Patriots-Titans: Rebuild or Reload? Titans' Defense Faces Burning Questions

Dave StanleyCorrespondent IOctober 14, 2009

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 10: Linebacker Keith Bulluck #53 of the Tennessee Titans attends warm ups prior to the start of the NFL season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on September 10, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

When a season is all but lost, finger pointing becomes the norm.  

Both players and fans alike get in on the act; playing the blame game is the normal, knee-jerk reaction.  

Sure, players try not to throw their own friends and teammates under the bus.  All of the right things are said to the media.  If Tennessee displayed half as much grace on the field as they did towing the company line, then they arguably wouldn't even be in this mess. 

"We're losing as a team..." said defensive end Jevon Kearse.  

That may very well be, but with 10 of 11 starters returning from last year, it begs the question: what went wrong, exactly?  

While it is true that the injury bug has caught up to the Titans in recent weeks, the fact of the matter is that they began their dubious slide to the AFC South cellar well before the starters began to go down.

The normal ebb and flow of success in the NFL is to be expected.  Sometimes it's your year, other times you're counting down the days to the April draft.  But to fall so quickly, and with no glaring reason, has mystified fans, haters, and casual observers alike.   

Here are a few possible reasons and areas; some obvious, some not.

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Let's start from the top.

First year defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil is shouldering much of the blame for Tennessee's lackluster output this year.

It's a sports cliché, but rarely is it one man's fault—for players or coaches.  However, his lack of making adjustments is proving to be the unfortunate storyline for the season.

The losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Houston Texans could be forgiven.  At that time, the same old Titans D looked to be sufficient, on paper anyway.  

But weekly drubbing after weekly drubbing requires a shakeup of the gameplan.  Yet week after week, Tennessee routinely gets carved up by quarterbacks of all types.  

This past Sunday night, future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning came to town, and their defense gave him about as much respect as an over-the-hill Steve DeBerg.  

There was one play in particular that perhaps perfectly epitomized their season thus far.

With the Colts deep in Tennessee territory, Indianapolis wide receiver Austin Collie lined up in the slot.  When a speedy, big play wideout lines up in the slot, it's common knowledge that the offense has big play plans.  

Who was covering him?  None other than linebacker Keith Bulluck.  The Titans inexplicably remained in their base personnel package.  A well-coached team would have known to have called a timeout, or at the very least audible to a more fitting defensive package.  

Did they think that Manning, the Einstein of football, would not see and exploit that?  

If Cecil and the Titans' defense weren't kicking themselves for it in the Monday film study, then there are major problems in Nashville.

Then again, they should have caught the mistake at the line of scrimmage...on Sunday night.  


The average age for the 11 Tennessee starters on defense is 28, which technically doesn't look too bad.  Old enough to properly employ their wiliness and experience, but young enough to stay healthy and still compete with the young bucks.

However, the older a player gets, the more they rely on the system.  For instance, Junior Seau—the WWI veteran who turned 97 this past week—has a deal in place to bring him back to the injury-decimated New England Patriots for yet another season.   

And chances are, he'll do well.  No, he won't return to his 1994 form, but he'll thrive in coach Bill Belichick's system.

Such was the case last year for Tennessee.  Right place, right time.  No one player truly dominated in a traditional sense, but they were essentially synergy incarnate. The sum of the whole was truly greater than the parts.

But, much like fellow silver fox Kerry Collins, the slightest veering from the course tends to expose older players.  No one was comparing Albert Haynesworth to Deacon Jones, but that extra push—literally and figuratively—was arguably just what the front four and secondary needed to excel last season. 

This year, however, players like Jevon Kearse and Keith Bulluck are no longer able to carry the team by picking up the slack.  Yes, they still have a few years of high-level play.  But suffice it to say that opposing teams don't gameplan for them the way they did a couple of seasons back.


Tennessee's defense is currently ranked 23rd in the league.  You might say that for an 0-5 team, that's to be expected and about average.  

However, the canyon-like gulf between their pass and run defense is staggering.  As anyone who's seen them this year might expect, their pass defense gives up a whopping 287 yards per game.

Yet their run defense is ranked third in the league.  Yes, you read that right. Seventy-five yards a game is all that opponents have been able to muster this year.  

These figures are even more jaw-dropping when considering how many rushing touchdowns the Titans have given up all season: three.  

By itself, the figure is impressive.  However, Tennessee is surrendering 28 points a game, which means on that on this side of the ball, the lion's share of their winless woes are to be attributed to none other than their porous pass defense.

Simply put, even a part-time junior high coach would look like Mike Martz going up against the Titans.  

Just pass the ball, and the cure for whatever ails you is right there.  

With 11 games left, there's plenty of time to adjust and tweak the game plan, regardless of playoff chances (or at this point, lack thereof).  Regardless of the win/loss record, Tennessee needs to right the wrongs and begin looking to the future.  

What it entails is anyone's guess.  It all depends on their play for the rest of the season and how injuries play out.  Ideally, the Titans defense will get it together and find something to build on for next year.  

Otherwise, their problems will continue well beyond January.

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