NFL Nation: Giff Smith

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans' shift from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 alignment doesn't come with a plea for patience.

Changing the shape of a defense isn't a multiple-year process in today's NFL, and the Titans don't have to look far for evidence of that.

In 2010, the Houston Texans hired Wade Phillips as their defensive coordinator. As he had many times before, he remodeled a 4-3 into his 3-4, installed a new mindset and got new results. The Texans ranked second in defensive yardage and won the AFC South.

In 2012, the Indianapolis Colts hired Chuck Pagano as their head coach. He and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky converted a 4-3 into a 3-4. While they didn't mirror the Texans' statistical success from two years earlier, the defense was good enough for the Colts to win a wild-card spot.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports"Saying it's going to take time and that stuff, that's to help personnel people and coaches keep their jobs," Wade Phillips said of switching your defensive front. "You've got to win now."
Neither Phillips nor Pagano expected the luxury of a transitional year, in which he could hit pause on expectations. Phillips didn't hesitate to flip things and engineered another big first-year turnaround. Pagano talked about the need to be a hybrid defense in transition. They expected results, and got enough for their teams to go to the playoffs.

Along with the Titans, the Falcons (moving to 3-4) and the Bills (to a 4-3) are changing defensive fronts and philosophies.

Phillips believes fans in any of those markets should be wary of any talk from the brass about the need for patience.

"That's protecting yourself," said Phillips, who lost his job when Houston hired Bill O'Brien and is currently out of the league. "It doesn't matter in this league, they are going to fire you anyway if you don't get it done.

"Saying it's going to take time and that stuff, that's to help personnel people and coaches keep their jobs. You've got to win now. You've got to change things. Usually you're coming in to fix something. "

Perhaps a switch from a straightforward 4-3 to the more old-school, two-gap 3-4 like the Pittsburgh Steelers run would make for a time-consuming changeover. But while 3-4s are on the rise, more are in line with ones Phillips ran as coordinator or coach in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, Buffalo, Atlanta, San Diego, Dallas and Houston. They are schemes with edge setting, pass-rushing outside linebackers who do not require a mammoth nose tackle and don't ask the three down lineman to account for two gaps.

Under Ken Whisenhunt in Tennessee, defensive coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 base front will seek to create confusion about who is rushing and from where. There will be enough two-gapping to make offenses have to look out for it, but it won't be the default or the norm.

What sense would it make for Whisenhunt, Horton and defensive line coach Giff Smith to ask Jurrell Casey, who was the Titans best defense player last season and had 10.5 sacks, work to occupy defenders and allow linebackers behind him to make the plays?

"He's a heck of a player," Smith said. "I told Case when we got here, he'll actually get more one-on-one situations out of our spacing than he would out of a 4-3 spacing. ... Our deal is to get him in as many as we can. I think he puts stress on offensive linemen, he's a difficult guy to block. ...

"It's more of a loaded box where you have to man up. It looks like single coverage on the outside whereas when you're in 4-3 spacing, sometimes your backers cheat back to 5, 5 1/2 yards and they're on the second level and you've only got four guys up front. They can bump, they can chip, they can double (to slow you down). Where in a 3-4 with what Ray is doing and walking guys up, they have to man and they don't have the time to be able to chip and climb."

[+] EnlargeRay Horton
AP Photo/Mark DuncanNew Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton will embrace the players he inherited.
If the Titans have enough good players as they believe they do, then they should be able to get them in positions to maximize their talents.

Whisenhunt said schematically the 2013 Titans ran hundreds of plays in the exact same scheme that will now be their base. Holdover guys "at least have some basis as a starting point," he said.

"The old-school ways of playing the 3-4, schematically that was a difficult defense to play," Whisenhunt said. "Just from a standpoint of the two-gap and having the right guys like Carl Banks and Lawrence Taylor outside.

"It was a different defense than we're running. We're a more aggressive type of defense that is going to give you multiple looks. It's not a 3-4, two-gap defense. But when you say 3-4 defense that's the perception of a lot of people."

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a 4-3 guy who ran the scheme for his 16-plus seasons coaching the Oilers/Titans, said the franchise's switch "is moving a guy here and there, it's not as hard as people speculate."

Both Whisenhunt and Phillips share a philosophy that helps make an altered approach easier: It's more about the players than the scheme.

Phillips points to three different approaches with three different players all aiming for the same result: ownership of one of the A gaps in the middle of the line.

"Ted Washington was 340 pounds in Buffalo, he played nose but we play a one-gap defense," Phillips said. "We played him in the middle of the center and let him take the center and just control his gap. Jamal Williams was a power guy (in San Diego), we offset him and let him basically knock the center back and take the same gap. Then I had Greg Kragen in Denver, another Pro Bowler. He was a smaller guy, so we stunted him to the gap.

"They all played the same position, had the same assignment, but played it differently."

We don't yet know what the responsibilities of certain positions will entail in Horton's defense. But he can have wrinkles that make things easy for certain players.

Derrick Morgan and Akeem Ayers look to be the two primary strong outside linebackers. Morgan's been a 4-3 end and Ayers hasn't fared particularly well in space so far in the NFL. In Phillips' system, the only coverage they'd have been asked to play would have been in the flat.

"It's what the players can do, not what you can think of," Phillips said. "Some people are so scheme-oriented that they block people out and say, ‘Hey, we can't use this guy even though he's a good player.'"

The Titans are being inclusive, not exclusive.

Horton and his staff are embracing what they inherited -- much of which may have been insufficiently coached by the previous staff. They've also added a nice splash of 3-4 help: Linebackers Shaun Phillips, Wesley Woodyard and fifth-rounder Avery Williamson and linemen Al Woods and fourth-rounder DaQuan Jones.

Whisenhunt and Horton aren't looking at Andrew Luck or the top offensive players they will be trying to slow this year and thinking, in another year or two this scheme will be equipped and stocked to get the job done.

"Our expectation is to have success defensively this year," Whisenhunt said. "Will we get better at it in time? I think you get better at anything when you have more reps with it. But it doesn't mean I don't feel like we'll play good defense this year."
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Cross-checking with old friends can be a very valuable thing at draft time.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Morgan
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesDerrick Morgan had a number of coaches vouch for him before the Titans drafted him.
Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn did with first-round pick Derrick Morgan, and Washburn said his phone was buzzing with text messages Thursday night about the two being a perfect marriage.

Joe D’Alessandris was the Chan Gailey assistant who led the recruiting charge to pull Morgan to Georgia Tech over Ohio State, Penn State, Miami and Boston College. He also just happened to have coached with Washburn way back when they were both starting out and Washburn was the defensive coordinator at Livingston College in 1979.

“Joe’s my best friend in coaching,” Washburn said. “… He told me Derrick was the most unusual high school player he’d ever seen, everything he did was just so intense. Joe said this is a great match, me and Derrick being together.”

Giff Smith, who coached defensive line at Georgia Tech, worked as a graduate assistant for Arkansas when Washburn was there. Like D’Alessandris, Smith now works for Gailey with the Buffalo Bills.

And before Livingston and Arkansas, when Washburn and Titans scout Cole Proctor were at Lees McRae College, a high school coach used to visit them to talk football. Paul Johnson’s now the head man for the Yellow Jackets.

“It’s a small world,” Morgan said.

“Everybody texted last night and said, 'This is perfect,’” Washburn said. “Of the five guys -- I’m counting Sergio Kindle, Jerry Hughes, Brandon Graham, Jason Pierre-Paul and Derrick -- this guy had the fastest 10[-yard time] and this guy is the toughest …

“This guy played like we try to have the Titans’ defensive linemen play. He’s got to run to the ball better, but he brings it, now. When he lines up, he means business.”

Gailey's staff looks thin on experience

February, 10, 2010
2/10/10
3:45
PM ET
Now that new Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey has essentially assembled his staff, I thought it would be worthwhile to present a snapshot of who they are.

You'll notice a couple blanks still need to be filled in. The Bills have yet to designate a defensive line or linebackers coach and could have other openings on the staff. For example, they could choose to break up inside and outside linebackers.

The Bills have two defensive assistants who haven't been assigned duties. Bob Sanders and Giff Smith have experience coaching the defensive line. Sanders did it last year, but he also coached linebackers for the Miami Dolphins.

What stands out to me is the lack of NFL experience throughout the staff.

Defensive backs coach George Catavolos has banked 26 years in that role. Special-teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven has put in 23 years. But there's a huge drop from there.

Gailey has gathered acquaintances from his days at Georgia Tech and assistants he identified as up-and-comers during his brief stay with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Gailey will have at least eight assistants with two or fewer years of NFL experience in the positions they will hold with the Bills. At least four of them will have zero seasons of NFL experience in their given role.

That's not to say they're all neophytes.

One of those first-timers is veteran quarterbacks coach George Cortez, who has spent more than three decades coaching at colleges and in the Canadian Football League.

They might all be fine teachers, but I think it's fair to wonder how these coaches will handle the fast-paced, high-pressure setting of an NFL sideline on Sunday afternoons.

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