Oct 2, 2011; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans linebacker Mario Williams (90) rushes the passer against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second quarter at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE

Tennessee Titans’ Big Question of the Day: Does a great pass rusher really make a difference?

Being the smart guy that I am, I decided I would write an article explaining why the Titans should do everything in their power to sign a premium pass rushing defensive end. I made this decision prior to actually doing any real research. (That’s where the smart part comes in.) I was very confident that the numbers would back me up and show what an important move that would be. The Titans, as most teams, have historically been better when they have a strong pass rush. I could give you a bunch of examples, but I don’t really want to and it would probably bore you. This article is going to have enough stats to satisfy the stat-geeks out there, but not so many that is puts everyone else asleep. (At least I hope.  I did fall asleep a couple of times researching it.)  I decided to examine three seasons by the Titans and what I found surprised even me.

When I started writing this article, I had the end in mind. Never a good idea. Using the 1998 and 1999, I was going to prove that adding a great pass rusher would make the Titans’ defense much better across the board.  So, I jumped into the stats and quickly realized that my hypothesis was a bit misguided. Allow me to explain: The Titans ended the 1998 season with an 8-8 record. They had the 16th ranked defense in yards allowed and the 12th ranked defense in points allowed. Average numbers, wouldn’t you say? Also, they only generated 30 sacks for the season. This defense bears a striking resemblance to the 2011 Tennessee Titans’ defense. In 2011 the team ranked 18th in yards allowed, 8th in points allowed, and had 28 sacks. While the 2011 squad was able to keep more points off the board, they allowed the opposition to move the ball more effectively and they got less pressure on the quarterback.

Being a long-time fan of the Titans, I knew how special the 1999 season was. I also knew what key addition the team made on defense before that season began. Say it with me: Jevon Kearse – The Freak. Kearse had an immediate impact on the team. He ended the season with 14.5 sacks, a rookie record. He was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was named to the All-Pro team. Simply put, he was a beast. I knew all of this before I started researching this article. I assumed that those numbers would propel a statistically average defense to the top of the league. The 1999 team won 5 more games than the 1998 team did. Obviously, that had to mean that the defense improved significantly. Right? Not really.

The 1999 team ended the season as the 17th ranked team in yards allowed. They were the 15th ranked team in points allowed. When I saw those numbers, I came close to scrapping this entire piece. If the stats were telling me that the team did not improve statistically, then my hypothesis was wrong and I needed to find a different story. Or, I could be stubborn and figure out a way to prove that the stats did not tell the whole story. Needless to say, I am very stubborn. I dug deeper. I’m glad I did.

In 1998, the Titans were ranked 15th in the league in Takeaway/Giveaway Differential. They ended up dead even in that category. In 1999, the Titans ranked 2nd in the league in the Takeaway/Giveaway Differential with a +18. That season, they forced 39 fumbles and recovered 32. They intercepted 16 passes as well. Jevon Kearse was responsible for 8 of those forced fumbles – best in the league. The 1999 team improved their sack total by 24. While the yards and points allowed did not improve much, the addition of Jevon Kearse, a pass rushing specialist, completely changed the effectiveness of the Titans’ defense.

So, what do these numbers mean for the 2012-2013 team? First, a great pass rusher is not going to fix everything. Sure, adding Mario Williams will most likely be a great move for the Titans, but don’t expect it to turn this team into a Super Bowl contender overnight. Second, if adding a player like Williams does for the team what the addition of Jevon Kearse did, then this defense has the potential to be very good. The 2011 team was good at keeping opponents out of the end zone, but not great at stopping teams from moving up and down the field. Also, they were not great a forcing turnovers, either interceptions or fumbles. A player like Williams can force quarterbacks to throw sooner than they like. A player like Williams can kill drives with a timely sack. A player like Williams can force fumbles due to his disruptive nature behind the line of scrimmage. Just improving those three areas, and this defense jumps from an average one, to a defense that can win games.

Perhaps, Mario Williams is going to demand more money than the Titans can afford. Perhaps he would rather play on field turf, instead of on real grass. Perhaps, he would feel more comfortable in a different system or city. Those are not questions we can answer. What we do know, is that the Titans need a pass rusher. They need someone with Mario Williams’ specific skill set. And they have money to spend. This is a move that makes sense for both sides. Let us hope the Titans and Williams feel the same way.

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