What will the Titans' sub package on defense look like in 2013? This is an interesting and complicated question for a number of reasons. The sheer number of different pieces on the defensive line gives the Titans options. Akeem Ayers may rush more. Who's going to play the slot? How much Big Nickel with three safeties will the Titans play? Just how much dime, either 4-1-6 or Ruby (3-2-6) will they play? Oh, yeah, and Gregg Williams played the 3-3-5 nickel as his primary sub package in both New Orleans and Jacksonville, so might we see a lot more of that from the Titans as well?
We've gotten a little bit of insight into how things might go, and we can also make some relatively educated guesses. Some of these are pretty straightforward-that Derrick Morgan, Zach Brown, and Jason McCourty (playing on the outside) seems pretty darned likely, though of course Morgan shouldn't play every snap. What else do we know?
1. If you believe Jerry Gray, Sammie Lee Hill's here for mostly for first and second downs. This doesn't mean he won't play in sub, but he's a run-stopper, not a pass rusher. Ruston Webster when they signed him and Mike Munchak more recently have made noises about how he can be an effective pass rushers, but I'm going with Gray's comments over that.
2. Kamerion Wimbley is no lock to line up at defensive end if he's on the field. This is another nugget from Gray's media session during minicamps. 2011 was his first time playing with his hand in the dirt all the time, and Gray described it as a learning session both for Wimbley and for him and the Titans. From Gray's point of view, he learned Wimbley was not what he thinks of as a "true" defensive end who is going to give you what you need. In other words, Gray saw the same thing everybody else who paid attention did, that teams had a lot of success spreading the Titans out and running the ball right at them, and one of the solutions for that seems to be less Wimbley at end.
3. It's hard to find a perfect fit for Alterraun Verner. The popular move has been to put Verner in the slot. I've long resisted this idea, because he hasn't played there in the regular season under Jerry Gray even when he was the third corner. Gray finally gave me support in his June 6 press session, noting the slot corner in his scheme has to function almost like a third linebacker and it would be unfair to ask the 185-pound Verner to hit a player coming downhill at him. This wouldn't necessarily mean he'll never play inside, but he'd have to be protected when he would. Beyond the slot, Verner again doesn't have ideal size or long speed to play press man. He's been practicing at safety, but he's 2" shorter and almost 20 pounds lighter than Michael Griffin. He's definitely an NFL player and seems like a good guy, but it's hard to find a great match between his strengths as a player and what the Titans seem to be asking their players to do.
4. We should see more Akeem Ayers rushing more and in coverage less. Or at least that's the impression I got from his comments early in OTAs. This won't necessarily be with his hand in the dirt at defensive end, but he should see more plays there and will probably rush as a linebacker as well. I expect that between him and Wimbley we could see either of them standing up in the 3-3-5 look (and I do expect the Titans do play that more than they have the past two seasons).
5. Zaviar Gooden's name should not be written in pen. He may not have had moments on his collegiate tape quite the same way Zach Brown did, but he was still not the sort of player who visibly impressed people with an overly physical nature. He's apparently looked good in shorts, but athletic people normally do. Between him and Brown, the Titans could put two really fast guys on the field in say, a 3-3-5 with Ayers rushing, but preseason and showing he responds to the challenge of the NFL game will be important for determining his 2013 role (or lack thereof).
6. Three safeties may be a thing, but I'm not counting on it to be a big part of what the Titans do. Gray noted it might be particularly useful against teams that play a lot of two tight ends that can both block and run. He specifically mentioned New England and San Francisco, but I'm curious to see if Houston falls into that category. He's played a lot of sub package against their 12 packages the past two seasons, with between mixed and minimal success. By the numbers, the Titans were average against the run against 12 in both base and sub in 2012 and good against the pass in sub and bad against the pass in base.
7. Let me know if you find a good slot option. Coty Sensabaugh was miserable there last season, posting on his targets the worst success rate of any cornerback in the league with more than 20 targets. I'm not sure Blidi Wreh-Wilson is that guy. Jason McCourty is not that guy. Tommie Campbell does not seem like that guy. I see the Titans struggling to defender the smaller, quicker receivers, and even the league's best pass rush wouldn't be able to shut down every jerk route.
I'm sure I'll be revisiting this subject going forward, especially once we have actual evidence of how the Titans are lining up and using their players, but that's a list of things I think I think about the Titans' defensive sub package looks as of late June.