VOL. 42 | NO. 31 | Friday, August 3, 2018
Orakpo, other Titans defenders buying into new scheme
By John Glennon
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the Dick LeBeau era with the Titans was linebacker Brian Orakpo, who piled up 24.5 sacks in LeBeau’s system over the past three seasons.
So, the fact that Orakpo is as excited as he is over new defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ schemes is a pretty good sign for Titans fans.
“It’s attack, attack, attack,” Orakpo says of Pees’ defensive blueprint. “That’s what it’s all about. You’re going to see a whole bunch of different mismatches, you’re going to see all kinds of different packages. We’ve got a lot in store to free up a lot of guys, get some good match-ups, flip-flop here and there, just all kinds of different things.”
Unlike offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, Pees isn’t looking at a complete reconstruction job going into the 2018 season. The Titans’ defense finished 13th overall last season – fourth against the run and 25th against the pass.
So, the challenge for Pees’ new system will be to build upon what the defense did best last year – stuffing the run and minimizing big passing plays – while improving it in areas like turnovers forced, touchdown passes allowed and late-game points surrendered.
The Titans are still days away from their initial preseason game and our first glimpse of what to expect on the defensive side of the ball this year. But the weeks of offseason work the team put in, as well as the first several days of training camp, have resulted in positive reviews of the new defensive scheme.
“I think it’s a tough, smart, opportunistic defense,” Titans cornerback Logan Ryan says. “I think you need to be smart to be able to play in it. I think you need to be tough as nails. If you’re good at taking advantage of your opportunities, I think it gives a lot of chances for turnovers and big plays.”
What’s working well
We’ll concentrate first on three things the Titans hope to do at least as well defensively as they did last season under LeBeau.
The defense’s calling card in 2017 was its ability to stop the run, as the Titans allowed an average of just 88.8 yards per contest on the ground. Tennessee surrendered over 100 yards on the ground just five times and returns six starters from last year’s front seven.
“They played the run really well, where teams would just start to abandon the run and try to spread them out,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel points out. “So, if we can keep that run defense and improve on that, I think we’ll be really good.”
The second thing the Titans did very well last year was limit big passing plays against them.
They allowed just 37 catches of 20 or more yards – the third-best figure in the league – and only 10 receptions of 40 or more yards, which was tied for 10th-best in the NFL.
The third area the Titans hope to build on defensively is the team’s play on third downs, as Tennessee allowed teams to convert first downs at just a 36.4 percent clip – the eighth-best figure in the league. The Titans also piled up 20 sacks on third down last season, which was tied for third-best in the NFL.
What needs to change
One of Pees’ top priorities will be to coax more turnovers from the defense.
Despite safety Kevin Byard finishing tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions last season, the Titans produced only 21 turnovers overall, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. Meanwhile, Pees’ previous team, the Baltimore Ravens, led the NFL with 34 forced turnovers – including a league-best 22 interceptions.
“We want to be able to set the tone and help our offense win games,” Byard explains. “You want to create turnovers. I think that’s the most valuable thing you can do as a (defensive back) is get the ball back for the offense because that puts more points up on the board. As a defense and secondary, we want to be able to create as many turnovers as we can.”
Second, the Titans want to do a better job of shutting down opponents in the late going than they did last year. Tennessee gave up an average of 8.6 points in the fourth quarter last season, one of the highest figures in the NFL.
“We’ve got to do a better job of finishing games and understanding that’s when you have to be at your best is late in those games,” Vrabel adds.
A third defensive area the Titans must improve upon under Pees is lowering the number of opposing touchdown passes. Though Tennessee did a good job against the deep ball, opponents still threw for 27 touchdowns, which was tied for the eighth-worst figure in the league.
The Ravens under Pees, meanwhile, gave up just 18 touchdown passes, tied for the fifth-best figure in the league.
The good news for the Titans so far in camp is that the adjustment from LeBeau’s 3-4 system to Pees’ 3-4 doesn’t appear to be causing too many headaches.
“I feel like there’s a lot of carryover from one system to another,” Titans outside linebacker Derrick Morgan says. “Of course, you have terminology differences. But it’s just getting used to the new calls and terminology, getting comfortable with it.”
Adds Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey: “I just find it very simple. It has been pretty similar to what we’ve done in the past. Ain’t nothing too much different other than just learning terminology and understanding just how they would love to see it perfected.”
It’s one thing, of course, to find success in practice, when most of the plays are scripted and controlled.
We’ll find out just how well the Titans are transitioning to Pees and his new system in weeks and months to come.
“Every day is more and more learning, getting comfortable with the scheme – adding new layers and stacking the blocks,” Morgan says. “We’re taking all the thinking out of it so we can just play.”
Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.