Programming note: Whatever analysis I have of the third preseason game against the Falcons will be up tomorrow.
Since I already covered special teams, the traditional ending point, we have finally reached the final stop on our tour around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2014 regular season. After the offense concluded with center and previous defensive stops at defensive line, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and cornerback, that last stop is safety.
On the one hand, safety is a chalk position for the 2014 Titans. Both starters return, one after being re-signed before free agency began. Both played at least respectably in 2013. Both have played at fairly high levels before. Neither is at an age where rapid decline should be expected. If one falters, potentially useful backups are around. On the other hand, both starters have played at not particularly high levels before, both are older than average and typically at the stage of their career where players begin to decline, and the primary backups seem to be an even older player and a recent low draft pick. Maybe this isn’t such a chalky position after all.
With a new defensive scheme, one obvious question is what Ray Horton’s arrival means for the position group. I noted in the offseason positional analysis that defensive backs coach Louie Cioffi noted in an interview he and Horton tended to prefer interchangeable safeties. Rather than lining up one safety deep and one closer to the box, both often lined up within a reasonable distance of the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to dive into Horton’s past defenses in as much detail as I wanted, so the meaning of “Ray Horton safety” remains one that for me is underconceptualized. I’ve noted Horton will play Cover-3 and man-free, which calls for one safety to play single high, but he’ll do more than that.
Whatever the safeties end up doing, Michael Griffin will be one of the players doing it. Entering his eight season with the Titans, the book on Griffin is pretty established. He seems to play best when he’s in a well-defined role and has good players around him; given the uncertainty at cornerback, As I just noted, role may be an open question, though at least we shouldn’t get any 2012 strong safety-like nonsense. Expect another season of Michael Griffin-like performance. One interesting note is he mentioned in a July radio appearance he played last season at 223 pounds, while this year they’ve asked him to play at 210 (he’s listed at 215, the same as last year).
I speculated in the offseason analysis that Bernard Pollard might not as good a fit for a Horton defense as he was for a Gregg Williams defense in 2013 and might be playing elsewhere in 2014. The Titans evidently didn’t agree with that idea, re-signing Pollard to a two-year extension in early March. There’s a lot you can say about Pollard; I liked my FO colleague Rivers McCown’s suggestion Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 (still available in PDF and in print, plus finally on Kindle!) that he was born 25 years too late for his style to thrive. I think he can be a bit of a liability in space, as Atlanta’s two touchdowns on Saturday night demonstrated, but he’s generally an extremely reliable tackler, a hard hitter, and a reliable quote. (By this point, I’ve passed through the stage where I got tired of hearing Bernard be Bernard all the time and am now able to appreciate that he’s always on.)
Returning to the usage question, the macro-level issue remains how Horton will use his prototype free and strong safeties and if he really does use them interchangeably. Both are versatile enough they can do the other role, but I don’t think there’s much question which role each is better suited for. We’ll see how Horton and Cioffi deploy them when the real games begin come September.
If either Griffin or Pollard goes down, George Wilson looks like the primary backup. He’s 33, so there’s a bit of a concern there, but he’s a smart veteran player. More of a prototype strong safety than free, he’s versatile enough that he filled in for Griffin at free safety in last year’s defense. Horton has had successful teams with older, not particularly rangy safeties before, so I’m not too worried if Wilson has to play a lot. One thing that will be interesting to watch is how much Wilson plays in a Big Nickel-like package. That was something Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams did last year.
I was not high on Daimion Stafford when the Titans took him in the draft last year. Then again, he was a seventh-round pick, and seventh-round picks are rarely too exciting. He was one of the players whose improvement Ruston Webster singled out, though, and defensive back is a position where players often struggle as rookies and then develop a lot heading into their second season after a year of adjustment to the NFL game and an offseason of technique work. While he played more of a free safety role at Nebraska, I did not think he had the range to be an NFL free safety. The Titans are currently listing him at strong safety behind Pollard.
Another player in his second season whose improvement Webster noted was Khalid Wooten. Drafted in the sixth round last year as a cornerback, he’s a tweener type who has spent most of his time in the preseason working at safety. I’m reasonably confident the previous four players make the roster; Wooten’s roster spot is up in the air. He’s not battling anybody else at safety after the release of Hakeem Smith as part of the first round of cuts, but players at other positions on the roster. If Wooten does not make the team, he is definitely a practice squad candidate.
Two set starters, each with the ability to play well and each with limitations. Two uncertain roles. Safety could be a strength of the Titans defense, even the strength of the D, or it could be an area that looks like yet another problem spot on a defense that could be filled with them.