Two-time Pro Bowler Michael Griffin (22 career interceptions) will return to his natural, ball-hawking environment this season, anchoring the back of the Titans' 4-3 base defense.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The one constant for Titans safety Michael Griffin has been the change all around him.
Two years ago, former Titans coach Mike Munchak moved the 2007 first-round draft pick from his natural position of free safety to strong safety.
It was supposed to help bolster a paltry run defense, and Griffin’s defensive attributes of speed, instinct and cover abilities weren’s used to his strengths.
Last year, Griffin moved back to free safety, thanks in large part to the signing of strong safety Bernard Pollard and dual safety George Wilson, via free agency.
Back in his natural ball-hawking position in the 4-3 alignment, Griffin returned to his productive self last year, ranking third on the team with 106 tackles — but more notably flying about making plays as the defense’s center fielder.
All that comes in handy for Griffin, who’s joining defensive teammates in learning the new 3-4 defense being installed by defensive coordinator Ray Horton (through head coach Ken Whisenhunt).
As for safeties, there is less differentiation between free and strong, meaning both will be asked to do everything — from defending wide receivers in deeper pass patterns, tight ends on shorter routes, running backs out of backfield and plainly playing the run.
"We really don’t put them at free and strong," Titans secondary coach Louie Cioffi said of the safeties’ new roles. "There is so much multiplicity. They really have to be interchangeable.
"But (Griffin) is someone who has the ability to match certain receivers and backs and tight ends in this league. So, his value back there is tremendous for us in that aspect."
Running again alongside Pollard and Wilson again reminds Griffin of when he came in the league and was flanked by former Titans strong safety Chris Hope, who took the former youngster under his wing.
But when Hope departed the Titans after 2011, it left Griffin running with a revolving door of safety hopefuls that didn’t stick before Pollard and Wilson showed.
"Just having somebody that you know and being able to be comfortable with like when Chris Hope was here is important," Griffin said. "You knew that they knew what they were doing, compared to when in the past you never knew which safety that you were going to be playing with in the games."
No Titans defender has been with the team longer than Griffin. In fact, he is the second-longest-tenured Titan, trailing only left offensive tackle Michael Roos (10th year with Tennessee).
But Griffin had no problem deferring to Pollard and Wilson last year as vocal leaders of the defense. It was more about style and preference than anything else.
"I am a very quiet guy," Griffin said when compared to the vocal Pollard, who led the Titans with 142 tackles last year. "I don’t do much talking and stuff. We just all push each other, whether it’s in the weight room or film study or out on the field in practice or the game. It’s good to have guys who are pushing you constantly."
Titans cornerback Jason McCourty also saw a looser, yet more confident Griffin last year
"Everybody leads in their own way," McCourty said. "Both Bernard and George are a little bit more vocal than probably Griff and myself. Those two coming allowed him to be more of himself.
"He didnât have to worry about having to be the guy to say certain things in certain situations. He could just go out there and be who he is, and that’s just fly around the field and play."
Last year, Griffin had his streak broken of playing in every game since being drafted. He missed one game with an injury and another after being suspended by the NFL (several late hits during previous games).
This season, Griffin is eager to play a variety of roles on the new defense, whether it be lining up in his traditional free safety slot or otherwise.
"Right now, everybody is knowing all positions," said Griffin, who has 22 career interceptions. "There’s nothing plugged in as a free safety or strong safety, because you may have to do different jobs, depending upon what the defense is. Right now, we’re all learning this playbook together.
"Sometimes, it depends upon what happens. It depends on the formations. It depends on the plays, motions, things of that nature. In this defense, you’ve got to be very smart. You’ve got to be able to do a lot of different things. You have to understand the playbook. The more you understand, the more you are going to be able to do."
Cioffi remembers when Griffin was heading into the NFL draft (2007), after helping Texas win the national championship as a cornerback (2005 college season0.
Cioffi was a defensive backs assistant coach at the time with the Bengals, who considered strongly drafting Griffin at No. 18 overall — one slot ahead of the Titans.
Instead, Cincy went with Michigan cornerback Leon Hall, who is still with the Bengals and has 23 career interceptions.
"Offenses attack you in different ways," Cioffi said. "Fullbacks are not a big part of the game anymore. It’s more one-back sets, opened-up formations. So, to have a safety like Griff who can adjust and be the guy to go out there and put more of a linebacker-type stress or strong safety-type stress, thatâs what helps us.
"He’s been a very solid, steady player. He has been very athletic. He’s gotten some picks over his career. And just his production and his versatility are what has kept him in this league."