On Sunday, shortly after Chris Johnson had finished off his 2,000-yard season, Coach Jeff Fisher said he wanted the Tennessee Titans offense to remain intact.
Then, on Monday, came the inevitable follow-up. If the coach is mostly satisfied with his offense, then how much will the defense be overhauled this off-season after the Titans slumped to 8-8 on the heels of two playoff seasons? The answer: Quite a bit, says Fisher.
“We’re going to address the defense and we are going to address the football team. I think if you look at our offense and you look at position by position, you think we’ve got a chance,” Fisher said. “We got a chance to improve. We’re young at a lot of positions; we have a chance to get better. Defensively, we certainly have to look at it.”
Tennessee’s defense was a respectable 10th against the run this season, but the pass defense was so weak, ranking 31st that it led the Titans to be ranked 28th overall in terms of total defense.
Fisher placed part of the blame on injuries, but the defense was already struggling long before injuries cost them defensive backs Cortland Finnegan, Nick Harper and Vincent Fuller for a time. Later in the year, injuries shelved linebackers Keith Bulluck and David Thornton and defensive tackle Jason Jones for the season.
“We finished the year with minus a number of starters,” Fisher said. “Some of those will return, some of those I can’t tell you right now. We have some positions that we’re going to address. We’ll get involved in it and do the best we can.”
Fuller, who missed time with a broken forearm, said the Titans defense was simply not steady enough this season to hold up its end of the bargain.
“Inconsistent. That’s the biggest thing. Some games we played great defense, and other games we didn’t play our best football,” Fuller said. “In this league, that can be the difference between wins and losses. We’re 8-8, so nobody played good enough on defense.”
Some point to other factors as well, considering the loss of star defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to free agency and the growing pains of rookie defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil in his first season. Still, Fuller said it boils down to wins and losses and the poor play in the 0-6 start.
“I’m not one to make excuses. I just think the people we have here are not getting the job done. We’re not getting the job done enough to where we can come up with the win,” Fuller said. “That’s where it comes down to wins and losses. We can be the 31st ranked defense, but if we’re winning games, then we still give ourselves a chance. Starting out 0-6, it just wasn’t acceptable.”
Fisher defended Cecil, who rose up from the ranks beginning as a quality control guy, and says defensive improvement will make things easier on his coordinator.
“I thought he overcame a difficult situation with some personnel issues early in the season losing part of the secondary, but he hung in there,” Fisher said. “I thought he did a nice job. He put players in position to make plays.
“It’s always a challenge in your first year. It was a challenge for Gregg [Williams] his first year. It was a challenge for Jim [Schwartz] his first year. Look at the numbers and things because they always improve. Not because of the coach necessarily, but because we improved as a team. We get better players on defense, he’s a better coach.”
The defense was headed toward a state of flux anyway, as 30-something veterans Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jevon Kearse, Bulluck and Harper are all free agents. Harper and Kearse would appear the least likely of that group to return. David Thornton’s health is a concern as well, though his contract has one more year to run.
Bulluck, whose chances of returning might have actually increased after his knee injury, says the Titans have to revamp things and add to the pieces that are already in place in order to right the defense.
“[You need] players. You saw how many people they’re losing in free agency,” Bulluck said. “I don’t know who would even be on the defensive roster next year as of right now. So they need players. The guys they have right now, they’re good. They’re very good, and the young guys, they work hard.”
It means filling some holes this off-season and having younger players like William Hayes continue to improve. Hayes took over for Kearse in the fifth game of the season, and held the starting job the rest of the year, in just his second season. He believes all will work out in the off-season for the Titans.
“We just have to put in a lot more hard work in the off-season. Everybody has got to commit themselves to the program and commit themselves to the scheme," an optimistic Hayes said. "That’s it. We’ll be fine next year, I believe."