Boclair: De-fense!

Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 10:05pm

Job one for the Tennessee Titans in the wake of the lockout is to get a veteran quarterback, right?

Not so fast.

Clearly, general manager Mike Reinfeldt and Co. must get someone with experience reading NFL defenses, running NFL huddles and providing leadership in NFL locker rooms. There’s no debate there.

Even more important, though, is someone who can make plays in the middle of a defense. We’re talking about a middle linebacker, one who can run with tight ends and — occasionally — wide receivers, yet also can tear through fullbacks and pummel ball carriers.

Playmakers on that side of the ball offer the potential for a more immediate return on a team’s investment. Quarterbacks, for example, depend on the offensive line and receivers. Running backs must have holes to run through. Receivers have to have the ball thrown their way.

A middle linebacker has the opportunity to make an impact on every snap. It’s see the ball, get to the ball. That’s true in any scheme, anywhere. 

Stephen Tulloch led the team in tackles each of the past two years but was an undersized and less-than-intimidating presence. He was one of many Titans who missed too many tackles in 2010 and didn’t make enough plays in the passing game to discourage opponents from throwing the ball in the middle of the field. 

Tennessee, of course, finished 28th and 26th in the league in total defense the past two seasons, respectively. 

It was a far cry from the days when Randall Godfrey was the Titans’ middle linebacker. When he was signed after four years in Dallas as a free agent, Godfrey made arguably the biggest immediate impact of any newcomer in the years since the franchise relocated from Houston. 

With Godfrey at the heart of the unit, the Titans improved from 17th in total defense during their Super Bowl season to first the following year. They went from 25th to first in passing defense and finished second to Baltimore’s record-setting unit in scoring defense as they cut by nearly half their points per game allowed. 

That, of course, was the season that Ray Lewis — a middle linebacker — rose to prominence as the generation’s most dominant defensive player. Godfrey’s stats were nearly identical, so it’s no coincidence that Tennessee’s defense never was better.

Granted, it’s not easy to find a player of that caliber. But given the fluctuation in free agency rules the past two years, there will be more players than normal available this season.

The Titans need to take advantage of that and find someone to transform the defense and take pressure off whoever is the quarterback. Offense, after all, takes time. A scheme starts small and grows as the players who execute it develop a deeper understanding, particularly of the passing game. 

No quarterback is going to sign with the idea that he’ll throw for 5,000 yards. He will be here to hand the ball to Chris Johnson, a bona fide playmaker firmly in place on offense, and eventually hand over the position to Jake Locker.

The defense, though, is desperate for a guy who can make game-changing plays on that side of the ball — whether the other team runs or throws. Titans history proves it’s possible to find just such a player. The franchise’s immediate future just might depend on its ability to find another. 

It’s that important, probably even more so than finding a veteran quarterback. 

David Boclair is sports editor of The City Paper. Follow him on Twitter @BoclairSports, or email him at dboclair@nashvillecitypaper.com.