MEETING OF THE MINDS
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
When you finish 2--14, as the Titans did in Ken Whisenhunt's first year as their coach, it doesn't take much to divine that change is coming. This off-season Tennessee did make meaningful moves, both schematically and with its personnel. The most obvious change was the drafting of Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota (Oregon, with the No. 2 pick), who will continue to draw attention throughout a rookie season that will inevitably include wild ups and downs. The next most important change was the hiring of longtime Steelers defensive guru Dick LeBeau, 77. He will have the title of assistant head coach/defense and work with coordinator Ray Horton.
Mediocrity would be a major upgrade for the Titans' defense, which was poor across the board. According to Football Outsiders' formulas, Tennessee's defense ranked in the NFL's bottom third in total defense as well as in such categories as passing, rushing, first down, second down, second half, red zone and "late and close" defense.
Horton is a LeBeau disciple who worked with the Hall of Famer for seven seasons in Pittsburgh as a defensive backs coach. But Horton, now in his second season in Tennessee, has developed his own version of the 3--4 pressure scheme. Horton prefers a one-gap attacking style up front with man coverage behind it while LeBeau, still old school, favors a read-and-react two-gap defense up front with predominantly zone coverage behind it. They have been mixing and matching in training camp, and the hope is that these two keen minds can find a blend that works well with their talent.
They do have talent to work with. The Titans possess one of the NFL's best penetrating tackles in Jurrell Casey, and Horton has pledged not to mess with Casey's success, as his quickness and brute strength make him a handful. Tennessee also likes nosetackle Sammie Hill. (Those outside the organization, however, question whether he's bullish enough to lock down the middle.) The Titans better be right in staying with Hill, because there's no more important position in the 3--4 than nose. Re-signing Derrick Morgan was big. Last year he successfully made the transition from end in the 4--3 to 3--4 outside linebacker and looked like a natural fit there with his 6'3", 261-pound frame.
Tennessee's problem last season was that when offenses doubled Casey on the inside and sent an extra blocker at Morgan, the defense became easy to pick apart. The Titans addressed that weakness by signing former Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who had 38½ sacks in the four seasons in which he played at least 15 games. If Orakpo can stay on the field (two of his past three seasons have ended with him on injured reserve), then Tennessee will present matchup problems. "Orakpo helps us all get better," says Whisenhunt.
With the front seven—which also includes underrated inside linebackers Zach Brown and Avery Williamson—thus fortified, the pressure falls on the secondary. Injuries kept their No. 1 and No. 3 cornerbacks, Jason McCourty and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, on the sidelines in training camp, leaving unanswered the question of how those two will mesh with their second-best corner, free-agent signee Perrish Cox. The Titans also signed Da'Norris Searcy away from the Bills to play strong safety. Searcy made some highlight-reel plays in Buffalo, and though he was only a starter there for one season, he flashed the ability to be a strong presence in the middle.
On offense the Titans have provided Mariota with plenty of new toys to play with. They signed receivers Harry Douglas (Atlanta) and Hakeem Nicks (Indianapolis) and drafted Dorial Green-Beckham (Missouri) in the second round to complement Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. Veteran tight end Anthony Fasano, signed from the Chiefs, will be a useful asset for the rookie quarterback both as a blocker and receiver.
But a young and evolving offense will be inconsistent. That's why it's essential for the defensive brain trust of LeBeau and Horton to meld the old with the new. Failure there is not an option.
SI'S PREDICTION: 3--13
ANDY BENOIT ON THE TITANS' COACH-QB FIT
When Ken Whisenhunt has a drop-back quarterback who can step up in a collapsing pocket and make tight throws, he's prospered. Think Kurt Warner (2007--09 in Arizona); Philip Rivers ('13 in San Diego, where Whisenhunt was offensive coordinator); and a young Ben Roethlisberger (in '04--06 when he was the OC in Pittsburgh). When Whisenhunt hasn't had a strong pocket QB (Jake Locker last year, for one), his teams have struggled. This season we don't know if he has this type of QB or not; Marcus Mariota (above) was rarely asked to play this way at Oregon. But scroll through history and try to find a mobile QB from a college spread system who cultivated strong, steady pocket abilities after reaching the NFL. (You can't.) Most likely, Whisenhunt will have to adjust his scheme, as he did last year with Locker. Mariota will be more accurate than Locker, but that's about all we can assume. How committed will Whisenhunt be to employing zone-read concepts and moving pockets, as the Seahawks do for Russell Wilson? Wilson also benefits from playing with Marshawn Lynch and a top defense. Mariota inherits a team with holes all over. It is far from an ideal environment to step into.