They say that defense wins championships. An integral part of any defense is a strong group of linebackers in the middle. In the second installation of this defensive comparison series, we’ll take a look at next year’s group in comparison to the trio that led the Tennessee Titans defense of 2008 to a top-three ranking.
2008: David Thornton, Stephen Tulloch, Keith Bulluck
2013: Akeem Ayers, Colin McCarthy, Zach Brown
This might just be the most interesting position group comparison of the whole defense. On one hand, you have the veteran leadership of one of the greatest defenders to ever wear a Titans uniform in Bulluck alongside the blossoming young talent of Tulloch and the proven starter experience in Thornton. On the other hand, you have three young, unpolished linebackers with unprecedented athleticism and immeasurable upside.
Bulluck’s reputation speaks for itself. It’s still worth mentioning that, although he was 31 years old in 2008, Mr. Monday Night racked up a team-high 75 solo tackles. Tulloch was in second place with 64 as the third-year middle linebacker began his ascent to a Pro Bowl-level of play. Thornton finished fourth on the team with 60 solo tackles, rounding out a reliable linebacking corps.
What the 2013 trio lacks in experience (they only have spent a combined five years in the league), they make up for in sheer athleticism. Brown showed his coverage abilities, hands and speed during Week 17 against the Jaguars. He caught two interceptions and returned both for a combined 109 yards and two scores. Similarly, Ayers’ versatility was on display late last season as he occasionally put his hand in the dirt to get after the quarterback. He finished the year tied for second on the team with six sacks.
Last, but certainly not least, is McCarthy. Although his first two years have been riddled with injuries, when he is healthy, he has shown good leadership abilities and a nose for the football; exactly the qualities teams look for in a middle linebacker. If he can stay on the field for all 16 games this season, expect to see Tulloch-like production from McCarthy. He’s at the same point in his career now that Tulloch was in 2008.
Although next year’s group is undoubtedly skilled, raw talent can only go so far. There is no substitute for in-game experience. Ayers, McCarthy and Brown will likely have a hard time meeting the standards set in 2008. However, if the three young players can quickly learn on the job, the Titans will be set at the linebacker position for a long time.
In the next section, I will round out this three-part series with a look at the last line of defense: the secondary.