For 13 years, Mike Munchak looked directly into the eyes of defensive linemen.
A Hall of Fame guard for the Houston Oilers, he was one of the dominant blockers of his generation. It seems safe to assume, therefore, that those who lined up across from Munchak rarely got the better of him.
One of Munchak’s top priorities in a little more than a year as head coach of the Tennessee Titans has been to make the defensive line better. Or at least different.
The quarterback position got a veritable clean sweep in the wake of Jeff Fisher’s tenure, but the defensive line has been altered almost constantly through the draft and free agency — and the process is not finished.
Already this offseason, defensive ends Kamerion Wimbley and Leger Douzable have signed as free agents. Former defensive end/tackle Jason Jones has signed with Seattle and defensive end William Hayes moved on to the Rams.
The offseason started with only two defensive linemen from 2010 — tackle Sen’Derrick Marks and end Derrick Morgan — still on the roster. Defensive end Dave Ball rejoined that group when he re-signed with the Titans late last week.
Yet it’s not as if things had not worked up front previously.
Eight times in 12 years, beginning with the arrival of Jevon Kearse in 1999, the Titans sent at least one defensive end to the Pro Bowl. Over that same span defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth went twice, and there were only two years when the AFC’s defensive line in Honolulu (or for one year in Miami) did not include a player from Tennessee.
“You like versatility, No. 1, which helps you a lot,” coach Mike Munchak said. “I think the guys we have now have that. We can move them around a little bit. They can rush the passer and play the run. Everyone’s looking for the all-around guy.
“We feel we’re developing guys that can do a lot of things. They’re not just one-dimensional guys.”
One thing that has been a virtual constant for more than a decade, and which was obviously absent in 2011, is the undersized defensive end who plays fast, plays hard and can get to the quarterback. Without that type of player, the Titans finished last in the AFC and next-to-last in the league in sacks.
Jevon Kearse set the standard when he broke in as the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year in 1999. He set the league record for sacks by a rookie that season and energized the entire locker room in what turned out to be a Super Bowl season. No one like him has come out of the draft since, although coaches still hold out hope for 2010 first-round choice Derrick Morgan.
Instead, the franchise has found similar play and production on the free agent market, with the likes of Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jason Babin, whose production with the Titans exceeded that of their previous stops. Vanden Bosch was beset by a string of knee injuries before he came to Tennessee, and Babin was ill-fit for the schemes in which he played.
Now comes Wimbley, at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds. He has split time between linebacker and defensive end with two previous franchises, and offers the possibility of situational versatility, such as stand-up role in a 3-3-5 look. Mostly, though, his job is to line up against left tackles and use his speed to his advantage,
“Size-wise, he’s more like Vanden Bosch, who wasn’t a real big open side end. Jevon wasn’t either,” Munchak said. “We think he’s more that. He hasn’t had the opportunity in this league to have that many rushes as a defensive end. We feel when he’s in that position every snap, it will give him a lot more opportunity to have big-time success.
“We think he can create a lot of problems for people, especially at home with the crowd noise. He gets a great jump off the ball. He’s got great speed. So we feel like he can create problems like other guys have over the years for us.”
Even with the free agent additions, many analysts suspect the Titans will use their first-round pick (20th overall) next week on a defensive lineman, and projections show that there will be quality options available.
Three of Tennessee’s nine selections in 2011 were defensive linemen, led by third-round choice Jurrell Casey. That group included defensive tackle Karl Klug, whose seven sacks were the most of anyone on the team, and Zach Clayton. All three played and contributed as rookies.
Casey (6-1, 300 pounds) and Clayton (6-2, 299) also added size to the defensive front, as did Shaun Smith (6-2, 325), a free agent addition last season. The additional bulk was something defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said he wanted from the moment he took the job. Klug overcame his slightly smaller frame (6-3, 275) with an outsized ability to make plays.
“Talent is the obvious thing,” Munchak said. “We’re all looking for that. We’re all looking for the guy that can win one-on-one battles. You want that. There’s nothing better than a guy like that. Karl Klug did that last year for us. He won a lot of one-on-one battles, and you need to have a handful of guys that can win that way. …
“We feel we’re getting to where we want to get.”