole, who saw 27 snaps against Las Vegas and deflected a Raiders two-point conversion attempt that could have tied the game with a little more than a minute to play.
But the Titans also elevated inside linebacker Joe Schobert, who was signed to the practice squad on Wednesday. A six-year veteran, he adds valuable NFL experience to a group that includes Cole, David Long and Joe Jones.
It’s fair to say the 28-year-old Schobert isn’t your traditional practice-squad player. He’s started 80 games and totaled 661 tackles, 11 sacks, 10 interceptions and forced fumbles. Schobert led the NFL with 144 tackles while playing for Cleveland in 2017, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl in the process.
“He has played a lot of football,” Vrabel said. “He has played a lot of football at inside linebacker. He is an instinctive player and we'll see where he is at the end of the week and how he can help us, just like everybody else that we ask to prepare like they're going to be a starter this week.”
The obvious question: Why was Schobert unsigned almost a month into the 2022 season, after starting 15 games for Pittsburgh last year and totaling 112 tackles? The Wisconsin native has, after all, racked up more than 100 tackles in each of the past five seasons.
“It was a weird offseason,“ Schobert said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of action (at inside linebacker). There was a lot of other guys at my position – like Dont’a Hightower, just one other name – who’ve been just kind of sitting, waiting for the phone to ring and get an opportunity to get back in the building and go. It was strange, but I’m happy to be here now.”
The Denver Broncos gave Schobert a brief look during training camp, signing him on Aug. 15 and releasing him Aug. 23 after he played in one preseason game. He made two tackles.
He didn’t play or practice again until this past week, meaning one of Schobert’s challenges will simply be working himself into game condition as quickly as possible.
“You can’t replace football with any real exercise because there’s the whole physical taxing out there,” Schobert said. “It’s a whole different football game, but I’ve stayed in as good a shape as I can.
"I live out in Colorado, so I’m training in altitude, so it’s a little harder to breathe out there. Maybe that will help, coming back and playing some football, but we’ll see.”
A fourth-round draft pick by Cleveland in 2016, Schobert played four seasons for the Browns, one in Jacksonville and one in Pittsburgh. He believes the experience he’s gained in different systems should help him adapt quickly to the Titans.
“I’m a man of many (teams), but thankfully there’s not too many different schematics in the NFL,” Schobert said. “It’s just different verbiage – the language you have to learn – and guys have been good here. … (The Titans’ system) isn’t exactly similar to things I’ve played in the past, but it’s close enough.”
Said defensive coordinator Shane Bowen: “Anytime you’ve got a vet that’s played a lot of football, I think it’s good for the room, good for the unit. Just the knowledge he can kind of share with those other guys is always valuable. I think the transition is probably a little easier for guys like that.”
Schobert said it’s been an unusual experience for him not to be playing football so far this season.
He’s ready to once again prove his value – whether it’s this Sunday or down the line.
“I feel like I’m somebody you can count on to be in the right spot, do their job and then make the plays that come to them,” Schobert said. “I’m not going to be a liability in any sense, from off the field to on the field to being in meetings. I’m going to be there and I’m going to do the right things.”