The 2011 NFL season was a challenging one for first-year coaching staffs in particular.
To the extent that a staff might have changed schemes, it had no offseason in which to install them, owing to the lockout and somewhat shorter training camp.
In the Tennessee Titans and head coach Mike Munchaks case, they still managed to go 9-7 while tying for 18th in the league in total defense in coordinator Jerry Grays first season.
As a result of the lack of time to implement the full depth of the playbook, Grays defense worked under the handicap of having to be a little bit vanilla. Considering that Gray worked under Gregg Williams on-and-off in three different locations over a 10-year period, including with the Titans, and that Williams defenses were known for a gambling and attacking style of defense, its fairly safe to say that if Gray had his druthers, he might have called things a little differently than he did in 11.
With Titans offseason team activities under way, rookie camp already completed and a normal length training camp ahead, those are things that Gray and his unit are concentrating on.
Looking at what we did last year, were going to add a lot, Gray said last Thursday in a video posted on the teams Web site. Were going to add because we didnt have this period last year. We pretty much took the defense the Titans ran two years ago. We cut out the fat and just pretty much ran that from last year.
Now were going to get a chance to watch some stuff we want to do, some other things, were adding some things that weve done in the past, that I did in Buffalo, where he was defensive coordinator from 2001-05 when Williams was head coach from 2001-2003, things I did in Washington where he was secondary coach from 2006-09 when Williams was defensive coordinator from 2004-2007. Were kind of tailoring this defense to the players we have, not to what we had run last year.
Gray said that it was frustrating in a way not to be able to have full use of the calls and defenses he would have liked to have made.
But, to me, I think what you do is you learn to adjust, Gray said. We used a lot of young guys and finished 9-7. Now can we build on that? Can we build on 9-7 and hopefully go 11-5, 12-4, 13-3? In order to do that, youve got to work.
Specifically, right now, Gray cited the need for players individually to improve their technique. Thats significant, considering the number of rookies who were contributors on the Titans defense last year: linebacker Akeem Ayers (16 starts) was a second-round pick; defensive tackle Jurrell Casey (15 starts) was a third-rounder; linebacker Colin McCarthy (seven starts) was a fourth-rounder and defensive lineman Karl Klug (seven sacks) was a fifth-rounder.
In reference to a question about Ayers, Gray delivered this colorful quote on the importance of using the time presented now, If you dont have technique, youre going to revert to what you know and thats pretty much nothing.
Gray said this period is crucial for Ayers. As if it were necessary to mention, the Titans ranked 31st in the league last year in sacks.
We need Ayers to get some sacks, Gray said. We need Ayers to have a dominant attitude of You know what? A tackles not going to block me, a running backs not going to block me.
Gray said Ayers needs to incorporate what hes learning with newly hired defensive assistantpass rush specialist Keith Millard. Ayers, who had two sacks last season, seems to have taken that message to heart.
Thats important to me this offseason is really working on my pass rush, Ayers said last Thursday in a video posted on the teams Web site. I had a few opportunities last year, but I didnt really get the opportunity to work on it the offseason. This year we got an offseason. We got coach Millard here to help with the pass rush, so just really putting emphasis on my pass rush this year.
Ayers said he has spent time with Millard reviewing video of his rookie season and viewing what he did wrong.
I learned a lot by just meeting with him, said Ayers, who stressed the need to be able to translate what he has seen in the meeting room onto the field.
Its all part of the process to make the Titans more dangerous on defenseand perhaps less predictablein the coming season.