Programming note: Defensive review of the Bengals game is coming later this week, likely tomorrow.
Our final stop on the defense on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2013 regular season is a look at the safeties.
Last offseason, the Titans were facing having to potentially replace both of their starting safeties. They ended up not losing either of them, re-signing both primary starters to multi-year extensions. The results, as I chronicled in the offseason positional analysis, were less than the Titans hoped. By the time I got around to writing that piece in late February, the Titans had already made one move for the present of the position. I thought they were done in that regard, but could and should look to the future of the position.
As it happened, the Titans did not listen to me, adding instead another option to the present of the position and on a one-year deal. They did address the future of the position with a very late draft pick, but what the safety position will look in 2014 will be a question answered in 2014 based on the results of 2013 performance.
Michael Griffin will be starting at free safety in what is likely to again be a system with defined strong and free safety roles rather than interchangeable safeties or instead be asked to play more of a strong safety role like he was early in 2012 as Jerry Gray tried to find the best way to use him. His sometimes questionable ball skills and penchant for missing too many tackles make him a non-ideal fit as a deep safety, yet his coverage and performance in the box got him moved back to free safety quickly after what we saw the first couple games in 2012.
We've seen four years of some up but mostly down play by Griffin that saw its nadir in 2009 but has otherwise mostly been mediocre. 2012 wasn't that bad, but it was in the range of his 2010 and 2011 performance, so why should we expect anything different? Last year showed paying him more money and good diligence did not "solve" who Michael Griffin is. I've seen suggestions a better strong safety next to him should help him, but 2009's fall after a fine 2008 while still playing next to Chris Hope gives me no confidence in that assessment. Instead, I expect him to be the same player he has been.
When I wrote the offseason positional analysis, it looked like George Wilson would be the starting strong safety. As I wrote when the Titans signed him, he is a box safety and just a box safety. He can probably be decent enough in a 2-deep look, but probably won't take away things like the Cover-2 deep outside void. He's been listed and playing with the #2s all offseason and will be the backup unless things change. I thought he might play in Ruby or some 3-safety looks, but so far we haven't seen much of that in the preseason.
Rather than Wilson, Bernard Pollard will be the starting strong safety. Pollard at his best is a powerful hitter who has just enough range to play somewhere in a 2-deep-not great, not well enough to even be an ideal safety for an interchangeable look, but a strong safety who won't be a liability in 2-deep. At his worst, he's a hitter who reminds me too much of the fullbacks, good at lighting up people when they're properly lined up but vulnerable to looking bad and giving up plays when his hit is not lined up properly, and also burned too often in coverage. He's obviously philosophically simpatico with Gregg Williams, bringing a similar brand of physical fire.
His kind of attitude could really help out a young defense in desperate need of leadership or his always-on persona could just be tuned out as "just Bernard being Bernard" (doing my best to listen to every interview, I'm already in this latter group). It's easy to see why the Titans brought him in, and equally easy for me to see why he's on his fourth team in his seventh season. Bringing him in is a bit of a risk; like Griffin, he could be a good player who does what the Titans need him to do or a bit of a disaster; Wilson provides some support against the latter scenario. It will be up to Gregg Williams and Jerry Gray to bring out the best in him and limit the worst.
With the release of Robert Johnson due to injury, the Titans do not have a natural backup free safety on the roster. Al Afalava is Griffin's nominal backup but is more of a natural strong safety, which is where his work in 2012 came. "Meh" is my overall evaluation of his game. I think I'm rightfully equivocal about Griffin's game, but if Afalava is indeed his backup when the regular season starts I really hope he (Griffin) never gets hurt.
Afalava split time with the newly-signed Corey Lynch in the second preseason game. The Chargers actually gave him four starts and 495 defensive snaps last year, largely out of pique with what Atari Bigby was doing. Like Afalava, he's more of a natural strong safety. Really, though, he's a competent special teams player who may get some snaps by being in the right place but is not physically talented enough to be a starting safety in the NFL; yes, I recognize how incredibly cliched it is to describe a white player that way and it totally violates the spirit I'm trying to imbue by making only cross-racial comparisons, but that's who he is as a player.
I'd tell you what I thought of Markelle Martin as a player, but 12 snaps the first preseason game is all he's played in the season-plus since the Titans drafted him. He needs to get and stay healthy to have anything like a future as an NFL player.
Seventh-round pick Daimion Stafford also missed the second preseason game after playing an even smaller role in the first preseason game than Martin did. I covered him in more detail after the draft. Like everybody else I have written about other than Griffin, I do not see him as an NFL free safety. Does he make the roster? We'll see; as I've noted, as a seventh-round supplemental pick I see minimal difference between him and a priority free agent. Maybe the Titans see something they like in practice.
Tracy Wilson joins Afalava and Lynch with a listing on the unofficial free safety depth chart, and his snaps in the first preseason game actually came in a deep safety role. That of course meant he spent most of his time off the screen. I think his 4 defensive snaps in 2012 all came at strong safety. Maybe the Titans see something they like in practice.
Michael Griffin and Bernard Pollard are the starters. In their own way, they both have nominal strengths and significant flaws. With the right mix of flaws and strengths, they can be key players on a surprisingly feisty Titans team that plays well enough on defense to go 9-7 and challenge for a playoff spot. With the wrong mix, Pollard is benched by midseason even if George Wilson is washed-up and the Titans can't wait until the offseason to get out of Griffin's contract.
The presence of Pollard and George Wilson nominally gives the Titans the ability to roll with some 3-safety looks, which might be a more attractive proposition than nickel with a corner against 12 personnel in particular. We'll see if that becomes a part of the defense or not. They could also feature in Ruby, if we see some Ruby. Again, we'll see just how prominent a role that plays in the defense.
I don't see a backup free safety on the roster worthy of the name, only a bunch of masquerading strong safeties. Like a backup right guard, the Titans could decide they're happy with a backup I see as inadequate for the position but who has other strengths or could look to make an addition when they mass cutdown to 53 happens.