The Tennessee Titans today officially announced the hiring of Ray Horton as their new defensive coordinator today. I, for one, expected Horton to be the defensive coordinator as soon as Ken Whisenhunt was hired as head coach, and the move was reportedly pretty much done on Saturday.
The move was widely expected because Norton had coached for Whisenhunt before, serving as his defensive coordinator his final two years in Arizona (2011-12) and been pretty successful. The 2012 defense, which I watched in some detail while doing the Cardinals chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, was particularly good, ranking sixth in the league by DVOA (second against the pass) despite a secondary consisting of Patrick Peterson and a bunch of guys. He was Cleveland's defensive coordinator in 2013. With the Browns, he inherited a not particularly good defense (22nd by DVOA) with a roughly average pass rush and turned them into a not particularly good defense (25th by DVOA) with a roughly average pass rush. Okay, he didn't work miracles his first year in Arizona either (25th to 20th by DVOA).
Honesty compels me to admit I didn't watch a ton of the Cardinals in 2011 and remember even less, so I can't say what he changed his second season in the desert, if anything. I also didn't watch much of the 2013 Browns, especially the defense (the offense was good for a chuckle on Short Cuts, while I mostly concentrated on the opposing offense when I did watch the Browns), so going into more detail on what he did well or poorly is now on the list of offseason projects.
Horton's background as a coach and coordinator is in precisely the 3-4, 2-gap defensive scheme Whisenhunt said at his introductory presser he didn't want to run. We'll see how much of that was more than just bull, because Horton's a 3-4 guy. His Cardinals in both 2011 and 2012 ran 3-4 as their base look and a 2-4-5 as their sub package defense. That wasn't quite all they ran, but it was 85% or more of what they did. He apparently did both of those a lot as well in Cleveland this year, while also running more 3-3-5 nickel than he did in Arizona.
One thing that stood out about Arizona was they had a decent pass rusher in 2012 despite not having an outstanding edge rusher. They didn't have an outside linebacker with more than 4 sacks, while inside backer Daryl Washington led the team with 9.0. Again in Cleveland this year, there wasn't a single dominant edge rusher, as nobody had more than 5.5 sacks (by Jabaal Sheard). Washington had a particularly impressive season as a rusher in 2012, and much of his production seemed to be the result of Horton's creativity in terms of A-gap pressure. That could be good for a Titans team that doesn't really have anybody who's a serious pass-rushing threat there.
The big problem Horton will face is adjusting what he wants to do to the personnel the Titans have, because the Titans are far from an obvious fit for the 3-4 or 2-4-5. He goes from having Dan Williams and then Phil Taylor to nobody particularly resembling a 3-4 nose tackle unless you think Sammie Lee Hill fits the bill (I don't). He goes from having Calais Campbell and Desmond Bryant, both really good players, to nobody who really fits the prototypical 3-4 DE mold. Zach Brown can play WILB. He'll find a way to use Jurrell Casey, the same way he found a use for Darnell Dockett, though we haven't seen Casey be the same sort of scheme versatility Dockett did (in 2008, when the Cardinals made the Super Bowl and Horton was on the opposing sideline, Dockett would line up all over the place). Akeem Ayers, OLB seems like a natural fit though I'm tempted to play him at SILB where I think he could actually be a good pass rusher. Maybe it's good news for Ropati Pitoitua if he wants to stick around, but I've been mulling over in my head for the better part of the past week how to use the pieces the Titans have in a 3-4 without coming to anything I liked more than what I just outlined.
Don't get me wrong. I think Horton is a smart coach who has shown he can run a good scheme and have an effective defense. I think the results in Arizona and Cleveland the first year, combined with the lack of obvious fit between the Titans personnel on defense and what he's run in the past, should temper your expectations for what sort of improvement to expect from the Titans defense in 2014. He'll have a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, at least as much power as Gregg Williams had over the defense this past season and probably more, but he's worked with Whisenhunt before and has actually been hired by another NFL team, one not coached by Whisehunt, to be their defensive coordinator. After Mike Munchak's hiring from among the 8 people he knew, I'm happy to see the Titans actually hiring like a professional organization.
In addition to hiring Horton, the Titans added to the defensive staff with defensive backs coach Sigismondo "Louie" Cioffi and linebackers coach Lou Spanos. Cioffi worked in the same role with Horton in both Arizona (where Peterson and a bunch of guys turned into a solid secondary) and Cleveland (where Haden and a bunch of somewhat worse guys did not). He'll apparently be helped by assistant secondary coach Steve Brown, who sticks around. The Titans have had success with later-drafted defensive backs in his tenure, so that seems like a good thing. Spanos joins the Titans from UCLA, where he was the defensive coordinator. He inherited a UCLA defense that was pretty bad and improved both seasons he was in charge, at least by advanced stats. He was a longtime defensive assistant in Pittsburgh, working with the linebackers and secondary, which explains how he knows Horton. Hiring Spanos immediately got the Titans linked to highly-rated draft prospect Anthony Barr, a likely NFL 3-4 OLB who could make sense with the 11th pick in the draft. Spanos will certainly have insight into Barr as a player, but after last year's Doug Marrone-Ryan Nassib talk I'm a long way from writing it in pen. The point with Horton stands, though-instead of the Titans hiring a collegiate position coach as their defensive coordinator, they're hiring a collegiate coordinator as a position coach. That's exactly how things should be.
Defensive line coach, which could tell us more about what kind of defensive line the Titans want to have, is still to come. All we know is it won't be Tracy Rocker. I'll probably tackle that hire in a roundup post when the rest of the offensive assistant jobs are filled (including when we get some official word on Mike Mularkey). I'll watch more of what Horton did on the Browns before I start writing the positional analyses in February, but longer posts on that is probably a longer-term project (meaning sometime between March 1 and the start of training camp).