To get a better idea of what the Titans are getting, I went back and watched a couple games of defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill, formerly of the Detroit Lions.
With Hill, the first question was which games to watch. He started the season as the Lions’ fourth defensive tackle, behind Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, and Nick Fairley. That’s where he was when the Lions faced the Titans and I noted his presence in Enemy Intelligence. When the Lions had those four players, Hill played about 30% of the time as the Lions used a four-man rotation at D-tackle. After Williams went down, Hill became the third defensive tackle and played a little under half the time on average. After Fairley followed Williams to injured reserve, Hill became the starter and played about 70% of the time.
I wanted to get a decent sample of Hill’s work, so I chose two games where he had a heavier workload. That ruled out the game against the Titans, as he only played 13 snaps. The first game I watched was the Lions’ 34-24 loss to the Vikings in Week 10. With Corey Williams out, he was part of a 3-man rotation behind Suh and Fairley, playing 44 snaps (63%) to Suh’s 61 and Fairley’s 48. The second was the Lions’ 31-18 loss to the Falcons in Week 16. Hill played 40 snaps (71%) that game, while Suh played 51 and late-season addition Andre Fluellen 21.
I should note this is decidedly an amateur analysis. As I’ve written before, I’m not very good at analyzing and evaluating things like hand play by defensive linemen and the subtleties in a player’s stance. The finer points of line technique are lost on me, so I’m going to say very little about them. These are really important things, and the input of somebody who is good at evaluating those things could drastically change my opinion of Hill’s play. Further, two games is a small sample size. Were I to watch all 402 snaps Hill played on defense last year, instead of just the 84 I did, my opinion could similarly drastically change. 2012 was Hill’s fourth year in the league; I did not go back and watch how he played in any of the previous three seasons. So, amateur analysis off a pretty modest sample size, accept the following with a huge grain of salt.
Hill almost invariably lined up as the right defensive tackle. Like the Titans, the Lions did not play strong or weak side linemen, so Hill playing RDT meant he could and did line up anywhere from almost head up on the center to the left guard’s outside shoulder. We’ll see how the Titans end up playing their defensive linemen, but I think most teams aren’t like the Texans, who try to line up their players strong and weak on every play (e.g., J.J. Watt at SDE rather than LDE) and paid for it against the Patriots.
The Lions are a Jim Schwartz defense and now have Jim Washburn as their defensive line coach, which means that the linemen are looking to get upfield and shoot gaps almost every play. I’m not sure this was the best fit for Hill’s skills, as he was the fourth-best Lions tackle I watched when it came to getting on the outside shoulder of the linemen and getting upfield. Yes, Suh and Fairley were #1 picks, but I thought Andre Fluellen was also more explosive at the snap and he’s currently on the street. How much of a concern is this? Not that big of one in my book. I don’t expect the Titans to run a Schwartz/Washburn-style defense and require their linemen to get upfield all the time. Rather, I expect the Titans to want Hill to soak up blocks and not give ground the way Shaun Smith did.
To be effective in that role, Hill will need to do a better job against double teams than he did against the Vikings. I didn’t keep formal count, but the Vikings doubled Hill about 7 times on run plays and only once did he sustain the double team and prevent one of his blockers from reaching the second level. Given the left guard was Charlie Johnson, successfully blocking the man at the second level was a separate question, but I’ve seen enough of the former Colt to lean in the direction of that as a Charlie Johnson problem rather than the result of Hill’s disruption. I was curious how the Falcons would handle him, but their run game doesn’t work off double teams in the same manner.
When the Titans signed Hill, Mike Munchak and Ruston Webster made some noises about how he could be play in the nickel and be a pass rusher. Jerry Gray in a June media session was a little more direct, noting Hill would play some on pass downs, but the goal was to get him in there on first-and-10, second-and-short, and for the most part he would have one job, don’t let them run the football. Which is good, because he struck me as a terribly unsubtle pass rusher.
First, foremost, and almost exclusively Hill is a bull rusher who uses his great strength to push the offensive lineman back. I don’t expect that sort of thing to work at all, but he was more effective than I thought he would be. Granted, he was working against left guards and right guard is more of the power position, but it was clear he had the sort of exceptional strength, even for an NFL lineman, you need to do this reasonably well. He has 4.0 sacks in four seasons, none of them in 2012, so don’t expect him to get to the passer himself, but collapsing the pocket is something he can help with.
My guess is that strength, more than anything else, is what attracted the Titans to Hill. I thought he might have been a bit miscast in Detroit, a potential widebody asked to go upfield. If the Titans were running that same sort of upfield attacking strategy with their defensive line, I’d say signing Hill for the kind of money they paid him was a bit of a questionable move. I suspect they’ll ask him to do something else, things I think you can reasonably claim he’ll do a lot more effectively. I’m not sure how he’d handle playing 800 snaps over the course of the season, but I think in the right role Hill can be at least a pretty solid top three rotational tackle for the Titans with the possibility of being more than that.