From dark side, Babin, Ball elevate rush

Tennessee's Jason Babin (left) and Dave Ball have combined for 10 sacks this season. Getty Images/AP Photo

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Longtime Tennessee Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn answered the phone recently and heard Josh Evans on the line.

A productive but troubled defensive tackle for the Titans from 1995-99 and in 2001 after completing a suspension, Evans still feels a strong connection to the guys Washburn oversees because they play the same way his lines played.

“He said, ‘I watched you on TV and I was so proud because I knew I was a part of that,’ ” Washburn said. “ 'That group on the field 10 years after I left, I knew that was still my group and they still play hard.’ ”

Which led a sentimental Washburn to ask: “What’s better, that or winning the division?”

His best rush groups have featured a star -– Jevon Kearse, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch were top rushers, Kevin Carter was a big name -– surrounded by mostly mid- and late-round picks.

But the linemen leading the charge for the NFL’s No. 1 sack team heading into Jacksonville for "Monday Night Football" (8:30 ET, ESPN) aren't marquee names. Twenty-two sacks have come from a group of outcasts, misfits and football orphans from the scrap heap mixed with draft picks from Eastern Michigan, Winston-Salem State and Central Arkansas.

They are a lot like Evans, who was undrafted out of Alabama-Birmingham.

The Titans probably expected their starting ends at this point to be rookie first-rounder Derrick Morgan and William Hayes, a three-year veteran from Winston-Salem State.

Morgan, though, is out for the year with a torn ACL, and after Hayes was slowed by a knee injury in the preseason, he’s working as part of a deep rotation.

The front-line rushers on the outside are Jason Babin and Dave Ball, regular Joes who are personable, low-key guys six days a week and fierce quarterback killers Sunday.

Washburn makes them sound like they are related to Darth Vader when he says they each have a “dark side.”

“When emotions get high and things get crazy, my alter ego and my inner being kind of come out,” Babin said. “And he’s not a nice guy. I wouldn’t say I am trying to maim or hurt people. But I am definitely not considerate by any means.

“Off the field, I’m a dad, I’m a husband. I help out with dinner. I do bath time. But not out there.”

The Titans fleeced the Houston Texans in a 2004 draft-day trade made for the 27th pick in the first round. The Texans took Babin and tried to turn him into a linebacker in their 3-4, but things never worked out in his three seasons there. Babin then bounced from Seattle to Kansas City to Philadelphia.

The Titans grabbed him last spring with a one-year, $1 million deal. In their simple get-the-quarterback scheme, he has 5 1/2 sacks in five games, more than his total in any of his previous six seasons.

He knows it will take a much longer stretch of quality production to remove his bust reputation. But he’s a poster boy for how complicated schemes and projected position changes can get in the way of a player playing solid football.

“It’s a simple game, it’s basic and if you try to draw X's and O's and scheme, that stuff doesn’t work,” Babin said. “Here, we come off the ball, and whatever happens, happens …

“Wash likes to joke, ‘If I had my hands on you, you’d have a lot more money and a lot more sacks,’ and maybe that’s true. But the journey that I took has really made me who I am today. I’m more humble and more respectful than I was when I started. I really cherish practice, working out and every play on the field.”

Ball has bounced around as well. Drafted out of UCLA in the fifth round by San Diego in 2004, he spent time with the Chargers, Jets and Panthers and then had a season out of football. He signed with the Titans in early 2008.

Mostly a rotation guy for Tennessee in his first two seasons, Ball has stayed healthy and been productive this season. He has 4 1/2 sacks while holding off Hayes, Jacob Ford and Morgan (while he was healthy) despite regular worries about losing rank.

“He’s a paranoid dude,” Washburn said. “He is just afraid to fail. He’s obsessed, just like Kyle (Vanden Bosch). He’s afraid every day.”

Ball said his receding hairline is partly because of that mentality. Although he doesn't come to work fearful that he could be cut as he once did, he still is concerned about the potential for drop-off.

“I worry about not keeping up the pace I’ve been going,” he said. “I always want the best for me and my family. Any little wrinkle, any bump in the road I get freaked out because I’ve sat out a year, I bounced around at the beginning of my career.

“I’ve been paranoid for the longest time. I always get tremendously nervous during football. I wasn’t going to play good, or someone was going to beat me out or I wasn’t going to be the best kind of player … It makes me work extremely hard.”

Ball has the ability during games to set his concerns aside and have fun, helping him be consistently disruptive.

Evans, who played some of his best football as the Titans went to Super Bowl XXXIV in January 2000, had that sort of fun and effect when he played for Washburn too. He’ll likely be watching the Titans against the Jaguars, feeling connected. So will a lot of former Washburn linemen people have never heard of or forgotten.

“We just play off the theme we’ve been playing off for 12 years,” Washburn said. “We’re nobodies or whatever. Nobody thinks we’re very good. I would imagine it’s what most coaches play off of if they have small-school guys, reclamation projects, guys that have not experienced a lot of success.”

“What would you do? You’d do the same thing, wouldn’t you?"