For the first time since Bill Clinton’s first term in the Oval Office, the Tennessee Titans had a new head coach. Under Mike Munchak they suffered an infuriatingly inconsistent season, losing to the likes of Jacksonville and Indianapolis in divisional play while running out winners against Baltimore and pushing New Orleans close. Nowhere was that inconsistency epitomized more than on the defensive line where the majority of players struggled to put together all-around seasons and three defensive linemen received their highest individual grades for their pass coverage.
In years past, Jeff Fisher’s heavy line rotation was the hallmark of a quality defensive unit, but in 2011 all it did was bring below-average performer after below-average performer on to the field. There were, however, two notable exceptions; a pair of mid-round rookie defensive tackles who give the Titans hope for the future inside: Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug.
After Fischer’s departure, the Titans found themselves with a problem at defensive tackle. The loss of the immensely talented, but immensely lazy Albert Haynesworth had left a talent void the Titans struggled to fill. Tony Brown had some success, but injuries caught up with him and players like Sen’Derrick Marks have failed to take over and carry the load. When Tennessee’s new defensive coaching staff made the ill-advised decision to move Jason Jones out to defensive end, the team was left with no proven quality inside.
Much like the Carolina Panthers, the Titans entered a 2011 draft in dire need of a defensive tackle, but with a likewise urgent requirement at quarterback and with “franchise” quarterback options available, they had to pass on Nick Fairley (though after his recent arrests that may not be a bad thing). Like the Panthers they too were left looking in the mid rounds and came away with a trio of tackles in the shape of Casey, Klug, and Zach Clayton. Clayton managed only 28 snaps, but, in a slightly more favorable situation than the Panther pairing of Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, the Titanic duo of Klug and Casey reaped immediate rewards for Tennessee’s defensive tackle rotation.
The Perfect Complement
Due to the way in which the Titans’ run their defensive tackle rotation, Casey and Klug didn’t share the field much in their rookie seasons, only 74 snaps. However, they complement each other and give the impression that if they were to be paired they could provide a quality defensive tackle set. Casey is the big-bodied run-stuffer (+12.5 run defense) who, in his rookie season, was as productive in run defense as any defensive tackle not named Brodrick Bunkley or Sione Pouha. Klug, meanwhile, is the upfield penetrator who does just enough against the run while providing the sort of interior pass rush (+5.8 pass rush) that many teams lack.
The duo comfortably outshone the Titans’ other defenders in the same mold; Shaun Smith was solid in run defense but was inconsistent shedding blocks and couldn’t make the same positive impact as Casey. Klug was not only the Titans’ premier interior pass rusher, he was just about their best overall pass rusher. His 24 total pressures and 5.7 Pass Rushing Productivity numbers were topped by only one Titan defensive lineman, a defensive end, Derrick Morgan (28 and 5.9).
In a season where the new-look Titans were on and off of the boil, these rookies–in particular the bigger Casey–were remarkably consistent. While Klug had a handful of down games around mid-season against the AFC North teams, Casey only had one poor game in run defense, coming against Atlanta in Week 11. That “down game” was a -1.2 run defense grade. Most defensive tackles league-wide would love for that to be their worst single game in run defense. Playing more snaps than any other Titan defensive tackle in 2011, Casey faced off with some top-line NFL talent and showed scant regard for the likes of Andy Levitre, Marshal Yanda, Ryan Kalil, and Bobbie Williams. He wasn’t necessarily making the splash plays that his running mate Klug recorded (three sacks to Klug’s six) but the consistency of Casey’s play–35 defensive stops–was astonishing to see from a rookie.
In more of a pass-rushing role, Klug, a former Iowa Hawkeye, was equally impressive and his work on third downs was particularly noteworthy. As an interior pass rusher Klug recorded four third-down sacks, which was more than all but 10 other defensive tackles recorded throughout the season. Three of those came against Alex Mack, Carl Nicks, and Eugene Monroe. Whether center, guard, or tackle, Klug was not afraid to mix it up with the very best in the league to provide the sort of pass rush that the Titans’ simply couldn’t produce from the defensive end position. You have to wonder what Klug might be capable of if the Titans could generate more rush than the combined -36.4 grade their defensive ends mustered last season.
The Sky is the Limit
Now that these two have a season and a combined 1,181 snaps under their belts, the Titans might be more willing to play them at the same time and get their best defense on the field. Sen’Derrick Marks is still around, as is Shaun Smith, but both could be in grave danger of losing not only their slot in the rotation, but also their roster spot to a host of free agent signings and rookie acquisitions.
The law of averages suggest that at least one of Klug and Casey two will suffer second-season blues, but if they can avoid that, the Titans have at their disposal a real weapon with which to attack the balanced offense of new division front-runner Houston.
It is real pressure for a pair of second-year players, but Klug and Casey have the potential to be the cornerstones of the Titans’ defense as they look to pick up those extra couple of wins in 2012 that take them from knocking on the playoff door to kicking it down and joining the party. With the acquisition of pass rush specialist Kamerion Wimbley, Karl Klug might now have the outside threat that allows him to “go off”. If he can hold up under the strain of a higher snap count, he could have the type of second season that saw Geno Atkins thrust himself into the upper echelon of defensive tackles. Similarly Casey’s continued high level of play in run defense is crucial for the Titans to allow fellow second-year players Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy to settle in at linebacker.
The pressure is there to perform and if they do, Klug and Casey will be a double act that offensive coordinators league wide will be fully aware of.
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