It’s a game of inches.
So a couple of feet are making a huge difference in the life of Titans defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks.
He finished strong last season. Though I am not a big believer in a big finish carrying over to the next season, it may be what’s about to happen for Marks.
“I came in last year in a totally different system off of shoulder surgery and all of that,” he said. “It’s not an excuse. Moving from tackle to noseguard and then just finding my way. I bought into what the coaches were selling and we just made it happen.
“It has carried over to this year and we’re just making it happen.”
Operating in the closest quarters possible has been a real boon for Marks, a second-round pick from Auburn who’s heading into his fourth season. He’s not thinking about a new contract, but on some level it’s always at play when a guy knows free agency is looming. He’s thinking about how quickly he can get his hands on a center and steer past him to help put the quarterback in a well. That’s the Titans’ aim up front -- to surround the guy they are chasing.
“It’s a lot slower to me playing from the noseguard position,” Marks said. “For some odd reason now, I feel so comfortable at the noseguard, I just feel mean and mad every time I go out. Because I know what I can do and how mean I can get.”
“Playing over the center, he’s usually a smaller guy, you’re right over the ball,” he said. “You can always be quicker. You see the ball. I feel like I’ve got a real good get-off. Usually if you’re in the middle and you cause a lot of disruption, everything happens right there. I feel real comfortable there.
“If you’re a 3-technique, then usually your guard is a yard away from you, and half of the time they are two yards away from you when they can get away with it. So you’ve got a lot of distance to cover. I like getting off the ball and just attacking.”
I think the Titans' defensive strength starts in the middle of the line, with the blossoming Jurrell Casey and Marks. They lead a defense that had 25 tackles for a loss in the preseason.
But it’s not just tackles for a loss that set an offense back, it’s tackles at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Tennessee has another 12 of those in the preseason, including nine in the first halves when starters were on the field the most.
It’s a category the Titans excelled in last year, when nearly a quarter of the rushing attempts against them resulted in a loss or no gain. (The Jaguars fared well at this as well.) If a team stops the run like that and forces passing downs, it has won one major battle. Downs in which there is little mystery about run or pass are what a defense wants to be lining up against.
“The biggest thing in the league on defense is, you have to win first down,” Titans defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. “If you can get to second-and-long or third-and-long, now you are able to do some things defensively.”