Looking at the pieces of a Gregg Williams defense

I haven’t written much about the Gregg Williams hire, relatively speaking, but it leaves the Titans in sort of a weird place. Bringing in Gregg Williams was Mike Munchak’s call, not Jerry Gray’s. Gray is still at least nominally the defensive coordinator, but how much more than nominally? As the Philadelphia Eagles did when they hired Jim Washburn to coach the defensive linemen first, the Titans are telling us there’s a bigger power on the defense than the coordinator. With that in mind, I thought it would be worth taking a look at what sort of players made up a Gregg Williams defense, to the extent it differs from a Jerry Gray defense, which may help shed light on the Titans’ plans for this month’s draft.

One thing Williams has been known for is more use of a 3-man front. Gray indicated in a recent radio interview the Titans could use a little bit of 3-4 this season, which opens up a separate can of worms. The Titans have run very little three-man front in Gray’s tenure, and what there has been has been in the Ruby package with six defensive backs in obvious passing situations. Williams’ preference for at times playing fewer defensive linemen has not led to him keeping less of them; rather, his past six squads (the Week 1 rosters of the 2006-07 Redskins, 2008 Jaguars, and 2009-11 Saints are my sample size) all included a typical 8 or 9 defensive lineman on the opening day roster. If there is a slight trend, it’s in favor of more tweener types who are listed at DL, the non-pass-rushing ends who can also kick inside to defensive tackle. Jerry Gray seems to share the preference, though of course the Titans last year struggled to find a player they liked in that mold until, sort of, Jarius Wynn.

That Williams runs more fronts with fewer than four linemen does not mean a heavy emphasis on linebackers; rather, his teams never carried more than 6 linebackers and twice carried only 5. Yet, right now, it seems the Titans may carry seven. They seem to have six right now, between the three young starters, Moise Fokou, and key special teamers Tim Shaw and Patrick Bailey. Given Colin McCarthy’s injury struggles, though, the Titans seem likely to add another linebacker they feel comfortable playing on defense. If the impetus behind Bum Phillips’ switch to the 3-4 was having more good linebackers than defensive linemen, the Titans certainly don’t seem poised for that switch right now.

In the secondary, Williams can be a touch heavy on defensive backs, several times keeping 10 of them. He’s been at times a touch heavier on safeties, but nothing out of line. Without an intimate knowledge of how these teams were built and who their key special teams players were, it’s hard to say how much that influences his defensive back-linebacker split in particular. The “natural” breakdown with a 53-man roster is 25 offense, 25 defense, 3 special teams. Williams’ defenses have frequently been light by that standard, though, never keeping more than 25 players and even that only once. The Titans, by contrast, carried 26 defensive players Week 1 this past season. With the 46-man (now) active roster, which extra players are carried is a highly team-specific decision, but I found that interesting.

On the whole, though, assuming Gregg Williams is calling all of the shots and Jerry Gray none of them should not change what the defense looks like much at all. The interesting points to me for this exercise are two: (1) that Williams has frequently gone relatively light at linebacker, and (2) that his defenses have tended to start the season with only 24 players. Other than that, doing this little exercise and writing this post did not change my expectations for how the Titans will treat the defensive side of the ball in the upcoming draft.

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