As is the case in most training camps with quarterback competitions, the battle between Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck has overshadowed what could possibly be one of the most intriguing units in all of football.
The Tennessee Titans defense is coming off of a season where they finished eighth in the NFL in points allowed despite ranking in the bottom half of the league in both yards per game allowed and third-down conversion percentage. After losing arguably its best player in Cortland Finnegan, the team will rely on young talent at nearly every position if it hopes to improve from a year ago.
In 2011, the weakest part of the defense was the pass rush. The Titans recorded just 28 sacks (31st in the NFL) and were unable to consistently pressure the quarterback at any point during the season.
Throughout this offseason, head coach Mike Munchak and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray made it clear that they were going to do everything in their power to ensure that the team would make quarterbacks suffer for holding onto the ball.
From the signing of defensive end Kamerion Wimbley, to drafting Mike Martin in the third round and to hiring longtime Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Keith Millard, the Titans' biggest focus (with the possible exception of the Peyton Manning drama) was to establish and maintain a pass rush. Throughout his first training camp, Millard has worked not only with the linemen, but also with the linebackers to get the most out of the blitz packages that Jerry Gray has stated he plans on adding to the defensive playbook.
With the exception of Wimbley, much of the personnel remains the same in the front four. Derrick Morgan, now another offseason removed from major knee surgery, hopes to find the pass-rushing ability that made him a first-round pick in 2010. In second-year players Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug, the Titans believe they have a pair of defensive tackles that can make an impact on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage that will only get better over the next few years.
At linebacker, the Titans enter 2012 with one of the youngest corps in all of football. In 2011 draft picks Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers, Tennessee believes they have found two guys that will be defensive stars for the foreseeable future.
McCarthy, after taking over for disappointing free-agent signing Barrett Ruud toward the middle of the season, demonstrated a nose for the football and the consistency that is rare from rookie middle linebackers. With McCarthy manning the middle of the defense, the Titans believe that the outside linebackers will be able to roam the field and look to make plays.
Zach Brown and Will Witherspoon will likely compete for playing time throughout the season, as Brown brings the speed and pass-coverage ability that Witherspoon simply can't match. If Brown is able to take over at weak-side linebacker, the Titans' youth and playmaking ability should help take the pressure off the defensive line throughout the year, allowing them to focus on getting to the quarterback.
The secondary may represent the biggest challenge on the defense. With young cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty taking over as the two starting cornerbacks, the Titans believe they have a duo that can go up against almost any receiving corps in the league.
The real question comes at the third corner spot, where Tommie Campbell is expected to see significant playing time due to the frequency which the Titans run the nickel defense. Though inexperienced, Campbell has great size and elite speed that makes him someone to watch on the outside. If his form is up to par, he could end up being a major steal for Tennessee.
At safety, Tennessee returns both starters from 2011. Michael Griffin, fresh off a long-term extension, has taken the kind of leadership role that encouraged the Titans to make a lengthy commitment to him. Despite flashing elite ability throughout much of his career, inconsistency has plagued Griffin.
If he is allowed to simply play the rover spot, following the quarterback and making plays, we could see the reemergence of the 2008 Michael Griffin that had Titans fans thinking they had the next elite safety on the roster. If he is forced to think about where he's supposed to play and come up against the run consistently, Griffin may be stuck at his current level of play, where he isn't necessarily a weak link, but isn't the strength the coaching staff believes he can be.
On the other side, Jordan Babineaux and Robert Johnson will compete for reps at strong safety. Babineaux has the consistency and experience that likely gives him an edge early on, but Robert Johnson's speed and ability to come up and play the run makes him an interesting player to keep an eye on throughout the preseason.
The Titans defense brings a lot of young talent to the table. With at least seven of the starters under the age of 26, this is a unit that could develop into one of the strongest in the league as the offense continues to take a step forward. Whether or not things come together for Tennessee in 2012 will likely prove to be the difference between a 7-9 season and a potential playoff team.