Jerry Gray knows how it looks.
He knows how his Tennessee Titans defense looks on film. The missed tackles. All the completed passes by opposing quarterbacks. The unsuccessful attempts to get off the field on third down.
He knows how it looks on the scoreboard. One opponent after another scores 30 points or more. So many, in fact, that through the first month of the season the Titans are on pace to allow more points than any team in NFL history.
Then again, Gray, the defensive coordinator, the man who designed the scheme and calls the plays, also knows how it looks when it works. Despite all the struggles and the resulting criticism that has been showered upon him and his players, he remains confident that the league will see — eventually — what he sees in his head and what he has seen in the past.
“We have to just play the system … and trust in it,” Gray said. “I think once you trust in it, it will come.”
His is not a blind faith.
Gray was the Buffalo Bills’ defensive coordinator from 2001 through 2005 under two coaches. Former Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took him along when he was hired to lead the Bills, and Williams’ replacement, Mike Mularkey, retained Gray once he was hired.
Buffalo was third in the NFL in total defense but 18th in points allowed in 2000, the year before Gray took over. The first two seasons with him calling the plays did not exactly go smoothly. The Bills were 21st and 15th in 2001 and 2002, respectively, in yards allowed and was among the bottom five in points allowed both times.
Then it happened. Gray’s defense allowed the second-fewest yards in the league in both 2003 and 2004 and was among the top 10 in scoring defense both times. The Bills allowed an average of 197.4 passing yards per game in 2001, and that number dropped each successive year landing at 164.0 in 2004.
History has not exactly repeated itself. Tennessee’s defense actually improved in 2011, its first season under Gray, from the previous year, but given that this is his second year, there is reason to believe that things actually can improve.
“We’re all frustrated … because we know we have a better team,” Gray said. “We know we have better players. You have to keep pressing on. You have to keep working. I think the guys are doing a good job.”
In other words, he wants everyone to be patient.
Of course, Ambrose Bierce defined patience as “a minor form of despair disguised as a virtue.” Then again nothing about the despair associated with the Titans’ defense through the first third of the 2012 season is “minor.”
San Diego tight end Dante Rosario (four receptions, 48 yards, three touchdowns), a career backup, became a star for a day when he faced the Titans. Quarterbacks, from the most experienced (New England’s Tom Brady) to a neophyte (Minnesota’s Christian Ponder) hit the mark with more than seven of every 10 throws.
Prior to last Thursday’s game against Pittsburgh, there was not one of the primary statistical categories in which Tennessee’s defense was among the top half of the league. It was at the absolute bottom in terms of points and first downs allowed.
“The good thing about it is it’s stuff we can fix, whether it’s run gaps or … guys understanding the defense,” middle linebacker Colin McCarthy said. “I don’t know what it is. We didn’t have these problems during the preseason.”
Even in the Week 3 victory over Detroit, the defense allowed two touchdown passes in the final 18 seconds of regulation and let the Lions extend the contest to overtime.
Still, the prevailing philosophy in the coaches’ offices was that the only way things will change is for the Titans to stick with what they’re doing.
“It’s easy to give up on stuff if things don’t go your way,” head coach Mike Munchak said. “I think you can’t hit your head off; if things aren’t working, you have to adjust things. You’re talking about players or coaches or whoever it is, when you don’t win; you’re always going to re-evaluate what you could do differently, what we could have done to make a difference in the game.”
Gray — and the rest of the staff — was fired in Buffalo after 2005, when his defense had its worst statistical season. However, Two Pro Bowlers from the previous season, defensive tackle Sam Adams and middle linebacker Takeo Spikes, sustained injuries that either limited or prematurely ended their seasons. Another key defensive lineman, Pat Williams, left as a free agent.
This season the Titans were without McCarthy, their middle linebacker, for nearly all of the first four games, starting defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and Sen’Derrick Marks were slowed by injuries while three defensive ends were on injured reserve before the end of September.
“Some of the young guys are getting more of a chance to play right now than they ever would have,” Gray said. “So that’s good for us, but it also hurts you because you don’t have the veteran guys out there. … You want to look at the guy next to you and know exactly what he’s doing rather than him always telling you. That’s the danger of playing a lot of young guys.
“Our guys will keep doing what they’re doing, keep trusting the system. We’ve done it. It’s not like it’s anything new. Just keep working hard, and we’ll turn it around."