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2011 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: OLB

Our latest stop as we continue our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the start of the 2011 regular season is the outside linebacker position.

Back in March, Andrew wrote how outside linebacker may have been the team’s worst position.  I’m not sure I would have exactly agreed there.  Still it was clear heading into the offseason that the Titans would be well-served to upgrade the position.  The dream of Von Miller falling to the eighth overall pick didn’t happen, but the Titans did address the position in the draft by selecting Akeem Ayers in the second round.

The former UCLA Bruin was immediately inserted into the starting lineup at strongside outside linebacker.  The true SOLB or Sam position is one the Titans haven’t featured lately.  As they did or at least tried to do with the safety position, the Titans in at least the second half of the Jeff Fisher era played primarily a right side and left side outside linebacker that tended to be of a similar type, one more slanted toward the coverage/space half of the traditional pairing.

Philosophically speaking, the true Sam tends to be a bigger player who frequently lines up over the tight end and is not often as highly regarded as an athlete.  The Sam may jam the tight end on his release, which is something I don’t think the Titans have done as much of in recent years.  The Sam may also be more of a pass rusher, or at least will rush the passer more often than Titans’ outside linebackers tended to do.

On the opposite side of Ayers will be the more familiar weakside outside linebacker, or Will (the transcript of DC Jerry Gray’s press conference has it as Wheel).  Since the Titans essentially started two Wills last year, Will Witherspoon and Gerald McRath will be competing for playing time, and preseason indications are both of them will play.

Witherspoon started all 16 games last year and spent more of the year playing on all three downs, including in the nickel set.  He took a lot of grief for the team’s problems covering tight ends last year.  I thought, however, that covering tight ends was more a specific problem than a general one.  Witherspoon is now 31, though, and likely slowing down, so keeping him out of coverage against the wrong player will be even more important.  Thankfully, MLB Barrett Ruud should be able to take on more of that responsibility.

One other way the Titans seem to be addressing the coverage problem is having Witherspoon play in the base 4-3 alignment but having McRath play with Ruud in the nickel package.  McRath missed the first four games of 2010 with a suspension and never seemed to recover.  He started 7 of the 12 games in which he played, but didn’t have the breakthrough sophomore campaign many of us were hoping to see.  His keys to remaining on the field will likely include playing disciplined zone coverage and not biting on run-fakes, two things I think he’s had a problem with in the past.  From an athleticism standpoint, I think the Titans will be better off with McRath in nickel.

Tim Shaw answered one of the team’s biggest questions when the Titans picked him up at the start of last season, making an impact on special teams.  He played sparingly in fourth linebacker packages last year, mostly in goalline situations.  He’s listed on the unofficial depth chart at second-team behind Ayers at Sam, though if Ayers goes down for any length of time I’d expect Witherspoon and McRath to be the linebackers in base sets.

Patrick Bailey was another player the Titans picked up off the street to play primarily special teams.  He did his job there, but I’m pretty sure played even fewer snaps on defense than Bailey did.  I’d expect his role to be the same again this year.

If, if, if, that’s the theme of this year’s outside linebacking group in my eyes.  If Ayers can do what they want him to do, and the Sam can be successfully reincorporated into the defense.  If Will Witherspoon doesn’t suddenly hit the NFL-old wall.  If Gerald McRath can be a better football player in his third season.  If those three things happen, and all of them can, then outside linebacker can go from one of the Titans’ biggest weaknesses to a strength.

 As they’ve done or tried to do with the safety position in recent years, the Titans of the late Jeff Fisher era