The Tennessee Titans defensive line has a circular chain it carries on the sideline each week with each player’s number taped to a particular link.
It is something defensive line coach Jim Washburn has been doing since he arrived in 1999 to remind his players not to be the weak link.
And while no one wants to be the weak link in the chain, there is little doubt as to which link in that chain is the most durable. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch is the undisputed champion in that regard.
Vanden Bosch’s relentless style is tailor-made for Washburn’s edgy, hard-nosed style of coaching, and the match has led to two Pro Bowl appearances for Vanden Bosch in the past three years.
But beyond individual accolades, Vanden Bosch said it is just an innate sense of work ethic and pride that keep him going.
“It’s just always the way I’ve played. It’s just the way I’m wired,” Vanden Bosch said. “I feel like now my role as a captain, I think everybody always looks to me, and if I don’t show up to practice, the whole team is going to look at me and it’s going to hurt the whole team.”
Another part of that whole chain ideal.
“It’s hard to loaf when you see him battling,” Washburn said. “When you play every play, and play hard, like on the last play of the half [against Cincinnati] on that screen, we didn’t have good pursuit, and he just went down and made a play.”
On that play, Vanden Bosch chased down running back DeDe Dorsey 36 yards downfield to make the tackle as the half expired.
Titans teammates, coaches and players have come to expect such things from Vanden Bosch, who played every defensive snap on Sunday while his linemates rotated in and out to stay fresh.
In fact, Vanden Bosch might be too good an example for other players to try and emulate his style.
“You’d be stupid not to use a great example in our own room there,” Washburn said. “Personally, I don’t think anybody even thinks they can be like him. It’s unattainable. I don’t think anybody tries to be like him because they can’t. He’s a good example, but it’s almost too extreme.”
Still, Vanden Bosch is a ringleader and other players, not only along the defensive line but in the back seven as well, appreciate the efforts he and the defensive line put forth.
“The way he approaches the game, he definitely rubs off on me,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. “I would definitely say he rubs off on this defense. He’s an energy guy. … All these guys contribute some part of that energy, that energy of the defense being well rounded.”
Vanden Bosch is a tone-setter on a position group that seeks to be tone-setters for the entire Titans defense.
“That’s the backbone of this defense, the defensive line. They’re definitely our anchor,” Finnegan said.
Vanden Bosch said he and the rest of the d-line take pride in that regard.
“It’s something we take pride in, being tempo setters,” Vanden Bosch said. “Out in practice, we take pride running to the ball and we know that if we’re not attacking early in the game, we know that’s going to set the tempo for the whole game. Especially on the defensive line, if we can come out early and get a sack or get some pressure and make a big play, everything else kind of feeds off that.”
And while eight sacks in two games and the No. 1-ranked rushing defense in the league are nice, it is the d-line’s play that helps fuel those rankings and makes it easier for those behind them to do their jobs.
“We don’t have to be creative. We can be a lot more vanilla,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “You need to be more creative when you have to try and create some blitzes and do something else.”
As an example of what strong defensive line play can create beyond the line of scrimmage, Schwartz says that “We very rarely give up run after the catch. That means we have a lot of coverage in the back end that if they do catch a ball, we have guys on them. Typically, if you’re trying to cheat and get more pressure, you’ll get more holes in your defense and get more run after the catch.”
Vanden Bosch said he and the defensive line take pride in that as well.
“I think it’s important that everybody up front controls their gap and does their job. That way people in the back don’t try to cover up and do too much,” Vanden Bosch said. “That’s when you have problems in your defense, if you have a hole or somebody makes a mistake, offenses in this league will find it.”
Albert Haynesworth, himself a key ingredient in the defensive line’s success, especially against the run, said the play up front often dictates the successes enjoyed by the back seven with things like interceptions.
“As far as us up front getting after the running back, they don’t really have to come down a whole lot to help,” Haynesworth said. “They’re sitting back there playing one thing. They’re one-dimensional. They’re playing the pass, and that’s why we’ve got all these picks. We’ve had four picks in the last two games.”
While the chain is only used by the defensive line to emphasize the need for everyone to be strong, the message behind it actually extends to the entire defense.
“We’re the quintessential, the whole is greater then the sum of our parts,” Schwartz said. “If you took all our players individually, maybe you wouldn’t think as much of them. You put them all together and they play well together.”
And that goes right back to Vanden Bosch, a player whose accomplishments go far beyond his physical abilities, thanks to his toughness and desire to be the strongest link on the field.
“Kyle very rarely says a word. It’s just that he’s so tough in his demeanor that there’s never been a tougher player in the National Football League,” Schwartz said.
That toughness is not only a part of Vanden Bosch’s make-up, but also a badge he wears with honor to influence his teammates in practice or game settings.
“I feel like it’s part of my job to pick everybody else up,” Vanden Bosch said.
And to never break the chain.
INJURY UPDATE: Receiver Justin Gage missed a second straight day with a groin problem, though he ran on the side before practice.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher said Gage has a chance to practice Friday.
Cornerback Nick Harper and linebacker Colin Allred, both out Wednesday with ankle injuries, practiced on Friday as did Jacob Ford, who is battling a chest injury.