NASHVILLE, Tenn. — While the Houston Texans have a full-blown superstar in defensive lineman in J.J. Watt, the Titans have quietly positioned one of their own to become one of the league’s best.
After multiple years of promising play, despite nagging injuries, defensive tackle Jurrell Casey might be on the verge of a true breakout. In last week’s win at Pittsburgh, the USC product sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice.
“(Casey) has been good for the last (two-plus) years,” said Titans coach Mike Munchak, whose club travels to Houston on Sunday. “Last year, he was injured, so he didn’t have as many big plays, but (against the Steelers) … he played really well.”
Casey might not have made that many “big” plays the past two seasons, but he sure made a lot of routine ones. Despite injuries to an elbow and ankle, Casey still led all Titans linemen in tackles (80) for the second straight year, while also posting three sacks and two forced fumbles.
That came after the bulky 6-foot-1, 305-pounder had 74 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and one forced fumble as a rookie, causing the Titans to realize they might have a diamond in the rough and a mainstay along the defensive interior.
And last Sunday, while encountering numerous double-teams from the Steelers, Casey was a menace in the middle, wreaking havoc beyond just the two sacks.
“It feels great,” Casey said of being 100 percent and being able to pressure the quarterback. “That’s what you work hard for all offseason. … You know, the defensive tackle doesn’t get to the quarterback too often.
“That’s one thing I have been working on all offseason, to get the quarterback. And it felt amazing to get there.”
Defensive end Derrick Morgan, who led the Titans with 6 1/2 sacks and 19 pressures last season, has noticed Casey’s improvement.
“Jurrell, he’s just persistent,” Morgan said of Casey, who has started 32 of 33 games since joining the Titans. “Two or three guys might try to block him, and he’s still fighting through and getting to the quarterback. He’s done a good job of taking care of himself, staying healthy, and it’s paid off for him.”
The disruptive play of Casey and the defensive front will be paramount against the Texans, who feature the superb backfield of Arian Foster and talented backup Ben Tate.
Pressuring Texans quarterback Matt Shaub will also be key, indirectly precluding wide receiver Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels from roaming free downfield.
But it’s more than just tackles and sacks for the defensive front, especially the D-tackles.
Call it the game within the game, but the defensive front — along with making tackles and pressuring the quarterback — needs to keep the Texans’ offensive linemen from reaching the second level and blocking the speedy crew of Titans linebackers.
“The defensive line is going to have to do a good job of being physical so we don’t allow those guys to make it to the second level as fast, especially the center, the guards, that type of thing,” Munchak said.
“The D-line’s going to have to do a good job of keeping them off the linebackers so they can make the plays. Guys have to stay up. They have to use their hands well. It’s a technique game, no doubt about that.”
Casey appears more than ready for the task.
“I went back to my old high school training,” Casey said. “It was basically doing a little military work and things like that to get me more conditioned and strengthen the muscles and things like that. You have your workout habits that you do. You try to soak it up with old moves that you have been doing for years that you are more comfortable with.”
Casey has received special tutoring from Titans defensive assistant/pass-rush specialist Keith Millard, one of the premier defensive tackle pass rushers in NFL history. In 1989 with the Vikings, Millard set the league sacks record for a D-tackle (18) and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
In fact, it’s a record Millard is encouraging Casey to break.
“Coach Millard has been giving us new tools that we have been using, and they have been paying off,” Casey said. “He said, ‘Go for it.’ He ain’t going to hold me back. He’s going to let me go out there and do what I’ve got to do to get it done. So, he is going to put me in the best position to make sure I can go get it.
“I’ve got 17 more to go, so I gotta go get it.”
Anything Casey achieves this season won’t surprise Morgan.
“(Casey) was dealing with a lot of things last year from the elbow to the ankle,” Morgan said. “So, having him have a healthy offseason and coming into the (training) camp and working the way he has, it has really paid off for him.”