In different schemes under different coaches, players at the same position can be asked to do quite different things.
Still, looking back at 2010, I was struck by the lack of plays the Titans linebackers made.
Stephen Tulloch, who may be about to sign in Detroit, was credited with 169 tackles last season and didn’t force a fumble. The team sold Gerald McRath as a play-maker, and he made 60 tackles. didn’t force a fumble, didn't recover a fumble and didn't have an interception.
With the help of ESPN Stats and Info and profootball-reference.com, I put together two lists to gauge linebacker productivity beyond tackles around the league so I could compare the AFC South units.
Of course 3-4 defenses fare best here -- they play more linebackers and are built to have linebackers make more plays.
The first list looks at the combined total of forced fumbles, fumbles recovered and interceptions by linebackers.
Jacksonville, 3, 32nd
Houston, 4, 30th
Indianapolis, 5, tied 29th
Tennessee, 6, tied 26th
The top five were Pittsburgh (28), New England (17), New Orleans (15), Carolina (14) and Dallas (14). Of that group, only Carolina ran a 4-3.
The second list added in sacks, benefiting 3-4 teams even more. The entire AFC South ran 4-3 defenses last season. Houston is transitioning to a 3-4 now.
Jacksonville, 6.5, tied for 32nd
Houston, 7.5, 31st
Indianapolis, 8.5, tied for 29th
Tennessee, 11.5, 27th
The top five were Pittsburgh (60.5), San Diego (42.5), Green Bay (39), Dallas (37.5) and New England (34.5). Those are all 3-4s. The top 4-3 defense in this was Carolina, 15th with 22.
Perhaps I have unreasonable expectations. I want my linebackers who are always around the ball to do more than tackle. The occasional forced fumble can turn a game.
But Houston’s Cushing had four sacks, four picks and two forced fumbles when he was rookie of the year in 2009. That total of 10 was better than three AFC South teams got out of all their linebackers in 2011.
Jacksonville’s Daryl Smith had three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 1.5 sacks and an interception, in 2010. That was better than the Jaguars’ entire linebacker production all of last season and matched Houston’s.
I asked Tennessee’s Gerald McRath about the Titans lack of linebacker plays in 2010.
“We just didn’t make the plays,” he said. “There is no excuse in that. We have to take some steps to get better and to get back to where the Tennessee Titans are known for their style of play. That being said, the linebackers are going to have to step it up.”
Bottom line: Everyone in the division needs better linebacker play, even if they aren’t constructed to feature them. The Titans drafted Akeem Ayers. The Texans draft Brooks Reed. The Jaguars just signed Paul Posluszny.
There may be more attempts at upgrades to come.