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Notebook: Personnel, Added Emphasis Help Titans Defense on Third Downs

Posted Oct 11, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray equates a defense’s third-down performance to a golfer’s putt.

A team can do well on first and second downs to put itself in a better position to succeed, but good work can be undermined if the execution lapses at critical moments.

“When you’re on the green, you’ve got to sink it, and that’s the thing I think our guys are really taking advantage of,” Gray said.

There are 12 major defensive statistical categories in which the Titans have made double-digit improvements in NFL rankings through five weeks of this season over the same time period a year ago. Several of the categories — most notably yards per game, first downs/game, points/game, point differential/game and yard differential/game have all seen substantial improvements that can be somewhat correlated to Tennessee’s success on third downs.

The Titans have gone from 22nd in opponents’ third-down percentage (42.4 percent this time a year ago) to third in the NFL with a rate of 28.1 percent. Those numbers were boosted last week when Tennessee held Kansas City to 1-for-12 on third downs.

Chiefs QB Alex Smith was 2-for-10 passing on those downs, getting an 11-yard completion to Jamaal Charles who got the yardage after the catch, but only a 9-yard completion on third-and-10 because of a tackle made by Bernard Pollard. Kansas City opted not to call a run play until late in the game (a 5-yard run by Charles on third-and-12) when it wanted to run the clock and force Tennessee to use its final timeout.

It was the best single-game performance for a Titans defense in the category since the 2008 Thanksgiving game when Tennessee beat Detroit 47-10 and didn’t allow any of 11 third downs to be converted.

Gray and defensive senior assistant Gregg Williams said the progress in limiting the gains of others can be tied to personnel that is more experienced than this time last year as well as the emphasis coaches and players are putting on the down.

“Really I attribute it to the personnel. Our guys understand what we’re trying to get them to do, they can give it back to us and take it to the field,” Gray said. “When you can do that, you’ve got a 50-50 chance of winning that play, and then if you’ve got the ability to make it, you make that play. I don’t think it’s that hard, but the problem starts when you’ve got a lot of young guys and if the young guys can’t take it to the field, the next thing you know, they’re trying to figure out what’s going on and then they’re behind the play. Our guys are pretty much even or ahead of the play.”

Williams said Gray does a great job of emphasizing third downs, structuring practices and using the right combination of players to best counteract each opponent.

“He and I have been together for a long time and have separated that situation and tried to highlight that,” Williams said. “I think he’s done a remarkable job of highlighting how crucial that situation is to the total success of your football team.”

Williams said the Titans (3-2) have made some progress but want to keep improving and will continue to design the system around what players can do best.

“I think the really good measure of any coaching staff is really not calling or playing what you like to call or play but what can these guys play, and Jerry’s done a phenomenal job, as has (Titans coach) Mike (Munchak), of playing to the strengths of our personnel,” Williams said. “We’ve done a really good job of bringing in personnel that aids in that. It’s still young in the season and every week is a critical matchup, a critical play here or there. We’re minus a couple of plays from being really really good.”

DEFENDING MOBILE QB: Smith showed some mobility last week, but the Titans expect Seahawks QB Russell Wilson to use his legs even more on read option run plays or when he scrambles to extend pass plays.

“He reminds me a lot of Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb,” Gray said. “The guy makes a lot of plays with his legs. He’s the second-leading rusher on their team. (Wilson) knows most defensive linemen can’t catch him so that’s where your problem comes in.”

Gray said it’s likely the Titans will deploy a multi-faceted strategy against Wilson, who has 233 yards on 40 attempts (5.8 yards per carry) and is 74-of-127 passing (58.3 percent) for 997 yards with eight TDs and four interceptions this season.

“I’ve watched other teams spy him, they’re dropping a guy out to make sure he doesn’t have an escape route and things like that,” Gray said. “You try a lot of stuff. When I was a player, we used to do the same thing with Randall Cunningham. You’ve got to protect from the guy trying to scramble, and what are you going to do? Is it going to be the pass rush that goes and gets him or are you going to make him hold the ball and throw from the pocket? There’s a combination of things you’ve got to try to do and hopefully he’s not successful with a lot of them.”

INJURY UPDATES: Locker (hip/knee), Shonn Greene (knee) and Zaviar Gooden (hamstring) have been ruled out. Patrick Bailey (hamstring), Blidi Wreh-Wilson (hamstring), David Stewart (ankle), Sammie Hill (ankle), Derrick Morgan (shoulder) and Coty Sensabaugh (concussion) are questionable. Bailey and Wreh-Wilson didn’t practice this week, Stewart and Sensabaugh practiced fully Friday, and Hill and Morgan were limited.

Morgan, who suffered the injury last week against the Chiefs, said he plans to play, but Munchak said the Titans likely will evaluate how he is Sunday.

The Titans are encouraged by the progress Hill has been making in recovering from an ankle sprain he suffered in Week 2.

UPDATE ON WALTER: Receiver Kevin Walter is still in the process of recovering from offseason back surgery. Walter is currently on the physically unable to perform list. Players who begin a season on the PUP list are unavailable for the first six weeks of the season.

“He’s progressing, but he still has some work to do,” Munchak said. “He hasn’t done enough to see where he’s at physically. He’s been doing his rehab and light things but not to the level of (where he’s) ready to compete yet.”

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