In the midst of the Steve McNair tragedy, Adam Schein of Fox Sports made a couple of startling statements that would usually have garnered his weekly column more attention from football fans, especially in the cities of Houston and Nashville. Schein contends that the Saints would have a better defense than the Buccaneers, the Bengals will be better offensively than the Steelers, and the Bills are better off at WR than the Patriots. Maybe most surprising of all though, was his assertion that the defensive line of the Houston Texans was superior to that of the Tennessee Titans.
Some of the national media have jumped firmly on the Texans bandwagon, but few writers have actually stated their arguments for why the team should now be considered a contender. Schein made what was upon first glance a brief yet convincing argument, although in honesty I was doing cartwheels just to hear a major NFL journalist describe any Texans defensive position group as better quality than the Titans or any other NFL team for that matter. Seriously, when have you ever heard a similar argument made by a writer who wasn’t local to Houston?
Schein designed his column to be controversial, but it appears that he firmly believes in all of his claims. All the same though, I’m sure the majority of people that read his Titans vs. Texans theory immediately scoffed. As was noted earlier, Schein’s argument was too superficial to convince the average fan of its merit much less a Tennessean. Even I was leery of agreeing with such a claim because of the presence of defensive line wizard Jim Washburn. Obviously the case required further inspection before it could be confirmed or denied.
Schein’s argument against the Titans is simple:
Albert Haynesworth has left the building. And finally, after years of defections on the defensive line where players who left Tennessee were easily replaced, the Titans' unit will dip. Kyle Vanden Bosch is an energizer bunny, but can't do it alone. I'm not sold on the Jason Jones/Tony Brown/Jovan Haye/Sen'Derrick Marks rotation at tackle.
Haynesworth was a force for the Titans in two consecutive seasons while playing for a record contract he would eventually receive from the Washington Redskins in free agency. After 91 total tackles and 14.5 sacks in the last two years, it’s not hard to see why so many writers believe that the defensive line won’t be the same without Fat Albert. It’s not just the production that Tennessee will miss though; it’s the role the Haynesworth played.
Schein makes the point that he believes the defensive tackle rotation sans Hayneworth is lacking. Out of the four, only Jones and Brown played for the Titans last year but performed well with 83 tackles and 9 sacks between them. Brown, however, is an undersized penetrating under tackle at 6’3" 290 pounds that benefited from playing alongside the mammoth 6’6" 320 pound Haynesworth. Jones saw increased playing time after Haynesworth’s injury in weeks 15-17, but the 6’5" 275 pound second year DT has to fill out before he could replace Albert.
Javon Haye was a Titan free agent signee after three inconsistent years in Tampa Bay. After a slow 2006, he showed flashes of potential in 2007 with 68 tackles and 6 sacks but regressed to just 33 tackles and no sacks in 2008. Besides his inconsistency, Haye is undersized as well (6’2" 285).
The only DT that has even close the size required to play in the middle is the rookie Marks at 6’2" 305. The odds of Marks playing close to Haynesworth’s level are low though. Marks suffered from ankle, shoulder, hamstring and feet injuries at Auburn, and was also accused regularly of poor conditioning and effort. Marks was a risky pick as a junior in the second round, but was likely a sign of Tennessee’s anxiety over the hole that Haynesworth left.
It’s not only the defensive tackles that are likely to suffer from Haynesworth’s absence; the defensive ends will likely experience stiffer competition as well. Schein described Vanden Bosch as an energizer bunny, but that isn’t the most apt comparison anymore. I understand that Schein was referring to Vanden Bosch’s notorious high motor, but at age 30 he’s begun to show signs of slowing down.
Vanden Bosch went from 12 sacks in 2007 to just 4.5 in 2008 while missing six games. Vanden Bosch can likely bounce back, but it’s probable that he has seen his peak. Additionally, at 32 Javon Kearse is no spring chicken either. Both benefitted greatly from Haynesworth’s dominant presence in the middle which almost always incurred a double team, insuring that neither faced two blockers regularly themselves. Who’s going to engender that kind of fear and respect out of the defensive tackles previously mentioned?
Vanden Bosch was injured for the three games that Haynesworth missed in 2008, but the year before Vanden Bosch showed signs of how much he gained from the All Pro defensive tackle’s presence. In the four games that Hayneworth missed in 2007, Vanden Bosch only recorded 1 of his 12 sacks. So in the quarter of the season that Haynesworth missed, Vanden Bosch produced a little over 8 percent of his season total. Coincidentally, the Titans lost three out of those four games.
The Titans did get help from two younger defensive ends last year, Dave Ball and Jacob Ford. Ball is a journeyman who played well for the Titans in his first year with the team, while Ford was a pass rushing specialist as a rookie tallying 7 sacks. Ball will never be dominant though, and Ford needs to develop his run stopping ability before he can be an every down player.
I’ll have more on our line as the season nears, but with a regressing Amobi Okoye in 2008, an unproven rookie Connor Barwin, and Antonio Smith who has never taken a snap outside of Arizona, an argumentative Tennessee fan could criticize our line as well. The difference, however, is that our defense has been our Achilles heel, where as the Titans have built their team around that particular unit. Our offense is explosive enough to possibly overcome defensive shortcomings, but I highly doubt that Vince Young or Kerry Collins could lead an offense from behind consistently.
The Titans were able to win thirteen games last year because of the dominance of their defense. The low scores they gave up on that side of the ball allowed Jeff Fisher to play the ball control offense that he prefers. If the Titans are scored upon early, the Titans will not be able to run their way back into the game, rather they’ll have to rely on the aforementioned quarterbacks and a receiving corps that features a rookie with reported attitude problems (Kenny Britt), a historically underachieving veteran (Justin Gage) and a free agent signee who has never played above the level of a number three receiver (Nate Washington). Unless defensive line coach Jim Washburn can somehow get someone to play at Fat Albert’s level, Adam Schein might write an "I told you so" column following the 2009 season.