MOBILE, Ala. -- The retirement of defensive coordinator Dean Pees was a big blow to the Tennessee Titans. Bringing the former Ravens coordinator aboard was one of the first moves Mike Vrabel made when he was named head coach. Pees' unit ranked third in scoring defense (18.9 points per game) in 2018 and 12th (20.7 ppg) in 2019.
Pees' defensive playcalling was like "[Michael] Jordan in the fourth quarter," according to safety Kenny Vaccaro.
Finding a replacement for the 70-year-old Pees could be tricky.
"I have to take some time and be able to do what's best for the team to be able to identify who's the best person and what's the best situation for our players," Vrabel said Monday. "There's a lot of options, too, as far as being able to bring guys in to interview. It's important that I'm comfortable with the person that's going to be in that role. So again, this is not something that's going to be done overnight."
What should Vrabel look for in his next defensive coordinator?
Scheming to generate pressure
The Titans' defense finished with 43 sacks last season, good for 13th in the NFL. Some of that pressure was generated when they dialed up cornerback blitzes, primarily using cornerback Logan Ryan (4.5 sacks) in nickel packages.
The next coordinator has to find ways to get better pressure from the front four. Developing defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons as a pass-rusher should be one of the top priorities for defensive line coach Terrell Williams. Simmons, a first-round pick in 2019, had two sacks over nine games as a rookie as he worked his way back from offseason ACL surgery.
Utilizing defensive tackle Jurrell Casey as both an interior defender and off the edge will help with the execution of stunts and twists up front to get after the quarterback. The next coordinator needs to be comfortable utilizing the games up front to impact the quarterback.
Finding a way to get more production from the outside linebackers is important as well. Harold Landry led the team with nine sacks last season. He's primed to take the next step in 2020. The Titans probably will use a high draft pick on a pass-rusher as well. They'll need to bring the rookie up to speed so he's ready to contribute.
The next coordinator should be well-versed in 3-4 schemes. The roster is set up to support the 3-4 defense and would require some turnover if the Titans switched to a 4-3. Landry could potentially play as a defensive end in a 7- or 9-technique, but he seems to be settling in as an outside linebacker.
A lot of defenders settled in after playing in Pees' scheme for a second year. They began to play faster and there was less guessing because the concepts of the defense were second nature.
Middle linebacker Rashaan Evans is a good example. He began to react a lot quicker and more than doubled his tackle total from his rookie season (111 tackles in 2019 vs. 53 in 2018). Evans was flying around the field the way he was when he was a standout at Alabama.
The same can be said for the secondary, which will also have a change as defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs is taking over as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro head a veteran group of defensive backs. The next coordinator needs to bring a DB coach with him who can manage and inspire this group.
Vrabel values loyalty from the coaches he hires.
He doesn't want to be concerned with coaches trying to undermine him to advance their own agendas. That was one of the things that made Pees so appealing. Vrabel knew the team's success was more important than anything else to Pees.
Whomever comes next will not only have to earn Vrabel's trust, he will have to earn the players' trust. The brotherhood in the locker room extends to the coaching staff. That helped develop trust in the scheme.
For example, Pees allowed Titans defensive players the freedom to freelance and make plays beyond the scheme.
"Under Pees, I am just playing safety and using all of skills that I got drafted for," Vaccaro said. "You always want to show that you're well-rounded. I am getting to anticipate throws, play in the deep half and read the quarterback so I can make plays."
It won't be easy to replace Pees, but Vrabel has a solid group of core defensive players who have shown they can be successful with the right guy calling the shots.