Last week the Tennessee Titans moved defensive coordinator Jerry Gray from the field to upstairs in the booth.
The result in a 51-20 home loss to Chicago was that Gray’s defense allowed more points — 37 — than it had on average all season, as the Bears special teams and defense each kicked in a touchdown.
So much for a fresh perspective.
After a slight uptick in a period of a few weeks in the form of a 23-20 win over Pittsburgh and a 19-13 overtime loss at home to the Colts, the Titans’ defense again is looking like a train wreck and the team continues to rank last in the NFL in scoring defense at 34.2 points per game.
With a 3-6 mark entering Sunday’s game at surprising Miami (4-4), the season could really get away from the Titans with another loss as quarterback Jake Locker appears ready to make his first start in six weeks following a shoulder injury.
Whatever Locker might be able to do, he will need the defense to perform functionally, something the Titans’ has rarely done this season. Yes, the Titans raised some eyebrows when they took wide receiver Kendall Wright in the first round of the draft when the need for a pass-rusher was glaring.
To Wright’s credit, he has performed well, but that has not helped the pass rush. With the draft in the rearview mirror, the Titans seemed prepared to address the need in free agency, but then owner Bud Adams had his front office executives chase quarterback Peyton Manning — a quixotic quest that ultimately failed.
By then, a number of top free-agent pass-rushers were off the market. Mario Williams had signed in Buffalo and John Abraham re-upped in Atlanta. Last week Abraham told this correspondent that he was poised to get on a plane for Tennessee, then suddenly changed his mind. He said the reason was the presence of Mike Nolan as Falcons’ defensive coordinator. That could be true, but Nolan had been hired months before so it’s hard to explain exactly why Abraham underwent his change of heart. Abraham, by the way, has seven sacks, making him one of the league’s most productive pass-rushers.
So the Titans settled for Kamerion Wimbley, a player more suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme but whom the Titans elected to play at defensive end full-time in their 4-2. Wimbley has 3.5 sacks, which puts him on pace roughly for his career average of 7.0 per season. Not bad, but not exactly the game-wrecker that the Titans’ defense seems to have cried out for.
The Titans also beefed up the position by hiring Keith Millard as defensive assistant/pass rush specialist. The result? The Titans have 14 sacks, putting them on pace for fewer (25) than they totaled last season (28) when they ranked No. 31 in the NFL.
As coaches often like to say, the pass rush is only one phase of the game. The defensive backfield and linebackers have to be able to cover to help force sacks. But that’s part of the problem with the Titans’ unit — inconsistency plagues it.
One thing that can help consistency is keeping veteran players around, which — whether because of age, pricey free-agent contracts of simply internal evaluations — the Titans have elected not to do. Older players can help school younger players in meeting rooms, on the field and act as a liaison between coaches.
But on the defensive side the Titans have parted ways with numerous veteran starters — many of them productive — in recent years such as cornerback Cortland Finnegan, safety Chris Hope and defensive tackle Jason Jones in 2011; linebacker Stephen Tulloch and defensive end Jason Babin in 2010; and linebacker Keith Bulluck (now retired) and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch in 2009. That’s a lot of turnover for a defense to sustain.
Then there is Gray himself. If his strident communication style with the media is any indication, then players might find themselves more bewildered than educated about his schemes. Earlier this season, he nearly got himself in hot water with the league for suggesting that his players were too afraid to deliver hard hits, fearing fines or discipline from the commissioner’s office. The next week safety Michael Griffin was fined $21,000 for a hit, but then seemed to be confused about how he should play in his public comments to the media. It’s a telling sign when a player who is supposed to be one of the defense’s stars finds himself in such a quandary.
Head coach Mike Munchak has already said he doesn’t plan on making any changes in his staff until after the season ends. With Adams’ comments last Sunday that no one’s job was safe, Munchak could have a difficult time sticking to that pledge if the unit continues to yield such points at such an alarming rate.
Whatever the outcome, the defense’s problems might be more than one mid-season coaching change can fix.