Continuing to allow players to play multiple positions will be a key if the Tennessee Titans want the success they had on defense last season to carry over into 2019.

Versatility is a trait that is way over-complimented these days in the NFL. If a player can do four different things but does them all at an average level, it does not make them a better player simply because they can do multiple average things.

Yet, the Titans have several players on their defense who do multiple things at a high level. Allowing those players to move around and using them as the chess-pieces that their talents allow them to be is crucial for the Titans’ defensive coaching staff.

Confusing the Opposition

“For any defense, I feel like you’ve got to switch it up,” said linebacker Rashaan Evans, one of the Titans’ players who benefits from moving around. “These offenses are getting better and better each and every year, the quarterbacks are getting more athletic, the receivers are getting better. For us as a defense, we’ve got to be able to start to really just evolve as a defense and start doing different things so that we can have a better chance of success.”

“I think in pro football, if you’re a stagnant defense, just sitting there, guys like [Colts quarterback] Andrew Luck and the real good quarterbacks can just pick you apart,” said safety Kevin Byard, another player who can play multiple spots. “They know exactly where they can go with the ball, as soon as they see the defense line up. Just the movement on the defense causes confusion for the offense, it causes protection confusion.

“Anytime you can move around, even pre-snap or post-snap, I think it helps out defenses. It also can set up other coverages or pressures that you might have on third downs or later in the game.”

Preparation in Practice

In the same way that movement from a defense can confuse an opposing offense, it can confuse the players that are moving around if it’s managed poorly. That’s why preparing to have multiple roles and playing multiple positions during practice is so crucial to players who expect to do the same in a game.

The Titans take an approach of letting their defensive players move around throughout practice. Additionally, some players might focus on one position during one practice and on another position during the next day’s practice.

That’s why you do it in practice,” Byard said. “You get those practice reps and being in different spots. Coach [Kerry] Coombs, [Scott] Booker, and Dean [Pees] do a great job of moving everybody around and testing them out at different spots so guys can be comfortable being in all kinds of different positions. We have Kenny playing multiple positions, I’m playing different positions, Amani Hooker is playing different positions.

“I think when it comes to game time, maybe somebody gets hurt, a nickel or a safety goes down, when they come in, no matter what spot they have to play in, they’re comfortable, they know what they have to do, and they understand the defense and their job to the fullest.”

“Obviously, we have a high priority on players that have high versatility who can do more than one thing,” said head coach Mike Vrabel. “It’s not fair to the player, first and foremost, to ask them to do a job in a game that they haven’t done in practice and that they haven’t repped. So, we’re conscious of that.

We’re also conscious not to overload guys and give them too much…Make sure that they know what to do in their one spot, and then, once they do that, we can kind of transition them on to what their next job may or may not be.”

A Better Understanding

By learning how to play multiple positions, players can get a better overall grasp of the defense they play in. The mental hurdles that come up at the beginning can create a deeper knowledge of the playbook overall.

“You would be surprised that, at each position, it translates to the other position in a weird way, depending on how you want to look at it,” Evans said. “It’s almost like it’s helping me, you know if I’m brushing or if I’m playing inside, using some type of hands, learning how to do those things and also using those hands on a receiver when I’m trying to cover them. Just learning those different types of things, they all translate with each other.”

“We understand the defense and we trust the defense,” Byard said, “so we know we don’t have to just stand there and be focused on ‘okay, what do I have to do?.’ You’re thinking two or three steps ahead, you’re thinking about what the offense is doing, maybe what this guy is thinking so if I move around a little bit, I may make him hesitate. The versatility, everybody playing everything and being in different spots is awfully helpful.”

Coaches who have versatile players like Byard and Evans on their team have an added responsibility to actually utilize that versatility. In his first year as the Titans’ defensive coordinator, Dean Pees was up to that task.

Now that his players have a year under their belts in his system, Pees and the rest of his defensive coaches need to keep up the movement.

Cover image: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today
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