The 2014-15 Tennessee Titans will feature a brand new type of defense. Traditionally, they have employed a 4-3 defense for as long as I have been watching this great game. But things are changing in Nashville. Shortly after the hiring of head coach Ken Whisenhunt, the Titans brought in former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton to coach up the defense. He will implement an all new 3-4 hybrid look.
Who will be named opening day starters for this new exotic defense? Time will tell, but it’s never too early to discuss who will be on the field fthis upcoming season. Here is what Tennessee’s defense may look like come early September.
NT/DT: Al Woods-Several different players could start at nose tackle at some point this season. Sammie Lee Hill and 2014 fourth-rounder DaQuan Jones will both be in the rotation from the start, but Al Woods will get a chance to show his ability to “man the middle” from the get-go. He played the position for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season on a limited amount of snaps. He did make some plays on the field when he was given the chance, so there is some untapped potential here. Ultimately, whoever starts at nose tackle might not get a heavy amount of snaps as the load will be distributed pretty evenly between Woods, Lee Hill, and Jones.
DE: Jurrell Casey and Ropati Pitoitua- Jurrell Casey is just a flat-out beast. He put up some monster numbers last season, but can he make the same impact in a 3-4 as he did in a 4-3? I believe he can with ease, as he will still be asked to rush the passer with regularity. Ray Horton gets it, and he will do everything in his power to put Casey in the best possible position to succeed.
To the opposite side. Ropati Pitoitua will look to be a force, especially in the run game. He has outstanding size for the position, and it seems like he should be better suited to play in a 3-4 type of defense. Pitoitua went undrafted and has been cut on several occasions, so seeing him become a mainstay would be a great underdog story.
OLB: Akeem Ayers and Derrick Morgan- I am intrigued to see if Akeem Ayers can take another step forward towards becoming a quality outside linebacker. Coming out of college, many draft evaluators thought he would be better fit in a 3-4 defense. After three years of playing in a 4-3, Ayers will get a chance to show what he’s got in a more attacking type of role. Don’t be surprised if he puts up career numbers.
Derrick Morgan will be an interesting case. He could split snaps between both defensive end and outside linebacker. This will be a critical season for Morgan, as his on-field impact could sway or deter the front office from giving him a new contract extension. As long as he’s asked to primarily rush the passer, he should be just fine.
Don’t forget pass-rushers Shaun Phillips and Kamerion Wimbley. Both will see plenty of time on the field. Most pundits say the Titans lack a viable edge-rush, and though they might not have one elite guy, the rotation of these four players will do the job, especially if Ayers and Morgan continue to improve.
ILB: Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson: Here is where my opinion might surprise some people. Wesley Woodyard was signed to a four-year deal this offseason. He is a unique linebacker, as he went undrafted and then proceeded to become a team captain for the Denver Broncos in a very short amount of time. That just goes to show that not only is he a good player on the field, but also a good person off the field as well as in the locker room.
As for the other inside linebacker spot, I’ll go out on a limb here and say 2015 fifth-round pick Avery Williamson gets a chance to show what he is capable of. The Titans must improve their ability to stop the run, which is Williamson’s calling card. He probably won’t play much on third down, but he could get more playing time than people think, especially in base packages.
Zach Brown will also be in the mix here. Brown has insane speed for a linebacker, and is still only 24 years old. He will get plenty of opportunities to show the new coaching staff that he can fit in a 3-4. Don’t be shocked if he sees time at outside linebacker in this scheme.
CB: Jason McCourty and Blidi Wreh-Wilson- Jason McCourty will once again be the number No. 1 cornerback on the depth chart, and deservedly so. He has been a bit overshadowed by former teammate Alterraun Verner and twin brother Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots. But with another year of experience under his belt, and an upcoming schedule that is light on top-notch quarterbacks, McCourty could finally get some shine.
There is also an open No. 2 cornerback position open after the departure of the previously mentioned Verner. Some say the Titans should have addressed this position highly in the draft. I’m glad they didn’t, because I have high hopes for Blidi Wreh-Wilson. He was drafted in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, and some had a first-round grade on him. Wreh-Wilson is a better fit on the outside, which would mean cornerback Coty Sensabaugh could continue playing the ever important nickel-corner spot. It doesn’t hurt that “Blidi Wreh-Wilson” is one of the best names in all of football.
S: Michael Griffin and Bernard Pollard: The Titans have a solid pair of veteran safeties. FS Michael Griffin will be asked to do more than just play center field. Ray Horton has mentioned he would like his safeties to be interchangeable, so Griffin could play closer to the line off scrimmage from time to time. Hopefully he can improve off of the positive play he brought last season, as his career as a whole has been a bit of a roller coaster.
Starting at strong safety will be the fiery, intense Bernard Pollard. He played as advertised last season, knocking unaware receivers senseless and becoming the voice of the defense. I am relieved that the Titans where able to get him to re-sign this offseason, and am excited that he wanted be a Titan, regardless of contract numbers. He is the type of player that is really easy to root for and I’m already anticipating his first big hit of the season.
The 2014-15 Titans defense will be a sight to see. Ray Horton preaches an aggressive and creative style of defense, which will be a bit different from Titan defenses of the past. I believe they will at least be exciting to watch, hopefully producing not only better statistics, but more wins as well.