Very quietly this season, the Tennessee Titans have one of the finest defenses in football. It may not show in some of the traditional measurements (the Titans are a very mediocre 23rd in the league for pass yards allowed), but make no mistake: they make plays.
Through week six, Tennessee has the most interceptions in the AFC. And, most tellingly, they have the most sacks in all of the NFL. The secret lies not with any particular player (can you even name one of their starters?), or a particular scheme, but with their mentality.
While running back Chris Johnson is undoubtedly the star of the 2010 Titans, he’s a blip on the map in the reign of Jeff Fisher. After all, Fisher had guided the team through multiple peaks and valleys before the swaggering Johnson had even enrolled at East Carolina, let alone the NFL. And it’s that continuity that has allowed the Titans to endure through the never-ending attrition of the salary-cap era.
Men like defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who’ve been with Fisher and the Titans since 1999, help to continue the mentality of success. They’re no-nonsense, and absolutely confident in the principle that hard work and chemistry will always close the gap on superior talent.
This probably explains why the Titans have been so willing to part with top talent over the years. Albert Haynesworth is the most notable example, but the 100 million dollar man (Haynesworth’s now infamous nickname in Washington) is merely a drop of water in the ocean of highly competent players Fisher and Washburn have deemed superfluous in the last decade.
Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jevon Kearse, John Thornton, Robaire Smith, Antwan Odom and Kevin Carter were all Titans for probably the best years of their careers. Their other common denominator is that they left Tennessee for greener pastures. Most would move onto greater salaries but diminished production (though the jury’s still out on Vanden Bosch considering he’s only in his first year in Detroit).
To define Tennessee’s secret; it would be a cop-out to simply say that you have to watch them play. Yet, to an extent, that is the only way to fully understand and appreciate their way of doing things. On any given play, Titan defensive linemen will be exploding off their blocks like its fourth down in the Super Bowl. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1st and 10, 2nd and 20 or 3rd and 1.
The initial response to seeing someone say that is “but everyone else does that too, right?” This is the difference between the Titans and almost everyone else. Washburn’s unit rotates continuously during the game. Tennessee linemen are not prioritized in the same standard way as other linemen on other teams. They have no default starters.
Instead, the “starters” will go as hard as they can until they inevitably tire out (at which point they sub out to players who nearly equal them in minutes-played by the end of the game). It’s a simple idea, but Tennessee’s emphatic confidence in their backups is what separates them from most teams. And it’s more than simply having confidence, as the skill gap isn’t as pronounced because Fisher, like any shrewd coach in the modern game, won’t overspend on an individual. He saves his money so depth can be maintained.
It’s a dangerous game, since they constantly have to discover new talent (and any draft or free agent additions that fall short of expectation precipitate a drop-off in wins). Year after year though, Fisher and Washburn seem to confidently move forward with new faces but a timeless mentality.
This year, they appear to have a particularly strong unit. Despite a season-ending ligament tear to rookie defensive end Derrick Morgan (who Tennessee drafted with their first round pick), the depth is as self evident as the production.
Six different Tennessee linemen have sacks so far this season, and “backup” defensive tackle Jovan Haye is third in the group in tackles. Watch them if you can, because even the most anti-socialist Glenn Beck addict would have to admit that the equality of the group has equated to maximum productivity.