After completing the offense with a look at the centers, we continue our trip around the Titans position by position as we head into the 2014 offseason with a look at the defensive tackles.
With Ray Horton at defensive coordinator, the first question for a DT positional analysis is a fundamental one that affects all the front seven positions: what the heck will a defensive tackle be in this new hybrid defense Horton will be installing? Will the Titans align with a traditional 4-3 look the way they've done the whole time they've been in Nashville? Horton's background is in Pittsburgh, so will the Titans run something more like a "traditional"/Fairbanks-Bullough/two-gap 3-4? Or will the Titans instead do something more like what Horton's defenses when he was the defensive coordinator in Arizona and Cleveland, when his teams looked something like Wade Phillips' Texans defenses with more stand-up rushers and formation versatility on third downs and in sub package situations?
We won't know for sure until we see a Ray Horton Titans defense line up on the field. I believe the best answer, though, is that Horton plans to run a defense that looks like the defenses he ran in Arizona and Cleveland, and not just because that's what he's coached. In response to a question about run defense at his hiring press conference, he noted no one would be responsible for more than one gap. He's repeatedly described. He has described multiple times his preference to be aggressive and bring pressure, if you can. Summarizing the 4-3 v. 3-4 simply in a radio appearance, he noted that in a 4-3 you know which four are rushing. In a 3-4, you don't. Maybe it's just me, but that sounds like 3-4 thought. Worth noting is that Horton's Pittsburgh roots also mean experience with Dick LeBeau and his use of the zone blitz as a way to create safe pressure. Horton's rush tendencies in Arizona looked pretty Pittsburgh-like, in the top quarter of teams rushing 5 and the bottom quarter rushing 4.
What does this mean in terms of mapping the Horton 3-4 onto the positional analysis concept? The basic problem I've been having in planning this series since Horton was hired is we just don't know how he'll handle things. Take, for example, Jurrell Casey. Casey last year lined up overwhelmingly at 3-tech and had an outstanding season. In what I've seen of Cleveland, a defensive end in Horton's 3-4 in base personnel would often line up in a 3-tech or 5-tech, depending on the strength of the formation, and it could be either one (he didn't flip sides like Wade tried to). Back when Casey came out of college, he was talked about as a potential nose tackle; Dave Razzano compared him to Michael Carter, a 3-4 Wade Texans D-like nose tackle. If I had to guess, Casey is a 3/5-tech DE, unless Horton decides he's much better as a pure 3-tech and manipulates the D look so Casey can line up as a 3-tech (see the Jets and Sheldon Richardson, maybe?). Horton has noted that the configuration of players is less important, what's more important is the personnel on the field. That just opens up a boatload of possibilities.
Frankly, just writing that paragraph and trying to think it through gave me a headache. If it did that, it probably does the same to readers, or at least makes their eyes glaze over. "Mapping the Titans' defensive personnel onto a Ray Horton defense" is a good deep offseason project I could easily spend a week's worth of posts on if I cared to. Consider that on the to-do list for when I have the time and inclination to watch a couple games worth of 2013 Browns defense in sufficient detail and the energy to think seriously about trait-mapping Titans defenders to that. Right now, though, I'm just trying to give an overview perspective of how Titans defenders fared in 2013 and to give a very macro, non-specific perspective of their potential 2014 role. With that in mind, I will just talk about players based on the position they played in 2013's defense.
I already mentioned him, but Jurrell Casey was the Titans' best defensive tackle by a wide margin and probably their best overall defensive player in 2013. That was my take, at least, as I named him the Titans' defensive MVP in 2013. The coaches certainly seemed to agree with at least the former statement, or at least that's what their distribution of playing time showed. Despite missing the season finale, Casey played 870 snaps, 81.7% of the total and 86.5% of the total in the games for which he was active. He led all defensive linemen in snaps in 14 of the 15 games he played; the one exception came against the Broncos, and he still played 68 snaps in that game. (Had the Titans not non-renewed Jerry Gray's contract, I would have spent time ranting about his apparent defensive line rotation and general personnel substitution philosophy.)
As I chronicled when naming him the defensive MVP, Casey was phenomenally productive in all that time on the field. He did his best work in the passing game, with a team-leading 10.5 sacks and what the Titans credited as an additional 10 pressures, also team-leading. He also disrupted plenty of running plays, generally with interior penetration rather than by soaking up a double-team. In short, he's a gap-shooter and a very good one. Whatever role exactly he'll play in Horton's defense, as long as that's what he's asked to do and he stays healthy, he'll be a very good player. 2014 is the final year of his rookie deal, and it would surprise me if the Titans didn't at least try to lock him up to a long-term deal this offseason.
The only other defensive tackle to lead the position group in snaps in a game was Sammie Lee Hill, who did so against the Broncos (70) and the season finale against the Jaguars (32 of 59). Hill ended up playing 383 total snaps (36%). He missed three games, in Weeks 3-5, and if you exclude those games and the ones he got hurt and came back for, he ends up playing about half the time. With the big exception of that Broncos game, that more or less accurately reflected how often he was in the lineup. He was more or less the player I thought he'd be, keeping in mind that my take was "solid rotational tackle" rather than "impact defender."
With his much-praised-by-Jerry-Gray bulk (listed at 6'4, 328 pounds), Hill seems like more of a natural fit for a 3-4 system, perhaps in the plus-size nose tackle role Dan Williams played in the desert and Phil Taylor did with the Browns. Unless he's a defensive end. Or not a fit at all. Due $3.3 million in salary plus $100,000 workout bonus and with a potential total dead money hit of $1.33 million, it is financially viable to cut Hill if Horton does not value him as a player. My tentative expectation is that he will probably be back, but when I think about players whose traits may or may not be a fit for what Horton wants, Hill is one of the first names that comes to mind in terms of my difficulty in precisely placing him and assigning him a value.
The second part of Jerry Gray's "bigger is better" trio was Antonio Johnson. The man known as Mookie, listed at 6'3, 328 pounds, played nearly as much as Hill, sort of. The snaps total is almost the same, 380 (36%), sort of. Johnson's snaps came in 16 games, rather than 13 (or really 11). He played more some games, less in others, but was overwhelmingly a rotational tackle. As he should have been. Johnson's playing time felt at times like the apotheosis of what I viewed as Gray's mistake to equate bulk and run-stopping ability, as Johnson at times looked the mediocre 3-4 nose tackle he was in Indianapolis, too easily pushed back and not the sort of run-stuffer Gray thought. A free agent this offseason, I see no particular reason to expect him to return to the Titans.
What about Mike Martin? He seems like a potential fit as a shade nose, albeit a smaller one like Earl Mitchell of the Texans rather than the plus-sized Williams and Taylor Horton has enjoyed. If Casey's the 1-tech, Martin could be his backup. Martin saw his playing time decrease in his second season, going from 38% to 22%, 235 snaps, and was a healthy inactive in three of the final six games. He flashes pass rushing ability as a rookie, but apparently Gray was more concerned by his tendency to go backwards as often or more so than he went forwards. As a younger player on his entry contract, he's cheap enough and flashed enough as a rookie I can see him sticking around as a rotational player. The player I thought as a rookie might displace Sen'Derrick Marks as a starter or whose future seemed like it might be bright last offseason? Yeah, I'm less comfortable with that idea.
Chigbo Anunoby spent time on the practice squad in 2013. Like Hill and Johnson, he has excellent size, being listed at 6'4, 324 pounds. He broke into the league with the Colts in 2012, spending time on their practice squad. Maybe there's something there as a rotational big player, maybe he's just another example of the fascinating with big players qua big players.
I will discuss Karl Klug with the defensive ends.
Jurrell Casey will play a big role again, though if Horton's past DL usage is any guide, probably in fewer snaps. Beyond him, it remains more of an open question what players will be around and precisely what roles they will play. Sammie Lee Hill could play a bigger role or be cut. Mike Martin strikes me as a backup. Antonio Johnson may be replaced by somebody more of Horton's flavor. (N.B. Frostee Rucker is the only Browns or Cardinals DL to be a free agent, and he never played for Horton.) Beyond that, just how much of a priority what the Titans do at defensive tackle and what types of players they target depend on what exactly Horton wants and sees as a best fit. He could be relatively happy with what he has, or the Titans could make a major investment at the position, up to and including Louis Nix with the 11th pick in the draft. That sort of uncertainty, annoyingly, is a persistent theme with these positional analyses.