Alongside the ongoing duel at quarterback, improving the pass rush is the biggest offseason issue for the Tennessee Titans. That their defense managed to rank eighth in scoring in 2011 was down to the smart scheming of coordinator Jerry Gray and the play of a savvy, swarming secondary.
In order for the defense to match the heights set by AFC South front-runners, the Houston Texans, the Titans have set about improving on the meagre 28 sacks registered last season. The key move was the addition of former Oakland Raider Kamerion Wimbley.
The 28-year-old certainly has rush skills, having registered 16 sacks in two years with the Silver and Black. However, Wimbley has only broken the 10-sack mark once as a pro, when he notched 11 QB takedowns as a rookie with the Cleveland Browns in 2006.
What Wimbley does give the Titans is a rush end, with hybrid skills and scheme flexibility. Gray likes to mix fronts and show different looks, and Wimbley's ability to act as either a traditional end or a standup rusher should create possibilities for various pressure packages.
Tennessee's defense lacked a speedy, edge-rusher in 2011, after natural tackle Jason Jones was mistakenly moved to end. Gray should be able to devise ways to free Wimbley's quickness and agility to help attack quarterbacks.
The spotlight will also be on 2010 first-rounder Derrick Morgan, who was supposed to be the fleet-footed edge-rusher the Titans need. He has been blighted by poor performance and is fast running out of chances.
Utilising a young set of linebackers is another way for Gray to boost the sack numbers. The Titans have an abundance of speed and playmaking potential at outside linebacker, in the form of youngsters Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown.
At 6'3" and 254 pounds, Ayers has the frame of a true strong-side pass-rusher. He logged two sacks as a rookie, and more blitzes should be designed to isolate him against tight ends and running backs.
If second-rounder Zach Brown beats veteran Will Witherspoon to take the weak-side linebacker spot, he will be expected to be an asset in coverage. However, Brown's speed would make him a threat using the "green dogs" concept, allowing him to blitz the quarterback if the receiver he is assigned to doesn't release on a pass pattern.
Interior pressure is the one area of the Titans' pass rush that is solid, thanks to superb 2011 rookies Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug. A seventh-round pick, Klug led the team in sacks last season and is light and quick enough to cause havoc as a B-gap rusher inside.
Hiring Keith Millard as a pass-rush consultant was a smart move. He spent his career as a 3-technique under tackle, specialising in quickly splitting gaps and attacking quarterbacks.
Another interesting move, was the drafting of former Michigan nose tackle Mike Martin. He will enable the Titans to mix in three-man fronts more often and take some of the run responsibility away from Klug, keeping him fresh for the pass-rushing duty.
In particular, Martin could be useful in Gray's "Ruby" package, a 3-2-6 front designed to allow multiple blitz combinations, featuring linebackers and defensive backs. Gray might miss Cortland Finnegan's expertise as a slot blitzer here, but dialing up more safety blitzes could compensate for his loss.
Having played for Frtiz Shurmur and coached under Greg Blache, don't expect Gray's finger to stay firmly pressed on the blitz button this season. However, this underrated unit now has enough of the right weapons to pose a much greater threat to quarterbacks.
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