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Titans go Bigger, Simpler for Stingier Defense

Posted Aug 3, 2011

Second-round pick Akeem Ayers has made a strong impression early on, taking first team reps at outside linebacker during the first week of training camp.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan starts answering before the question is finished. Yes, he loves the new defense.

"It's organized. I mean you know what you're doing. You know where you're going. He's coaching you. Man, I love him,'' Finnegan said of new defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. "He's the best thing that's ever happened to me as a football player.''

And Finnegan is not alone in his love of the new scheme.

Teammates like linebacker Gerald McRath rave at how simple the approach is in letting players play without thinking too much.

"They're simplifying it down so you can just play football. I'm very excited about it,'' McRath said.

The Titans spent more time than any other NFL defense on the field last season and ranked 29th against the pass as the team went 6-10. Defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil was fired in January, a week before Jeff Fisher left the franchise.

New coach Mike Munchak brought in Gray as his defensive coordinator, and Tennessee got much bigger on the defensive line and in the linebacker corps both through the draft and in free agency.

"You have to fight size with size, and that's kind of what we're trying to do right now,'' Gray said.

One look at the Titans on the field now, and the size is easy to see.

Rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers, a second-round pick out of UCLA, is 6-foot-3 and 254 pounds. Tackle Jurrell Casey from USC takes up plenty of space inside at 300 pounds, while lineman Karl Klug, a fifth-round pick from Iowa, and seventh-round pick Zach Clayton from Auburn are at least 6-2 and 299 pounds apiece.

The Titans also signed veteran tackle Shaun Smith, who can help double team offensive linemen at 6-3, 325 pounds. His signing along with the rookie linemen has allowed Gray to push 6-5 Jason Jones from tackle out to end. Barrett Ruud, the new middle linebacker, is 3 inches taller at 6-2 than Stephen Tulloch who had that spot a year ago. Jones is 2 inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Jason Babin, who signed with Philadelphia last week.

Jones is very happy with the chance to move outside and rush the quarterback.

"I think I can make more plays outside, and I can help this team out a lot out there with my athleticism and the way I play,'' Jones said. "And the way coach (Tracy) Rocker's going to get us to play as a defensive line, I think all of us are going to have fun out there.''

Gray, who had been defensive coordinator in Buffalo and left the University of Texas where he had been assistant head coach for a month, to join his former Houston Oilers teammate Munchak once again in Tennessee. Gray spent the lockout studying the Titans from last season on film, finding their strengths and weaknesses. The Titans are sticking with a 4-3 defense, though Gray has said he wants the size in his linemen to give him the flexibility to flash to a 3-4 front if he wants.

"It just depends on the guys that we have and what we're trying to allow this defense to grow into,'' Gray said. "Really, we've gotten better up front. We've got more athletic linebackers, we've got some bigger linebackers and so now our decision is what do they evolve into. The faster they show me, the faster we can play that defense.''

Ayers has made the biggest impression through the first few days of camp, working on the outside with the first team. He's very big, fast and will get to further hone his skills against veteran Daniel Graham once the veteran is allowed to join practices.

"He's looking good, he's out there, he fits in exactly what we want, great athlete, so I mean he's got a lot to learn and we are happy where he's at this early in camp,'' Munchak said.

The biggest problem for the Titans has been waiting for a handful of players to be able to join practice. Smith and Ruud have had to stand and watch practices along with ends Dave Ball and Jacob Ford until the new labor deal allows them to hit the field hopefully Thursday. Gray said he's told his coaches to spend more time in meetings with the veterans to avoid slowing down the younger players.

On the field, jumping offsides is not being tolerated in practice without a good reason. The Titans ranked 30th in total yards penalized in 2010 with 1,040 yards off 128 penalties. Many of those came from the defensive line trying to get a jump at the passer, and Gray said he wants his defenders to understand where they're at in a game.

"I want a smart football team,'' Gray said.

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