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Jerry Gray Talks Turkey

Note this post has nothing to do with reports the Tampa Bay Buccaneers plan to interview Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray for their head coaching job. This post was pre-planned, and in fact I’d have written it last week if I’d been blogging last week.

Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray do weekly interviews with the reporters who cover the Titans every Thursday, and the official site posts at least some of the video. I watch them, just because they’re a rare chance to hear Palmer and Gray talk, but there’s not much particularly interesting most of the time. Last Thursday’s interview with Jerry Gray (video link), though, was more than just the normal fare of getting quotes about the upcoming opponent.

Keep in mind that Jerry Gray came in and identified the problem with the Titans defense, and that problem was stopping the run, because stopping the run in the key to winning in the NFL. Keep in mind that opponents ran the ball a lot against the 2010 Tennessee Titans, especially the second half of the year, because they’d shredded the secondary and gotten a big lead. Keep in mind that the Titans ranked third in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ rushing defense DVOA in 2010, which adjusts for things like the opponents running the ball a lot because they got a big lead. Keep in mind the run defense was good all year, even the second half of the season when the defense collapsed.

Now enter Jerry Gray. Gray identified the Titans’ problem in stopping the run as arising from the defensive front seven, particularly the defensive line, being too small, and too aggressive. Instead, the defensive line needed to be bigger (a legitimate argument, as the Titans were a bad defense against the run in third and fourth and short, when too often the smaller defensive linemen were simply manhandled). The Titans went out and made some moves like the defensive line needed a makeover. Nowhere was this more evident than at defensive tackle, where only Sen’Derrick Marks remained among the top four. They drafted Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey, signed Shaun Smith in free agency, and moved undersized Jason Jones out to defensive end. They also overhauled the linebackers, bringing in a true Sam in the draft in Akeem Ayers and paying a non-modest sum in free agency for a non-penetrating linebacker, Barrett Ruud.

And now we fast-forward to the end of the season, a season where, at least by DVOA terms, the Titans got worse against the run and a defensive line rebuilt to be less quick struggled to rush the passer.

The first great moment of the interview comes from Gray talking about Karl Klug, who led the Titans in sacks. Gray credit’s Klug’s success to winning one-on-one battles, and adds “Hopefully we can keep adding and getting guys to understand that, in that if they give you one-on-one, that’s pretty much the best you’re going to get in the NFL. And now you have to learn how to win one-on-one battles. It’s not going to be the call that makes you win. … You have to have a mindset of wanting to get there at all costs, and I think once we get that, the defense will come to the next level. And you have to have eleven guys doing that, not just one or two.”

I see two things that are… interesting in that little response. First, it’s a damning indictment of the Titans’ personnel. I haven’t bothered to keep track of the numbers all year, but too often teams have blocked the Titans’ pass rush without bothering to keep people in, even on a check-release basis. They’re simply not worried about the Titans’ pass rushers winning one-on-one battles. If you like, that’s more or less a damning, but probably not inaccurate, statement about the quality of the people they have rushing the passer.

The second aspect, well, I thought the Titans just HAD a defensive line coach whose mentality was all about winning one-on-one battles and getting to the quarterback, and Jerry Gray led a defensive makeover that was designed to get rid of that mentality. Gray tries to get away from rushing the passer at the end of his answer, more to a broader defensive point, but the Titans in the Jim Washburn era certainly had a pressure-minded defensive line. They abandoned that, and now they’re trying to get it back, because they realized they need it.

The second great moment came from discussing Derrick Morgan. Gray notes the injuries Morgan has been playing through, and, well, “We know he has great skill. You turn him loose, you get a Klug inside, you get a Morgan outside, and you get another guy who stands up.”

You know that guy who stands up who’s supposed to be doing something? His name is Akeem Ayers, and I didn’t notice him much in the passing game this year.  I wonder why that is? Might Gray tell us? “Once you get guys that can win one-on-one battles out there on the football field, you can win a lot of games.” Oh, well, then. Gray never mentioned Ayers specifically, but it doesn’t seem that hard to connect the dots.

The third great moment came in response to a question about what you can do to keep Texans center Chris Myers from blocking the Mike linebacker. Jerry, take it away. “Well, you can win up front.” Well, that didn’t exactly happen the first game. How can you win up front, though? “Any time you create penetration up front on a zone team, it kind of cuts the defense off in half. … You have to create a new line of scrimmage on their side of the ball, and that cuts down on a lot of running angles for the running back.”

Wait, maybe I missed something, but I thought the Titans had a defensive line that was built on generating penetration, and you declared that that defense was bad against the run and needed to change to be stouter. Did I miss something?

The fourth great moment came on whether he might re-evaluate the Jason Jones move to defensive end in the offseason. “Jason Jones was already playing those positions from last year, so we didn’t do anything different with Jason. He played defensive end last year, and played D-tackle this year.”

I have to say, that’s as great a moment in Coach Speak as anything Jeff Fisher said in his entire tenure as head coach. Most of the time Fisher at least tried to give misleading but not completely inaccurate answers. Maybe I slept through a lot more of the 2010 and 2011 Tennessee Titans seasons than I thought I did, but my memory tells me Jason Jones played D-tackle last year and D-end this year, and those are not the same position. From watching his interview during locker room cleanout on Monday, it sounds like Jones like playing D-tackle and getting to the quarterback in 2010 a lot more than he liked playing defensive end, where he’s not an above-average rusher, in 2011, and consequently won’t be back with the Titans. But, hey, that’s just me.

The fifth great moment was when Gray was asked about defensive tackle Shaun Smith. I bothered to type up pretty much all of Gray’s answer, and it’s worth it:

“[Smith] has [made the impact plays we’ve been looking for], to a point. I think that’s a point that’s going to help us better in the offseason, to get him to understand ‘Hey, look, you don’t have to just sit on the line of scrimmage, you can penetrate.’ Those are things that I think sometimes when you transfer from a 3-4 to a 4-3, you still have habits of wanting to sit on the line of scrimmage, which he’s done a good job of, but we want him to start penetrating in his A-gap and to understand that when you’re a penetrating guy and a big guy, that’s a dangerous combination. That’s what we want you to do instead of sitting down like a 3-4 defensive tackle.”

As good as the Jones positional discussion was, I think I like this even better. Shaun Smith is not a penetrating one-gap defensive tackle. He’s a big guy who sits on the line of scrimmage and tries to two-gap and not move backwards. He’s shown no inclination or adaptation toward being a one-gap penetrator in his entire career and, as somebody who’ll be 31 by the time the 2012 regular season begins, is extraordinarily unlikely to undergo that kind of major evolution in the kind of player he is. He played less as the year went on because he wasn’t a great anchor, can’t do something more successful like penetrate, and is apparently a big of a locker room loudmouth. I’d be very surprised to see him back as a Titan in 2012, but then again maybe they see something I don’t.

Finally, the raisin in the sausage end, the sixth great moment, when Gray discusses the impending free agents: “No good football player walks out of here, and we’re going to stand up for them. That’s what you should do, when you’re trying to build a team.” Jeff Fisher couldn’t have said this in Coach Speak any better.