In the upcoming NFL season, Dick LeBeau finds himself in a new position with the Tennessee Titans — defensive coordinator.
Last season LeBeau served as the Titans’ assistant head coach, while his long-time protégé Ray Horton served as defensive coordinator. LeBeau remained relatively quiet so that Horton could be the defense’s leading voice.
“I didn’t talk that much last year,” LeBeau told Titans’ reporters following OTA practice at Saint Thomas Park. “I wanted [the players] to hear one voice. I definitely think it’s probably better for them to have one voice.”
Now, LeBeau is the sole leader of the Titans’ defense. In January, Horton became one of five coaches to join the staff of Hue Jackson — all hopeful to resurrect the Cleveland Browns’ struggling franchise.
Titans’ players should find continuity between Horton’s defensive play calling in 2015 and LeBeau’s defensive play calling in 2016. In fact, LeBeau acknowledges, “Ray [Horton] and I have always run similar defenses.”
This similarity results from a considerable history between the two. LeBeau personally coached Horton for six years in Cincinnati, when Horton played cornerback for the Bengals (1983-1988). Then, LeBeau and Horton coached together for five years in Cincinnati (1997-2001) and for seven years in Pittsburg (2004-2010) before meeting again in Tennessee last season.
In LeBeau’s words: “Coach Horton’s defense [is] Dick LeBeau’s defense.”
Nonetheless, the Titans will experience defensive changes in 2016.
For starters, LeBeau plans to incorporate more blitzes: “I like to err on the side of pressure, so we’re going to be coming. There’s no question about that … You may not notice too many differences but there’s quite a few in there.”
During OTA practices, Titans’ linebacker Brian Orakpo has already noticed LeBeau’s heightened emphasis on the pass rush: “Yeah a lot more blitzes, a lot more blitz patterns. Everyone is a little bit more involved with coming after the quarterback, and I think we are really going to get after it.”
LeBeau also believes that the Titans’ defense will be deeper in 2016, thanks to the acquisition of veteran free agents and the most recent draft class.
“I think depth is appreciably better right now, as we stand right here, with the acquisition of some veterans from other teams … We [also] had as many quality [draft] picks for the defense as, I don’t know, I have to go back a long time before I was with any [draft] that close. So we look forward to having all these athletes: the free agents we got and the guys we drafted.”
In March, the Titans acquired four defensive free agents: cornerbacks Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, linebacker Sean Spence, and safety Rashad Johnson.
Then in April, the Titans drafted a six more defenders: linebackers Kevin Dodd (Round 2, No. 33) and Aaron Wallace (Round 7, No. 222); defensive tackle Austin Johnson (Round 2, No. 43); safety Kevin Byard (Round 3, No. 64); and cornerbacks LeShaun Sims (Round 5, 157) and Kalan Reed (Round 7, No. 253).
For LeBeau, defensive depth is crucial for success: “It’s particularly critical on the defensive side of the ball, early in the season when you’re playing the hot games, to have enough [players] that you can actually rotate and have fresh guys in there to keep some heat on that quarterback in the fourth quarter, because that’s probably when the game is going to be won or lost.”
Lastly, LeBeau hopes that the Titans’ defense will be better rested in 2016, since the team looks to have a strong running game with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry under center.
“It’s hard for [the opposing team’s offense] to hurt the defense if you’re over there drinking Gatorade, and [Murray’s] got the ball under his arm running for a bunch of first downs … I’ve said many times: a good running game and a damn good punter is a defense’s best friend.”
All these factors — more blitzes, greater depth, and better rushing — look to benefit the Titans’ defense in 2016.
The team has trended upwards since LeBeau’s arrival. In 2014 the Titans ranked 27th in the league for total defense (373.0 yards/game allowed). Last season, LeBeau’s first in Tennessee, the team improved fifteen spots to finish 12th in the league for total defense (342.2 yards/game allowed).
Where will the Titans rank defensively in 2016? Cornerback Perrish Cox hopes for a top five defense in the NFL. “We finished 12th in the league last year. We want to finish in the top five [next season].”
Cox’s goal is lofty, but not unrealistic. LeBeau was the defensive coordinator for the Steelers for 13 seasons (1995-1996, 2004-2014). During his tenure, the Steelers were first in the league for total defense five times and a top five defense on five other occasions.
We’ll see how all unfolds at the start of September. One thing is certain: the Titans’ defense belongs to Dick LeBeau in 2016.