After three seasons in Nashville, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will not return to the team for the final year of his contract.
When Mike Mularkey was fired as head coach of the Tennessee Titans, the status of Dick LeBeau as the Titans’ defensive coordinator and assistant head coach was thrown into limbo. Whether LeBeau would return likely depended on which head coach the Titans hired. If it was a young offensive-oriented coach, LeBeau might’ve stayed on to lead the defense.
But with the hiring of Mike Vrabel, a leader with a defense-only background, LeBeau’s likelihood of returning dwindled. Earlier today, the Tennesseean reported that LeBeau definitively will not be coordinating the Titans defense next season. LeBeau is likely to retire.
A bonafide football legend, LeBeau was an All-Pro defensive back throughout 14 seasons with the Detroit Lions, where he picked off a franchise record 62 passes. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player in 2010.
LeBeau got into coaching immediately after hanging up his cleats, taking a special teams coach job with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1973-1975. He bided his time as a defensive backs coach with the Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals before being promoted to defensive coordinator with the Bengals in 1984 until 1991. Lebeau went on a stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers before returning to the Bengals in 1997, serving as the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach until 2000 and then the head coach until 2002.
After being fired due to poor results, LeBeau returned to the Steelers in 2004, becoming one of the most successful defensive coordinators ever in his second stint there. LeBeau led the defense until 2014, winning two Super Bowls and dropping a third and being named Coordinator of the year by Sporting News in 2008.
LeBeau resigned from his post in January of 2015 and was subsequently brought in by Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt to change the fortune of the Titans defense. After assisting defensive coordinator Ray Horton during the 2015 season, LeBeau took over as the full-time defensive coordinator in 2016, continuing to use the 3-4 scheme that he is accustomed to.
The Titans were middle-of-the-pack in terms of points given up, but their pass defense was the third-worst unit in the league by passing yards per game. The run defense was a top two unit by rushing yards per game given up. The Titans’ inability to get pressure towards the end of the season ultimately cost the Titans a playoff spot at the end of the season.
In 2017, LeBeau’s defense rebounded after some much-needed additions were made in the offseason. The run defense remained a top five unit and the pass defense rebounded a bit, ranking 12th in the leagues in yards per pass attempt given up. Most importantly, the pass rush was consistently good, and the team ended the season fifth in the NFL in sacks with 43.0.
During his time in Tennessee, LeBeau’s defense was at times a frustrating watch. Cornerbacks would constantly line up 10 yards off their receivers and allow easy completions. Pass rushers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan would get dropped into coverage to try to keep up with shifty running backs. Slow-footed linebacker Avery Williamson would be asked to cover tight ends and running backs, even though that wasn’t his forte. And Erik Walden would consistently be lined up as a stand-up nose tackle on passing downs.
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Despite his faults, LeBeau was a fantastic halftime adjuster, most notably in the 2017 primetime wins against the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs.
Vrabel will now lead the search for a new defensive coordinator, but look for Vrabel to incorporate a lot of the ideas he used last season in Houston. Vrabel doesn’t run a distinct 3-4 or 4-3 defense, and his front seven versatility makes him an intriguing defensive mind.
Longtime Green Bay Packers safeties coach Darren Perry is being floated around as a possibility to be the new defensive coordinator.
The Titans defense will look different in 2018, and odds are it will be even better if Vrabel and his DC commit to fitting his scheme to the strengths of his defensive players.