NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the second of two bye week reports, we review the good and the bad of the defense through seven games:
MVP: Cornerback Alterraun Verner. Even as the interception rate has slowed, he’s continued to make plays. He’s got four picks and regularly breaks up plays and kills momentum for offenses and quarterbacks. This is a defense built around having a bunch of good guys and some guys who are good at a couple things and are put in good situations to succeed. It lacks a real star. But Verner has been really good.
Most disappointing: Sammie Hill’s ankle. The big defensive tackle hurt his right ankle early in the Titans’ second game, missed three after that and didn’t play a whole lot in Seattle or against San Francisco. The Titans have been a solid run-stopping team even without Hill involved. And maybe he’s someone who can make things even better as he feels better and increases the interior depth.
Biggest surprise: Defensive end Ropati Pitoitua. The giant defensive end was brought in as an edge-setting run stopper. He’s been good at that job, but he’s done a lot more. He’s a disruptive pass-rusher as well, and is tied for the team lead with four sacks. He symbolizes the success the Titans have had with some lesser profile veteran additions.
Style points: The Titans are varying their fronts and blitzing more and excelling at the man-to-man coverage they wanted to employ more of this season. Senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams has been a big influence in those areas, and the changes on defense have all helped produce better results.
Not seeing it: The Titans talked a lot about what a crucial piece Akeem Ayers would be as the strong-side linebacker and a nickel defensive end. He’s been fine, but he’s not been the breakout, standout player I was expecting. And for how much nickel and dime they are playing and for the quality play they are getting from other options at end, he’s not playing as much as I expected he would.
AWOL: Defensive end Kamerion Wimbley. The Titans keep saying Wimbley’s lack of playing time is about packages. But if they really liked his ability to rush the passer, he’d be getting more chances to rush the passer. He’s a good guy and a pro, but he doesn’t fit in what they want to do now. They grabbed him as a free agent when he was cut by Oakland in 2011 after the failed pursuit of Peyton Manning slowed them down and meant they missed out on other options, like Mario Williams. Wimbley’s too expensive to have around beyond this season.
I applaud: The packaging. The nickel and dime sets haven’t only featured quality work from Coty Sensabaugh and George Wilson in the defensive backfield. The pieces up front change as well. A guy like Karl Klug is getting maximum chances to work in advantageous roles. There are a lot of situations where guys are being used to their strengths and using them that way is keeping most people fresh in the process.
Biggest beef: Zach Brown’s playing time. When healthy, Moise Fokou is the every-down linebacker. The Titans like the way Fokou gets the defense lined up. But, for a time, at least, offenses were faring better in third-and-long than in third-and-short against Tennessee. Part of the reason for that could be that they are playing a run-stopping linebacker ahead of Brown, a more explosive player who’s better in pass coverage. I have a hard time watching him leave the field.
Looking forward to: Seeing how this defense deals with two games against Andrew Luck and the Colts and two games against a Jacksonville offense that has the league’s worst rushing offense.
Get well: The linebackers have been a mess health-wise, but only Fokou’s knee issue has cost them a game for a starter. They need healthy backups and special teamers and are optimistic that special teams captain Patrick Bailey and rookie Zaviar Gooden will be ready to return to action after the bye.