Sure, Stephen Tulloch is short — generously listed at 5-foot-11. But that hasn’t prevented him from finding a place among the top tacklers in the NFL this season, not to mention franchise history.
“The one thing is people always give him such a hard time, saying he’s too short, but I think he actually uses that to his advantage,” defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil said. “He has really good leverage when he’s tackling, and he’s got really strong hips. Those are the things you need when you tackle.”
At issue as this season winds down is whether Tulloch’s time with Tennessee is running short. The fifth-year linebacker stayed away from all offseason training activities and workouts last summer in an attempt to persuade the team to sign him to a long-term contract rather than force him to play 2010 on a one-year tender offer.
It didn’t work. He relented and ultimately reported for the start of training camp. Ever since, he’s put up numbers that all but guarantee someone will sign him for next season if the Titans don’t.
“I have to tackle,” Tulloch said. “I have to run around and make plays. That’s what keeps you in the league. That’s what keeps you going. I know that.”
According to NFL statistics, Tulloch was second overall following the Titans’ 31-17 victory over Houston with 145 tackles, already a career-high and 13 more than his team-leading total from a year earlier. Titans coaches keep their own defensive statistics based on review of game film. They also had Tulloch with nine in that contest, but that raised his season total to 154 by their count. That meant he was on pace to have more tackles this season than any Titans player in the last 20 years other than Keith Bulluck, who had 180 in 2002.
Tulloch is virtually assured to lead the team in tackles for the second straight year, something no middle linebacker has done since Randall Godfrey in 2000 and 2001.
“I don’t even count my tackles,” Tulloch said. “I just go out there, fly around and try to make as many as I can. See ball. Get ball. Just always be around the ball. That’s the way I play the game of football.”
That attitude provided a solid foundation. It was Tulloch’s development into a player who stays on the field in obvious passing situations, when coaches turn to additional defensive backs, which added to the numbers. In recent seasons, it was outside linebackers Bulluck and David Thornton who had that distinction.
“[Tulloch] has done a great job in the nickel [defense],” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s staying on the field and he’s picking up a lot of extra tackles that way. … He studies and has a good feel for matching up on the routes and breaking on the football, and he does a good job down the field.”
It’s no coincidence that the last Titans middle linebacker who stayed on the field every down was Godfrey. His 169 tackles in 2000 were more than any other Tennessee player in the last 20 years other than Bulluck.
“No offense to [Tulloch] whatsoever, but Randall was probably one of the heaviest hitting guys I’ve actually seen live in person,” Cecil said. “When he took on fullbacks and tight ends, he was a thick, heavy-hitting guy. [Tulloch] is different. He’s a little more nifty than Randall was.”
There’s likely to be a difference in the way their tenure with the Titans ends as well. Godfrey had a contract and agreed to a pay reduction in Feb. 2003. Weeks later, he was pulled from the practice field to ensure he did not get injured and a day after that was released. It was one of the ugliest business episodes since the franchise relocated from Houston.
Tulloch’s current deal is set to expire at the end of February, and unless the team is willing to pay, he’ll simply walk into free agency.
“It’s probably in my mind, but at the end of the day I let it be what it is,” he said. “I just keep working, and hopefully I’m here next season. If I’m not, it’s been a fun time here. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
Status of notable Titans free agents
Jason Babin, defensive end
Of note: He had at least half a sack in six of the first eight games, at which point he already had a career-high.
The situation: A one-time first-round draft pick of the Houston Texans who also spent time with Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia, he was a perfect fit for the Titans in terms of style of play and intensity. He has said he’s never been as happy as a professional as he’s been this season but might command a high price.
Chance he’ll return: 75 percent.
Kerry Collins, quarterback
Of note: He was the starter for 15 of the 16 games in 2008, which was the Titans’ best season in the last 10 years.
The situation: Outside of coach Jeff Fisher, no one’s future with Tennessee is more closely tied to what happens with Vince Young this offseason. If Young is back for the final year of his current deal, Collins will not be. If the team finally gives up on Young, it will need a veteran quarterback.
Chance he’ll return: 50 percent.
Bo Scaife, tight end
Of note: He entered the season as the franchise’s second all-time leading receiver among tight ends.
The situation: He was a college teammate of Vince Young’s but has been productive regardless of who has been under center. There are two younger tight ends on the roster, although Scaife is the most well-rounded of the bunch.
Chance he’ll return: 20 percent.
Stephen Tulloch, linebacker
Of note: He has never missed a game in nearly five full NFL seasons and has been the Titans’ top tackler since the start of 2009.
The situation: Titans’ management made it clear this offseason that it was not willing to invest in him for the long term.
Chance he’ll return: 20 percent.
Randy Moss, wide receiver
Of note: He’s one of the best, most productive wide receivers in NFL history.
The situation: He failed to make an immediate impact while Kenny Britt was sidelined by an injury. Once Britt came back, he was reduced to a backup — and a little-used one at that.
Chance he’ll return: 0 percent.