Last week I discussed three questions facing the Tennessee Titans’ offense in 2016. In the spirit of symmetry, let’s now address three questions facing the Titans’ defense in the upcoming season.
Who will earn the starting role at cornerback?
Prior to OTAs and minicamp, it seemed that Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox would be Tennessee’s starting cornerbacks for the upcoming season. Both started for the team in 2015, and both have returned to health from groin and hamstring injuries, respectively.
Brice McCain has disrupted that narrative, however. The Titans acquired McCain from the Miami Dolphins during the most recent free agency, and signed the cornerback to a two-year, $4.4 million dollar contract.
McCain and Cox rotated with one another in first-team reps during OTAs and minicamp. “We’re working them both with the [first-team],” coach Mularkey said, “and letting them compete against one another.”
McCain’s early successes in Tennessee may be a result of his tenured experience. The cornerback played for Dick LeBeau in Pittsburg two years ago and played for a LaBeau-like defense in Miami last year: “[Miami] ran a similar defense as coach LeBeau, so the terminology changed when I came [to Tennessee], but it’s really the same thing.”
The competition has been healthy thus far, and it looks to benefit a struggling Titans’ secondary that allowed the third most passing touchdowns (34) in league last year and the seventh most passes of 40 or more yards (12).
“I’m not really worried,” Cox said. “Whoever [coaches] want in there, that’s their choice. But as far as competing-wise, I think that’s a good thing for us to compete. It’ll make both of us work, if not all of us, even the players that aren’t competing for the starting job.”
McCain echoed Cox’s sentiments: “It’s a good thing to have competition to bring out the best in everybody.”
Which defensive rookie will have the largest impact in 2016?
The betting man’s choice would have been Kevin Dodd, linebacker out of Clemson and the Titans’ highest defensive draft pick at No. 33 overall. Unfortunately though, Dodd missed OTAs and minicamp because of preventative surgery on the fifth metatarsal of his right foot.
Although Dodd is expected to be healthy for the start of training camp on July 31, the linebacker will be at a physical deficit compared to other rookies according to LeBeau: “He’s going to be missing the physical reps. That’s probably the best learning that a young player can get. But I was very pleased in what he showed us in the camp that he was at and the days that we had him here.”
In addition to Dodd, the Titans selected five other defenders during the NFL draft: defensive tackle Austin Johnson (Round 2, No. 43), safety Kevin Byard (Round 3, No. 64), cornerback LeShaun Sims (Round 5, No. 157), linebacker Aaron Wallace (Round 7, No. 222), and cornerback Kalan Reed (Round 7, No. 253).
“[Byard’s] doing a great job. He’s a very intelligent young man. One of the things, when we interviewed him, it was very evident that this guy is kind of special in the classroom part of [football] … particularly at the safety position that’s a big plus. And athletically he’s not slouch either, so I’m looking forward to working with that young man, and he has done nothing to disappoint us for where we took him in the draft.”
“[I’m] very pleased with Austin Johnson. Again, he’s a very smart young man and very competitive. I watched a lot of his tape in college and he’s just going to play you for 60 minutes and the kind of guy we want to have helping us on our defense.”
Since the remaining defensive rookies were relatively quiet during OTAs and training camp, it’s safe to assume that Johnson, Byard, and Dodd — if his recover proceeds well — will vie for the title of most impactful defensive rookie. All three should have playing time next season, since LeBeau values the ability to rotate in fresh players.
“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 guys like that you can actually rotate and have fresh guys in there to keep some heat on that quarterback in the fourth quarter.”
Will the Titans’ defense have more rest in 2016?
LeBeau believes yes, because an improved running game should increase the Titans’ offensive time of possession.
“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.”
The Titans running attack should be formidable next season. The team has two reliable rushers in Mariota and Murray, and perhaps a third in Henry. Moreover, Mularkey has sought to create a run-first offense in Tennessee since he became interim head coach last season.
“Coach Mularkey has been preaching the run since day one. He takes it to heart to run the ball with a physical attitude, and we mirror his expectations,’’ guard Chance Warmack said. “We want to be physical off the ball and try and get our identity going again.”
However, there is a threat to LeBeau’s vision of more defensive rest and Mularkey’s vision of a rush-first offense — large game-time deficits.
As interim head coach in 2015, Mularkey ran the ball two times less often per game compared to Ken Whisenhunt (22.2 rushes/game vs. 24.4 rushes/game), as the Titans were forced to pass because of large point deficits.
In other words, the Titans’ defense will have more rest if Mariota and Murray rush well, if Mularkey holds true to his run-first philosophy, and if the Titans avoid large game-time deficits that necessitate the pass.