Ray Horton's Titans Defense Doing Nothing to Quell Concerns in Preseason

Rivers McCownNFL AnalystAugust 24, 2014

Atlanta Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers (32) runs past Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Zach Brown (55) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/Associated Press

The Titans spent much of their offseason capital on it, but after three weeks of preseason play, their defense remains a big question mark as we look toward their season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.

I was willing to give the Titans a pass on their poor tackling in their first preseason game, on account of what were almost monsoon conditions. But after back-to-back weeks of getting carved up by Atlanta's Matt Ryan and (of all people) Luke McCown, it's time to start considering the possibility that this year's Titans defense will not be able to live up to last year's squad.

Ken Whisenhunt may have punished the first-team defense by leaving them in throughout the third quarter of Tennessee's 24-17 win.

The Titans again were a mess on the back end. Safety Bernard Pollard was faked out of his jock by Atlanta's Devin Hester for a touchdown on the opening possession. The Titans defense has allowed a touchdown on their first drive in all three games so far.

While Tennessee was able after a few series to reel in an Atlanta running game that's still trying find itself behind a rebuilt offensive line, the passing attack was another story. Matt Ryan carved up the Titans defense, throwing for 224 yards on just 23 attempts. The lone blemish in his line was a sack on a three-man rush by Jurrell Casey, who whipped rookie first-rounder Jake Matthews in his first game at left tackle.

To usher in Horton's schematic changes to utilizng more 3-4 looks, the Titans brought in new middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard from the Denver Broncos. They also brought in outside linebacker Shaun Phillips to help as a situational pass-rusher and defensive lineman Al Woods to plug gaps in run defense. 

However, they lost free-agent Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner to Tampa Bay and didn't make much noise to replace him. They also hoped that linebackers Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown could make a successful transition to the 3-4 after subpar seasons in 2013. In short, Tennessee is relying on several young players with high upsides to make leaps in 2014. The early returns haven't been promising.

Tennessee Depth Chart -- Cornerback
Name2013 SnapsYear Drafted/Round
Jason McCourty10532009/6
Blidi Wreh-Wilson922013/3
Coty Sensabaugh4932012/4
Tommie Campbell222011/7
Marqueston Huff02014/4
OurLads, Football Outsiders

Cornerbacks Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh are competing for Verner's old job. Sensabaugh had a solid season in 2013 as a slot corner, but neither he nor Wreh-Wilson have any NFL experience on the outside. They've rotated this preseason and have mostly been easy pickings for opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks so far. Sensabaugh, in particular, struggled against the New Orleans Saints in the second preseason game.

Brown has all the physical tools to fit a newer breed of NFL linebacker. He's as speedy in a straight line as players like Lavonte David and Ryan Shazier but built more like OLBs who are equally adept at stuffing the run and rushing from the edge. Unfortunately, Brown has not put his best foot forward this preseason. He was benched for part of the first game due to a violation of team rules, and has spent most of the last two games racking up broken tackles. 

Ray Horton's Defenses In Year One
TeamDefensive DVOA / RankThe Year BeforeDifference
2011 ARI2.4% (20th)5.6% (25th)-3.2%
2013 CLE8.2% (24th)4.5% (22nd)+3.7%
2014 TEN??4.2% (22nd)??
Football Outsiders

More importantly, Ray Horton's defense isn't exactly noted for quick turnarounds. Last year in Cleveland, despite an enormous influx of draft and free agents—Barkevious Mingo, Desmond Bryant, and Paul Kruger—the Browns actually finished lower in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA than they did in 2012. In 2011, the Arizona Cardinals, for whom Horton was defensive coordinator in in 2011-12, improved only slightly from where they were in 2010, and five of their best seven games by DVOA came in the second half of the season. 

It's more about the players than the scheme; the Titans are breaking in a lot of personnel without much history of NFL success at the positions they'll be playing. But the fact that Horton's scheme is regarded as a challenge to learn right away won't help the Titans. 

It's way too early to be panicking about the Tennessee defense. Poor preseason play is often just that—poor preseason play that will be forgotten about in a few weeks.

But what we've seen so far fits into the narrative that sees Tennessee's defense as a work in progress rather then the solid rock they'll need to launch Jake Locker and the rest of the team into the postseason. And given how mad Whisenhunt was with his first-team defense, they may get a lot of run in the fourth game too.