NASHVILLE, Tenn. —Keen eyes focused on the explosive surge.
Some pass rushes were better than others, but all offered teaching points.
Titans assistant coach Keith Millard, who was hired this offseason as a pass rush specialist, quickly critiqued each player's attempt during organized team activity drills. Millard used the on-field analysis and film review with players to break down what was working well and what needed improvement.
It is still three-plus weeks before a Titan will sack a quarterback, but Millard, Titans coach Mike Munchak and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said as OTAs were wrapping up that they could observe progress in an area the team has greatly emphasized.
The Titans recorded 28 sacks in 2011, which ranked 31st out of 32 teams when the team began installing a different defensive scheme in Munchak's first year as head coach and Gray's first as defensive coordinator.
As a player, Millard had 53 sacks in six years with the Vikings, including 11 sacks in 1985, 10.5 in 1986 and a whopping 18 in 1989, which set a record for sacks in a season by a defensive tackle and garnered him NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. He's brought a teaching style that believes little things are crucial to making big plays.
"We're starting with footwork and balance and then working to the hands," Millard said in mid-June. "We're basically just working two moves. We're working a go-to move and a counter move off that. We're not really moving forward until we get those two things down. Really, the main focus is trying to get their balance and their footwork down right now, so they have confidence in their feet and staying on their feet, so they can flip their hips and move their feet toward the quarterback at the same time, so we're doing a lot of stuff that ties into that."
The Titans have 16 defensive linemen on the roster and plan on bringing pressure from other spots — notably linebacker Akeem Ayers — this season. So far, Millard has worked with each player on establishing a signature move and a counter move that will make offensive linemen pay for relying too heavily on preventing the primary move.
"If (offensive linemen are) taking something away, they're giving up something to do it," Millard said. "That's when you want to show them the same stuff but change it up. Keep everything on your terms."
Gray has talked about developing a mindset of a defense that will refuse to be denied a sack when an offense is in a critical passing situation such as the final two minutes of a half. During at least one OTA practice Gray stood at the line of scrimmage during a drill and watched defensive linemen zip or fight past other defensive linemen who strapped red blocking pads on their arms.
"The guys are doing a really good job," Gray said. "I watched some of Keith Millard's drills and those guys on pass rushing. He's trying to teach them the little bitty things and I told him the big thing for us is to start from zero — act as if we don't know anything and that's what we've been doing the last four weeks of taking step by step by step and then you say, 'That's the move you have when we get into individuals,' so those guys are buying into it. They're getting a lot better and really you can't judge what you're doing here because you don't have any pads on. The telltale signs are going to happen really in preseason."
The structure of the OTA practices gradually increased the time that coaches were allowed on the field with players, and eventually progressed to the defense lining up against the offense. Titans quarterbacks wore red, no-contact jerseys, and defenders pressured but avoided hitting their own quarterbacks.
Munchak said he saw progress, even though the players weren't in pads.
"You see some good stuff," Munchak said. "You see the burst, you see the energy, you see the quickness off the ball and they are being smart, pulling back and pulling off. We are trying to get that three-to-four good steps and then pull back and I think the guys are learning how to practice well together to avoid contact. That has been good. I think you are seeing some of the stunts and some of the stuff come clean. There are a lot of things we can still see, even though you can't go full speed."
Players said they are trying to be as coachable as possible and have seen some progress. Free agent signee Kamerion Wimbley, who has 42.5 sacks in six pro seasons as a linebacker in 3-4 defenses, is shifting to defensive end with the Titans' 4-3 base scheme and looks forward to the change.
"I'm just enjoying having the opportunity to work with (defensive line) Coach (Tracy) Rocker and Coach Millard," Wimbley said. "I think we're making progress with everybody on the defensive line in terms of our pass rush. We're making noticeable improvements every day. When we go in and watch film, there's still things that we can get better at, so we're all excited about it, and just coming out and trying to put a good product on the field."
Wimbley is projected to start at one defensive end spot opposite 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan, who is fully recovered from an ACL injury he suffered in his rookie season. Morgan came on strong at the end of 2011 and said the additional focus on the pass rush has been helpful.
"We're happy to have (Millard) here," Morgan said. "We're working and improving. It's a good situation. It's good because Millard is so critical. He's constantly giving you feedback, whether it's positive or critiquing you. It's always good to have that feedback from him and know where you are at and know what you need to work on."
Defensive tackle Karl Klug, who led the Titans last season with seven sacks in his rookie campaign, said Millard showed players film of Warren Sapp, who recorded 96.5 sacks in 13 NFL seasons as a defensive tackle, and has been teaching alternative styles than what they have previously used.
"Yeah, he's been teaching us a different technique, as far as pass rush and what works," Klug said. "He showed us film of the past of the guys he's coached before. I think that's helped a lot. We're working on it every day and hopefully we can use it this season.
"The technique's been hard to get down, but that's what OTAs are for," Klug continued. "We've got camp in July to get it down, so we've got plenty of time."
Cornerback Jason McCourty said the secondary can see the defensive line making progress in the pass rush, too. He said a quicker pass rush can force a bad decision or bad throw, and conversely, the secondary wants to provide tight coverage to give the defensive line more time to record a sack.
"Without a doubt, it starts with them. If you go around the league and look at the best secondaries, they probably have the best defensive line," McCourty said. "We know they need to get pressure and make plays. All we are is a product of what they're doing up front. So as a secondary, we really appreciate what they're doing. We understand that they are the reason sometimes that we're able to have success on the back end."
Millard said the players he's been working with have been receptive to the changes and doing extra work on their own to refine their technique.
"The best thing is they're working hard and they're motivated and they're picking it up," Millard said. "They're getting it and they're being able to gain confidence with it. That's what you want to see. That's as a group, now, not just individuals. The whole group is starting to get it, so we're making good progress."