Titans DC Horton invoking ‘hybrid’ approach to halting offenses

Defenders Jason McCourty (far left) and Jurrell Casey headline the new Titans defense under coordinator Ray Horton, whose Browns allowed just 221 passing yards per game last year (7th in NFL).

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — New Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton has a phrase to describe where his NFL style of play is heading.

Horton calls it "basketball on grass" because of the size, length and speed of the offensive playmakers. He also uses a league buzzword to describe his defensive alignment.

Is it the traditional 4-3? Or will the Titans change to a 3-4, which in the past has been preferred by Horton and his new boss, Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt? Or how about a hybrid of each set?

"I think (‘hybrid’) is the buzzword now," Horton said, "meaning, when you go up against these offenses that come out with multiple wide receivers and all the stuff that they do now, you’ve got to be flexible."

Indeed, recent rules changes have favored offenses. And when you throw in big, tall and talented receivers like Calvin Johnson (Lions), Dez Bryant (Cowboys) and Brandon Marshall (Bears), to name a few, defenses must react accordingly.

"As you look throughout the league historically, going back to the (quarterback) Dan Marino days down at Miami, they started trending to the smaller, quicker receivers," said Horton, a 20-year NFL coaching veteran. " … So, the league defensively started trending the same way — smaller, quicker guys.

"They are all 6-4, 220 (now). So, the league is starting defensively to trend back up to the big 6-2 corners."

For the Titans, last season’s cornerbacks were Jason McCourty (6-foot) and Alterraun Verner (5-10). The backups — Tommie Campbell (6-3) and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (6-1) — are taller.

"The game is morphing, really, into basketball on grass," said Horton, who guided the Browns last season to a top 10 defense. " … They want to spread you out. The game is changing, so the hybrid, the flexibility, I guarantee you we will have 11 men out there, and so will they.

"I don’t care who they are. I just want them to be good, fast, tough football players."

Horton thinks there are enough quality players with the Titans to have a top defense. After all, the group evolved from giving up the most points in the league (2012 season) to being in the middle of the pack of most NFL defensive categories (2013).

Along the line, three-year defensive tackle Jurrell Casey (team-high 10 1/2 sacks) was named second-team All-Pro. He also posted a career-high 90 tackles.

The secondary was led by McCourty and Verner, who was named to the Pro Bowl for a first time after leading the team with five interceptions — tied for tops in the AFC and fifth in the NFL. Strong safety Bernard Pollard led Tennessee with 142 tackles and was a vocal leader, while free safety Michael Griffin, a former Pro Bowler, is solid.

Verner and Pollard are free agents and their return to the team is uncertain. But there is quality depth on the roster, not to mention impending free agency and the May draft to supplement needs.

The linebackers run well, especially Zach Brown, who was second on the team with a career-high 117 tackles. Also returning are Akeem Ayers and Zaviar Gooden on the outside and Colin McCarthy and Moise Fokou in the middle.

"First thing was obviously effort," Horton said of his assessment of the Titans’ defense after watching surveying the 2013 game film. "The guys run and play hard. I fell in love with how the big men were running to the ball, making plays down field, on the sidelines, and then how those little guys tackled.

"Really, that’s the combination, when I talk about tough, strong, fast guys. That’s what you want. You want guys that can make plays. And that’s what we have. It’s my job now — our job as a coaching staff — to put them in the right place to make more plays."

Part of that equation, though, will be bringing in bigger and more athletic personnel.

"We are a reactionary league on both sides of the ball," Horton said. "And the reaction for us now (on defense) is to get bigger, taller, more weight, to really contend with all these giants on the other side of the ball.

"I just keep going back to that phrase ‘basketball on grass.’ There’s big, athletic guys, power forward types, and you’ve got to match up with them."

Horton knows what it takes to be a part of a winning team. During his 10-year playing career, he made two Super Bowls, playing for the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII and winning Super Bowl XXVII with the Cowboys.

With the Steelers from 2004-10 (defensive backs coach), he participated in three Super Bowls — winning two and losing one. From 2011-12, he was defensive coordinator for the Cardinals under Whisenhunt, who was on the same Pittsburgh staff with Horton from 2004-06 as offensive coordinator.

"Scheme-wise, one of the most impressive things about Ray is his flexibility," Whisenhunt said of Horton, an all-league defensive back at the University of Washington before being a second-round draft pick in 1983 (Bengals).

"He has the ability to go between a 4-3 and 3-4 and put our players in the best position to succeed," Whisenhunt added. "It has been evident by what he has done and where his defenses have ranked in the league over the last few years."

Horton and Whisenhunt were on the same Steelers staff that won a Super Bowl before the latter became head coach of the Cardinals from 2007-12. He guided Arizona to the Super Bowl in 2009.

"First of all, (he’s a) great, great coach," Horton said of Whisenhunt, a 17-year NFL coaching veteran and former NFL tight end. "Obviously, he knows how to do what it takes to get a team to a Super Bowl — coordinator, head coach — and then last year in getting San Diego back to the playoffs (as offensive coordinator). So, obviously (he has) a wealth of know of knowledge and understands how to do it.

"I think the players are going to love him. All the accolades that you say about all the great coaches in the league, so for me it was an easy decision. You know what kind of product he puts on the field."

Helping Horton coach on defensive will be Louie Cioffi (defensive backs), Steve Brown (secondary assistant), Giff Line (line), Nick Eason (line assistant) and Lou Spanos (linebackers).

"I like our defensive team," Horton said. "There is no guy that we sit and go, ‘Oh, my goodness, what is wrong?’ They all have strong points. Now, not everybody is a Pro Bowl player, I understand that.

"As you look across our board, I have been very happy. I keep telling our coaches, ‘Wow, look what we inherited here.’"