What does Jim Schwartz’s return to Tennessee mean for the Titans defense?

Mike Vrabel hinted on Monday that the Titans might not be done tinkering with their coaching staff and we quickly found out via 104.5 The Zone’s Brent Dougherty that former Titans defensive coordinator — and most recently former Eagles defensive coordinator — is joining Vrabel’s defensive staff.

This morning the Titans confirmed the news, Schwartz’s title, and hinted a little bit at what his role will entail. Mike Vrabel’s quote via Jim Wyatt finished with “this role will provide our defensive staff with Jim’s experience and perspective in the staff meetings and on the practice field” which would seem to indicate that Schwartz will be something closer to a full time staff member than a part time consultant.

Schwartz was very successful in his initial stint as Titans defensive coordinator from 2001 to 2008, including leading the NFL in QB hits in back to back seasons in 2007 and 2008. That success led to him getting the opportunity to be a head coach in Detroit. He had middling success with the Lions, going 29-51 after taking over the first 0-16 team in NFL history. Most recently, Schwartz helped win a Super Bowl with the Eagles in 2017 as defensive coordinator and served in that role until his contract expired at the end of last season.

There are several layers to this hiring that are very interesting, but let’s start with the areas where the Eagles defense excelled during his five seasons in Philadelphia:

  • Third Down Defense: 35.9% (3rd in NFL)
  • Red Zone Defense: 52.7% (6th)
  • Sacks: 208 (7th)

Those just happen to line up directly with areas the Titans defense struggled mightily with in 2020.

How does Schwartz’s scheme mesh with the Titans defense?

Schematically, Schwartz is a bit of a curveball relative to the defensive fronts that Mike Vrabel has preferred during his first three seasons in Nashville. His wide-9 4-3 defense is something we haven’t seen much of around here under Vrabel, who runs a multiple front, but skews towards a 3-4 base defense.

However, it’s important to also note that Schwartz got his start in the NFL under Bill Belichick and Nick Saban as a personnel scout for the Browns in 1993. Belichick and Saban are two of the biggest proponents of the 3-4 defense in football and arguably the two best defensive minds of our lifetime. He got his first on-field coaching gig under Marvin Lewis with the 3-4 heavy Ravens in 1996 as well. The first time Schwartz was exposed to a predominately 4-3 front was when he joined the Titans in 1999 under Gregg Williams.

Similarly, the Titans have not exclusively been a 3-4 team under Vrabel. His defenses feature multiple fronts, including some 4-3 looks that take advantage of the versatile skill sets of guys like Harold Landry.

I wouldn’t take this hire to mean that the Titans are suddenly going to become a wide-9 4-3 team again, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of that sprinkled in alongside the base fronts and subpackages that we’ve come to know over the last few years.

On the back end of the defense Schwartz, like Vrabel, prefers to play man coverage at an above average rate relative to his peers around the league. His third-and-long “sticks” coverage drew the ire of Eagles fans at times, but was statistically quite successful at stopping conversions.

Through most of his career, Schwartz has preferred to get pressure with his front four rather than blitzing frequently. Though as Michael Kist of Bleeding Green Nation explored here, that approach has been adapted through the years based on personnel.

[In 2014] we probably blitzed less than anybody in the NFL… My last year in Tennessee I think we blitzed like 8% of the time. We were one of the best defenses in the NFL. But we didn’t have to blitz; we had Jevon Kearse, we had Kyle Vanden Bosch, we had Albert Haynesworth, **** blitz just got the ball out faster. We wanted the quarterback to hold the ball. We wanted a chance to get him.”

Ultimately, I think we’ll likely see some looks on the field this fall that are easy to point to and say “ahh, that’s a Schwartz package”, but I don’t expect him to completely overhaul the Titans current scheme. If they had wanted him to do that, he would have been hired as defensive coordinator and given the chance to hand pick some of the position coaches underneath him.

Where does Schwartz fit in with Shane Bowen and Mike Vrabel?

So that brings us to Schwartz’s fit and role within the Titans staff. The “senior defensive assistant” title he was given is a pretty vague term that could have a wide range of actual applications and it’s also likely the role that Dean Pees was reportedly offered before he chose to become Arthur Smith’s defensive coordinator in Atlanta.

With Schwartz now officially in the fold, the Titans now have four coaches on staff with defensive playcalling experience: Schwartz (14 years), Vrabel (1), Bowen (1), and inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett (12). The Titans have also seen their overall coaching staff size grow from 17 coaches in 2020 to 21 coaches currently under contract for 2021.

My hunch is that part of the Schwartz addition is intended to free Vrabel up to return to more balance in his time spent on various elements of the team. In 2018 and 2019, Vrabel had an experienced defensive playcaller (Dean Pees) and first-year offensive playcallers (Matt LaFleur in 2018 and Arthur Smith in 2019) and according to comments from Pees, Vrabel spent the majority of his time during those years in offensive meeting rooms, leaving Pees to manage the defense.

After Pees’ retirement following the 2019 season, the dynamic shifted and Vrabel had an experienced offensive playcaller in Arthur Smith with a first-time playcaller in Shane Bowen on defense. That led to Vrabel taking a bigger role in the defensive side of the ball.

With Todd Downing taking the reigns as offensive coordinator after Smith left for Atlanta, Vrabel has playcallers with experience on both sides of the ball for the first time in his NFL career. It’s just one year of experience for both Downing — who called plays for the Raiders in 2017 — and Bowen, but it’s experience nonetheless. That, combined with support from Schwartz, could allow Vrabel’s focus to return to the offensive side of the ball or even just free him up to float from offense to defense to special teams as needed.

It is highly unlikely at this point that Schwartz becomes the Titans in-game playcaller for the defense in 2021 in my opinion, but he should be able to provide some insight for Bowen as he grows into the role. Remember, Schwartz was once an inexperienced defensive playcaller himself when he was elevated from linebackers coach to coordinator in 2001. To assist Schwartz, Jeff Fisher hired a former defensive playcaller in Gunther Cunningham to coach linebackers and work as a sounding board to his then 35-year old DC. After a bumpy start, Schwartz would eventually blossom into one of the league’s best defensive coordinators — a path the Titans certainly hope to see Shane Bowen follow.

How Schwartz fits into the hierarchy of the Titans defense will be something to monitor as training camp gets going, but adding a successful, experienced playcaller to the staff to help turn around the struggling defense seems like a wise move.

Does this change your view of Vrabel’s ego?

A popular narrative around Titans Twitter over the last 12 months has been the idea that Vrabel’s ego is getting in the way of this team making steps forward. Specifically, the idea that Vrabel wants “yes men” working under him instead of hiring the best coaches available.

Obviously, promoting Todd Downing and Shane Bowen threw more fire on that narrative recently, but Schwartz bucks the trend. He’s a seasoned coach who Vrabel had no direct connection to prior to joining the staff and if you know much about Schwartz’s personality, you know that he’s definitely not a yes man.

At the very least I think you can view this move as further confirmation of Vrabel’s willingness to look outside the box to help fix the defense. The overall message when you look at the moves the Titans have made this offseason tells me that they’re committed to fixing the defense, even if that means losing a few supporting pieces on offense.

Comments

  1. We touched on this subject (in comments) a couple months ago … help for Shane Bowen and the defensive side of the ball. I was starting to wonder if it was ever going to happen. I see this move as very, very positive. And they’ve increasing the number of coaches on-staff overall, another positive.

    I always thought the comments about Vrabel’s ego were overwrought. Every head coach has a big ego, it goes with the territory. But I don’t think his ego gets in the way of doing what’s right for the Titans.

    Great article! I’m surprised more of your writing isn’t behind the All-Access Pass. (Sorry, I’m sure this comment will not be popular with non-members.)

  2. Great read as always. Not a popular take here but I wonder if this hire truly is the best for Bowen. Coaches are alphas, right or wrong there needs to be one voice and I hope this relationship doesn’t cause friction or confusion with the players. I realize Bowen has a lot to prove and let’s hope this move doesn’t undermine his authority especially from a players viewpoint.

  3. Well, both Scwartz and Vrabes have had mid-field beefs with a Harbough so they have that in common.

    I think it’s probably a good hire. I do know that schwart can rub some people the wrong way so hopefully he meshes well with the other defensive coaches in the room.

    Wouldnt surprise me to see Jayon, Long, and Evans on early and short downs with Simmons, Autry, Landry, Dupree up front. Then just sub in the rookie CB for Evans on most other downs. Then Evans can rotate in for Dupree and Landry here and there to give them a breather. Would need Jayon to be the Mike though.

  4. I wonder if we could get our first taste of a truly “multiple” defensive front. It takes a strong collaborative voice to lead it, but if it’s possible to have a 4-3 expert and a 3-4 minded play-caller getting to a point of active synergy together where they capture the best of both instead of playing tug-of-war, there could be a some nice progress made toward this elusive vision we’ve been hearing about for 3 years now.

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