Wednesday, April 25, 2007

DRAFT SPECIAL Titans Brass Should Take a Lesson from the Past: Defense First

The first life-affirming thrill I ever had as a football fan was in 1972, when my hometown Washington Redskins made it to the Super Bowl.

It was the second year in George Allen’s tenure as Redskins head coach. Allen (left) came to the Redskins after a successful run as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. The Redskins hadn’t been to the playoffs in about 30 years until 1971, Allen’s first year in Washington, when—having announced that "The Future Is Now"—he led the Skins to a 9-4-1 record and the postseason, where they lost a tough first-round game to John Brodie’s 49ers.

In the years prior to that, the Redskins always had a thrilling offense, led by future Hall of Famers Sonny Jurgensen, Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell. The Skins could score, and they were often prolific and exciting as hell—once, in 1966, they beat the New York Giants 72-41—but their inability to stop their opponents always held them back.

Then Allen came, preaching defense. He added veteran players, often ex-Rams and ex-Bears–from where he’d coached before—to the roster, and squeezed gutty performances out of a defensive unit that came to embody the team’s new nickname: the “Over the Hill Gang.” Meanwhile, the solid offense—still studded with All-Pros—did its thing. The Redskins defeated the then-World Champions, the Dallas Cowboys, 26-3 in the NFC title game in a dominating performance that sent long-suffering Redskins fans into ecstasy.

The Skins went on to lose Super Bowl VII to the Miami Dolphins—the old guys were spent, and league MVP, Redskins running back Larry Brown, was hurting after season-long punishment—but Allen’s point had been made: You can’t get anywhere without a defense. His theory held that, even if you had a mediocre offense, a great defense—with continual focus on shutting down the running game and forcing turnovers—would keep you in every game.

It would be interesting to see how Allen, who died in late 1990, would apply his genius in the modern age of fleet, big-boned wide receivers and more sophisticated passing offenses. But I’m not so sure that his philosophy doesn’t still hold water. It certainly seems to make sense for those mediocre teams that are trying to get over the hump just to make it to a wild-card game: Play stout defense for 60 minutes, never be out of it, and give your offense a chance to make a winning score.

Which brings us to the upcoming NFL draft and the plight of the Tennessee Titans. At 8-8, they surprised a lot of people in 2006. But when they won, it wasn’t because they blew away their opponents statistically. They made some big plays on offense, thanks to rookie QB Vince Young, and some big plays on defense, thanks to suspended bad boy Pacman Jones. The Titans made it to .500 last year on grit and some key clutch performances. Now, with free-agency defections—Travis Henry, Drew Bennett, Bobby Wade—there are huge holes at wide receiver and at running back. There’s been some buzz that new GM Mike Reinfeldt (above) will be looking over the ripe crop of receivers available this year. It’d be nice to snag someone big and fast to be a target for Young’s passes. And if any running back with potential becomes available at some point—the Titans have 10 picks—the team would probably find him tempting.

But wait. Are we trying to light up the scoreboard here or win games?

And, no matter how good your offense, how can you win games when, as the Titans did in 2006, you rank last in the NFL in cumulative defense? Here are the ugly numbers, with the team’s league rank in parentheses:

Yards Yielded Total: 5,915 (32)

Yards Yielded Per Game: 369.7 (32)

Rushing Yards Yielded: 2,313 (30)

Rushing Yards Yielded Per Game: 144.6 (30)

Passing Yards Yielded: 3,602 (28)

Passing Yards Yielded Per Game: 225.1 (28)

Points Yielded: 400 (31)

Points Yielded Per Game: 25.0 (31)

The Titans need help, all right—on defense. Desperately. They need a linebacker to go with Keith Bulluck and David Thornton. They need a cornerback to replace Jones—which wasn't necessarily the plan when they signed Indy's Nick Harper through free agency— and every other bit of additional help possible to boost the secondary's depth. They also need help on the defensive line, like a quick mobile pass rusher and a run-stuffer. Or a hybrid-type who can do both, playing up or down.

Adding high draft picks to the current offense will help on that side of the ball, but doing that and not tending to the critical defensive needs only results in a season filled with higher-scoring losses.

Dear Mike Reinfeldt: Build a killer defense.

With Young at QB, the Titans should find some ways to score points. The offensive line didn’t look too bad last year (though center Kevin Mawae is now 36, and grabbing a potential replacement looks like a logical priority). Otherwise, look for your offensive players in the later rounds.

The pressure is going to be on for the Titans to draft a runner like Marshawn Lynch (California), who could be the second runner taken after highly sought Adrian Peterson. Or wide receivers like Ted Ginn Jr. (Ohio State) or LSU’s Dwayne Bowe might be available.

But by the time #19 rolls around, the following players will probably also still be available: Lawrence Timmons, LB, Florida State; Aaron Ross, CB, Texas; Chris Houston, CB, Arkansas; and Anthony Spencer, LB/DE, Purdue. And if the Titans get lucky, and things have shifted in the draft slots above them, they could get a shot at defenders like Darrelle Revis, CB, Pittsburgh; Justin Harrell, DT, Tennessee; Reggie Nelson, S, Florida; or Alan Branch, DT, Michigan. Any of these guys would fill a need and have a chance to start right away.

If the Titans are doing their homework, there's no reason why they can't roll the dice on offensive talent in the later rounds, and spend at least their earliest three picks on defense.

Defense inspires fear. Defense competes. Defense wins football games.

The offense will come with Young eventually. But you can't even begin to sail the commander's boat when there are big leaks in the bottom.

Go D, Mike. Go D.

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