Countdown to camp: A different approach on defense

The Tennessee Titans report for the start of training camp Friday so each day this week the Nashville Post will look at a significant issue that faces them as they prepare for the 2014 season.

Today: The move to a 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Ray Horton and coach Ken Whisnehunt.

The issue: From the time the franchise arrived in 1997 the Houston/Tennessee Oilers/Titans have been a 4-3 defense. They drafted players to fit that scheme. Their defensive identity has been rooted in that approach and coordinators from Gregg Williams to Jim Schwartz to Chuck Cecil to Jerry Gray have added their respective twists, some more successfully than others.

What it means: It’s simple. Instead of four down linemen with three linebackers the Titans now will have three down linemen and four linebackers on many snaps. The chief benefit is that it creates confusion for opposing offenses because even though there are three lineman a fourth player typically is involved in the rush. The offense just does not know which player will be the fourth.

Often, the two outside linebackers have the opportunity to record a lot of sacks and the two inside linebacker have the chance to make a lot of tackles.

By any other name: To be fair, Titans coaches repeatedly have said they intend to be “multiple,” which means they will switch between approaches from game to game or down to down as needed. It is clear in this offseason’s personnel moves, though, that everything is built upon a 3-4 approach. Linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips and defensive lineman Al Woods were signed from teams rich in 3-4 traditions.

Competitive balance: It was not that long ago, 2001 to be exact, that the Pittsburgh Steelers were the only one of the league’s 32 teams that ran a 3-4 defense. Based on several reports, it looks as if this season half will operate out of the 3-4 and the other half out of the 4-3.

Statistically speaking: It is worth noting that last season’s top three defenses – Seattle, Carolina and Cincinnati – were all based in the 4-3. However, the bottom three – Chicago, Minnesota and Dallas – also were 4-3. According to a recent Pittsburgh Tribune-Review analysis, the 15 defenses that played a 3-4 in 2013 allowed an average of 345.9 yards per game, and the 17 that played a 4-3 allowed an average of 350.7 – hardly a noticeable difference.

 It should be noted, however, that the Cowboys switched to a 4-3 coached by Monte Kiffin last season after years running the 3-4 under Wade Phillips and Rob Ryan. They were the only team that allowed more than 400 yards per game and they were well above that at 415.3 – a case that suggests change does not come easy.

• What to watch for: The key will be how well returning players handle new responsibilities. For example, Jurrell Casey, a 4-3 defensive tackle, will have to occupy two blockers as a 3-4 defensive end. Derrick Morgan (pictured), a 4-3 defensive end, will have to cover tight ends and running backs and make tackles in open spaces as a 3-4 outside linebacker. If guys like that along with linebackers Zach Brown and Akeem Ayers can play fast, aggressively and effectively the switch will look a whole lot better than if they don’t.

Prediction: This is not going to be a disaster along the lines of last year’s Cowboys but it’s not likely to be smooth sailing either.

The defense will make more impact plays (sacks and turnovers) than it has the last couple years but it also will struggle at times to get stops on third down, which will prove costly. Overall, it will be more fun to watch but its going to require another couple rounds of personnel changes before it becomes a dominant unit.