Dick LeBeau is credited with being the architect of the 3-4 zone blitz defense.
Through the years, he has continued to add new wrinkles to the scheme designed to constantly improve it and maximize players’ abilities to operate within it.
Now, LeBeau is doing something else within the framework of the personnel he has with the Tennessee Titans to help the defense. He has created a safety rotation that he has employed since the start of the season, one that operates much the same way as a defensive line rotation keeps the players fresher throughout a game.
Back in the off-season, the Titans came to the realization that they had four capable safeties on their roster.
Da’Norris Searcy was a holdover from last year when he signed as a free agent, while Daimion Stafford was emerging after three years mostly on special teams. The Titans signed veteran Rashad Johnson as a free agent to a one-year deal and drafted rookie Kevin Byard in the first round.
Complementary skill sets
Because their skill sets were complementary and somewhat interchangeable, LeBeau figured the rotation could have some benefits for the Titans in the seconary.
“We just thought we had a group of safeties that head complementary skill sets and they were all pretty good athletes, and if we can keep them really fresh and really sharp in the fourth quarter, like you want your defensive line, we would take that,” LeBeau said. “I checked with Coach Mularkey and he thought it was a good idea, and it’s been good for us.”
LeBeau offered up a plan to rotate the Titans safeties, not by package or defensive call, but usually by series, with all four players getting roughly equal snaps, applying the defensive line rotation concept to the back end of the Tennessee defense.
“It was a great idea,” Mularkey said. “I think they’re all playing good football for us. They all have a little bit to each of them, and obviously if you’re playing a lot you feel like you’re a bigger part of it. Our guys have really contributed the way we hoped.”
Safeties are key in communication and calls in the secondary, but the players have bought in and there have been few problems with staying in contact and on the same page with the cornerbacks and the rest of the defense.
“That’s a credit to the players. Our group was here almost every day 100 percent in the coaching sessions. I salute them and that’s where you get the nuts and bolts of the defense communicated,” LeBeau said.
Players buy in
As for the players, the idea of sharing time is one they have bought into – especially given that most of them have at least some role on special teams as well.
“It’s helped out a lot. It’s kept guys fresh at times, and it allows guys to have more energy because we’re not out there full-time. A lot of us play on special teams too, so it keeps everybody fresh,” Searcy said. ”My reaction, me being an older guy, I know it takes a lot (of the pounding) off your body, because you’re not out there hitting. It keeps everybody fresh and able to play.”
Johnson, who is in his eighth year in the NFL, has adapted well to a lesser role, snaps-wise.
“We’ve got four guys in our room that can all play the game very well and play at a high level. It keeps us fresh, and the plays we get, it just pushes you to leave it all out there,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been a part of a rotation, as far as how we rotate here with every other series and things like that. At the end of the day, it just keeps you locked in and focused for the entire game, because you never know what type of situation you may get thrown in. It keeps guys on their toes.”
Even before the rotation was announced at the beginning of the regular season, and before the players even knew about the plans for it, they were being prepared or the rotation.
“I think it’s something maybe they had thought about, but didn’t bring it up to us, because it’s kind of the way we approached practice in OTAs and training camp and everything when we were competing, because they said, ‘Some days we don’t know how the rotation is going to be. We’re gonna call it out on the sideline and you’ve got to run in and be ready to play.’ I think they were kind of preparing for something like this, knowing the had so many guys that could play the position,” Johnson recalled.
The player who may be benefiting most from the rotation is Byard, a third-round rookie, who has been getting valuable experience that could pay off down the road, perhaps long after some of his older teammates – and perhaps the rotation itself – have moved on.
“It’s been extremely valuable, especially for my confidence. My confidence is building up every game. I feel like it’s just going to help me in years (to come). The more you’re on the field, they better you’re going to get,” Byard said.
Added Mularkey, “ He can still sit back and watch when he’s not in there, and then get some live game experience. He’s been very good when he’s been in there.”