We conclude our look at the Titans’ defense by position with an analysis of the cornerbacks.
A mediocre Titan pass defense in 2006 lost its best cover corner. Many, myself included, expected the Titans’ pass defense to decline. Instead, it ended up better, ranking tops in the league in at least one measure. While the fine play of Albert Haynesworth and the rest of the defensive line was a big part of this, the secondary, including the starting cornerbacks, did their job as well. The question is, can the 2007 level of performance from the corners continue?
The upgrade in cornerbacks came about for one simple reason: a defense is only as strong as its weakest link. Last March’s free agent acquisition Nick Harper and Cortland Finnegan replaced He Who Must Not Be Named and Reynaldo Hill in the starting lineup, and both were good. Not great, like Pacman had been. But not awful like Hill had been, so just good was enough. I don’t normally think of Harper and Finnegan as being similar players, but a look at the Football Outsiders advanced statistics (from Pro Football Prospectus 2008) shows two very similar players: both targeted 22% of the time, average 11.8 yards downfield, 50% success rate, 7.2 yards per attempt… it’s almost eerie. Harper was noticeably superior in run support, though, as Finnegan was only mediocre by those statistics.
I won’t go into the other corners on the roster, as they’re mentioned in the separate nickelback preview. I will briefly note, though, that Vinny Fuller’s FO statistics are very good, though of course he faced far fewer chances than Harper and Finnegan and nickel corners tend to have excellent FO statistics for some reason, while Lowry comes out as a mediocre pass defender.
The bottom-line analysis is that both Finnegan and Harper should be very serviceable starting corners again in 2008, and I think Fuller should do fine in the nickel role, and could even be a non-awful replacement or spot starter. The Titans, though, also do not have the kind of elite shutdown corner you can structure a defense around. It’s unlikely the Titans will finish with the league’s top pass defense by any ranking again in 2008; defenses are inherently more volatile than football (see PFP 2007), and the caliber of opposing quarterbacks faced will almost certainly be higher, games against the NFC North notwithstanding. Still, if the pass rush falters, good teams will be able to make plays against the Titans in the passing game in 2008, though almost certainly not to the extent seen in 2005.