It is no secret that the Tennessee Titans have focused much of this offseason trying to rebuild their defense, which gave up a league-worst 29.4 points per game last season. Free agent additions of Sammie Lee Hill, Bernard Pollard and George Wilson, along with draft selections of Zaviar Gooden, Lavar Edwards and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, should bolster the defense as it tries to return to its impressive 2008 form. That year, the Titans allowed just 14.6 points per game. That was the second-best mark in the NFL.
Let’s take a look at this year’s expected defensive starters in this three-part series. How will they match up with the unit that led the Titans to a 13-3 record and an AFC South title in 2008? We’ll start with the guys up front.
2008: Jevon Kearse, Tony Brown, Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Vanden Bosch
2013: Derrick Morgan, Sammie Hill, Jurrell Casey, Kamerion Wimbley
At defensive end, Morgan and Wimbley are almost identical to Vanden Bosch and Kearse in terms of size. Morgan is only an inch shorter than Vanden Bosch but the same weight. Wimbley is only 10 pounds lighter than Kearse but the same height. Both Kearse and Wimbley offer speed off the edge to rush the passer while Vanden Bosch and Morgan tout more balanced skill sets.
Obviously, Vanden Bosch is the most skilled player in the bunch. In 2008, he suffered a season-ending injury after only 10 games, forcing Dave Ball and Jason Jones to step in and finish the season. That year was also Kearse’s first season back with the Titans after a four-year stint with the Eagles. Since 2008 was The Freak’s 10th year in the league, and the second-to-last last season of his career, his age seriously limited his production.
Morgan is primed for a breakout year in 2013 as his numbers have steadily increased ever since he entered the league in 2010. As long as Wimbley’s age (29) does not begin to become a factor in his performance and he can have a stronger presence stopping the run, this year’s duo should have no problem living up to 2008 standards.
At defensive tackle, however, Hill and Casey have their work cut out for them. In 2008, Haynesworth was arguably the league’s most dominant defender and Brown may have been the NFL’s most underrated defensive lineman. Haynesworth consistently demanded double-teams, and sometimes triple-teams, to block him. This freed up Brown to register an impressive 38 solo tackles and four sacks.
Next year, Hill will be the Titans’ space-eater in the middle. As defensive coordinator Jerry Gray told The Tennesseean, the fifth-year player may even get some time at nose tackle when the team occasionally switches into a 3-4 defense.
When in the 4-3, he will start alongside Casey, who has played in all 32 of the Titans’ games since he was drafted in 2011. The 6-foot-1-inch, 300 pound defensive tackle showed flashes of athleticism and hustle in his first two seasons, amassing a combined total of 73 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks. Ahtyba Rubin, the nose tackle for the Browns, is the only defensive tackle in the NFL to tally more tackles than Casey in those two years.
In the next section, I will round out the Titans’ front seven with a comparison of next year’s linebacking corps to that of 2008.