Greg Williams has never been one to hold back. He’s an old school coach that always tells it like it is, be it calling out his struggling defense in the media, or firing relentless shots at opposing quarterbacks to test their mental toughness and durability. On Wednesday, he did the former, criticizing his Tennessee Titans players for their inability to plug holes and get off blocks in run defense.
“Some of those guys that are staying blocked are the ones who have trouble making teams, you know?” Williams said. “The guys that get off blocks are the ones making teams.”
The Senior Defensive Assistant wasn’t wrong in implying that some defenders are struggling to get off of blocks, thus ruining the team’s efforts in run defense. But can the Titans really afford to cut their entire front seven? I think not.
That’s the problem that the Titans have right now. They can’t seem to get their entire front seven playing sound football. When watching tape, coaches want to see the defender’s jersey number parallel to the line of scrimmage. That tells them their player is staying square and playing with leverage, neither of which the Titans have done during the first two weeks of the preseason.
In Week 1 against the Washington Redskins, the defense was carved up on multiple big runs by running back Roy Helu Jr. and the stretch zone running game. Helu Jr. stretched the defense laterally, spreading them out sideline-to-sideline before decisively cutting downfield and picking up yards in chunks. The Titans defenders ran laterally the entire time, failing to penetrate gaps with discipline and leverage and, like Williams said, failing to get off of blocks.
It was no different in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals, who had three successive runs of nine, nine, and seven yards midway through the first quarter. On the second run, it was ugly before the play even began.
It was 2nd-and-1 with the ball at the 37-yard line, and the Bengals were in a one back set featuring rookie Giovani Bernard in the backfield. As the Bengals’ line waited for the snap in their three-point stances, the Titans communicated as they slowly walked to their positions. The defense lined up two full seconds after the Bengals did, consequently seeing the ball snapped as soon as they bucked their butts.
As Bernard got the handoff to his right, the entire defense flowed laterally, walking into first and second level blocks — which were excellently executed by the Bengals, by the way — as if they were magnetic.
The only defender to threaten the run was end Ropati Pitoitua, a middle of the road free agent signing who established a new line of scrimmage after knocking right tackle Andre Smith back, but he still failed to get off the block and make the tackle. It was only at the 46-yard line when someone tackled Bernard, that someone being a safety and this last line of defense, Michael Griffin.
On the third run, the only difference was the side Bernard ran on. From the 46-yard line, he took the handoff and ran to his left.
The run defense was better this time around, as middle linebacker Moise Fokou shot through the left A-gap and nearly got to Bernard, but he didn’t have enough lateral quickness or balance to hold his ground when left guard Clint Boling reached back and shoved him aside.
Next up was second-year linebacker Zach Brown, who flowed to the play-side too quickly, creating a natural alley for Bernard to slice through following a left-footed cut. Brown got back and made the tackle, but after seven yards.
What’s troubling about these run defense woes is that if they continue, they’ll lead to greater problems. An inability to stop the run opens up the offensive playboook because it shortens the down and distance, enabling coordinators to have a wider range of plays that they’d call as opposed to a limited selection in certain situations. Their play-sheets are coordinated by specific distances, but if it’s 2nd-and-1, the play-caller can call run or pass, which is very dangerous because there’s a chance that it could be a simple run or a deep shot, making it very hard for defenders to play aggressively.
If a deep shot is called, which we can expect offenses to call more of against the Titans if these issues continue, then it could be a play-action pass that shows run and then goes deep at the flick of the wrist. Again, this is dangerous, particularly if the secondary is forced to cheat up and help defend the run. That leaves them exposed in the back, as seen against the Redskins in the first week, when the front seven and boundary cornerback Jason McCourty were caught overplaying the run, subsequently giving up a 15-yard comeback route to the short side of the field.
If the Titans defense is going to have any chance of sticking around for the full 60 minutes of games this season, improvement starts with defending the run. It’s still the most important part of defending offenses because it holds the key to a play-caller’s freedom. For the Titans, it’s what could lead to another year of mediocrity, which will surely make Williams speak up more, and loudly.