A good coach can get the most out of his talent. History suggests that Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton can do that—quickly.
Horton makes his third stop in four seasons. He spent two seasons as the Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator (2011, 2012). After Ken Whisenhunt and his entire staff were replaced following the 2012-13 NFL season, Horton spent one season with the Cleveland Browns (2013). Horton left after that one season when the front office parted ways with first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski. Horton re-joined Whisenhunt in Tennessee.
Don’t take Horton’s oft-changing resume as a slight to him; he’s just found himself in unstable environments with coaching controversies. His defenses have shown significant improvements during his first seasons. The 2010 Cardinals were No. 29 in yards allowed. In Horton’s first season, they jumped up to No. 18. His second season saw them jump up to No. 12. In 2013, Horton took over for a Browns defense that had just finished 23rd in yards allowed. In Horton’s first season, they jumped up to No. 9.
An impressive rate of progression. Holding them back was their second-worst third-down defense (45 percent surrendered) and a bit of a drop off toward the end of the season. Some of that due was due to injuries.
The Titans are looking to transition from their 4-3 defense into more of a 3-4 hybrid defense that could show many different looks out of various alignments. One of the biggest questions about any transition is who fits where, especially on the defensive line. Is Jurrell Casey big enough to play inside or will he take on more of a role as a 5-technique defensive end? Will Derrick Morgan play with his hands up or down? What about other undersized defensive linemen such as Karl Klug and Lavar Edwards?
These concerns got me wondering how it affected the Browns’ front seven heading into 2013. Listed at 6-2 and 255 pounds, Jabaal Sheard had to relocate from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. Excluding injuries, Sheard’s numbers remained on par with his pre-Horton production.
What caught my attention was a seventh-round draft pick who, despite his 6-4 and 265-poundish frame, earned playing time among a defensive line that already was deep enough with 6-7 quality performers. Armonty Bryant participated in 183 snaps. He had 12 tackles with 12 quarterback harrasments and two sacks. He had a third sack that was negated because of a defensive holding penalty.
Finding production from a rookie seventh-round draft pick? Horton should have no problem with a slighter heavier but far more established former first-round pick like Morgan.
Since I didn’t watch any Browns games from the past year (or maybe in the past decade…they’re never on in the Nashville market), I asked for perspective from someone who’s more knowledgeable about how Horton would’ve used an undersized defensive lineman in his hybrid schemes. Peter Smith from Dawg Pound Daily had this to say about Bryant and how Horton used him:
(Armonty) Bryant was drafted as a 7th round pick as an incredible athlete who played at a tiny college and dominated because he was an idiot off the field. His gifts could translate to the NFL and obviously did a little bit in his rookie year, provided he could stay out of trouble.
As a rookie, Bryant functioned almost entirely as a situational pass rusher that could play from the defensive line as opposed to guys like Kruger, Mingo and Sheard who could attack from the linebacker level. I assume that the plan would have been that should he continue to stay on the team that he would gain more weight and fill out a little bit to potentially increase his role, but he provided a quicker, more streamlined player to bring in for obvious passing situations for some of the bigger slower members of the DLine. He was not active for a ton of games, but he did make a few plays when he had opportunities.