NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Mike Munchak was promoted to coach of the Tennessee Titans in 2011, one of the first things his new defensive coordinator, Jerry Gray, talked about was the need for the team to get bigger.
The Titans had been a pretty good pass-rushing team. Smaller, quicker rushers may have been getting to the passer, but the team’s run defense had slipped. Adding stouter players would bolster the run defense and help everything, the Titans reasoned.
Heading into the third season of the Munchak regime, the franchise has made headway in getting bigger up front on defense.
“I really feel we have a lot of pieces in place that ... Jerry wanted, and the defensive staff wanted,” Munchak said. “You can’t always get what you want in this league.”
In 2011, the Titans’ 90-man roster included 15 defensive linemen who totaled 4,232 pounds.
Now they’ve got 16 who total 4,591.
The average weight per defensive player has risen from 282 to 287 pounds.
More significantly, Sammie Hill, who will start at defensive tackle, and Ropati Pitoitua, who should be in the rotation of defensive ends, are much bigger than players the Titans have deployed at those spots in recent years.
Hill joined the team as a free-agent addition from Detroit. Only undrafted guard Oscar Johnson (330) weighs more than Hill’s listed 329 on the Tennessee roster. Pitoitua is an imposing 6-foot-8. At 315, he’s the Titans' heaviest end -- by 38 pounds.
“I feel good about our size,” Titans defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. “It’s a big man’s game. They’ve made some big changes with free agency with Sam Hill, Ropati and Antonio Johnson coming in. It’s on both sides of the ball, the offensive and defensive lines.”
Antonio Johnson is listed at 310, but he said recently he’s at about 330. Rocker said the Titans want him to play at 325 or 330.
In Hill, the Titans found a young player they believe can blossom if given a bigger role than the one he had with the Lions, where he was behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Though he should draw regular double teams, he’s not simply a space eater. He’s got good feet for a man his size and is expected to penetrate and help move the quarterback off his spot, which will benefit the rush ends.
“I can get off the ball for the big guy that I am,” Hill said. “I try to be real disruptive. ... I don’t like to look at myself as just that big guy who occupies space. I like to get in there and cause havoc and disrupt the pocket and all that.”
Hill said he’s played as big as 343 and as light as 325, but doesn’t believe he’s sacrificed strength when he’s been smaller. He expects to play between 330 and 338 for the Titans. Any NFL player that size is carrying a little extra. But Hill is not fat. He said a preferred meal is a couple of baked chicken breasts with rice, and he doesn’t eat sweets.
In speaking with him, I learned that he drinks 3 1/2 to four gallons of water a day, an amount that surely would drown many of his teammates.
When you look at Pitoitua, it’s hard not to think: If the low man wins, how does he ever win?
He said his biggest disadvantage is his height, but the length that comes with it is his biggest advantage.
Said Rocker: “With him, it’s leverage. With the length of his arms, that changes the game for a lot of people facing him. And if you can recall, when the Giants played New England in the Super Bowl, it wasn’t so much that they sacked Tom Brady. There were a lot of tall people in there. You had a lot of trees in there, and it was hard for Tom Brady to complete passes. Ropati creates those things for us and can cause disruptions. We see him as a big-time run-stopper and a ball disruption guy.”
Offensive tackle Michael Otto’s been facing Pitoitua in organized team activities.
“He’s a big, strong dude,” Otto said. “He’s not somebody you’re going to blow off the ball and throw on his back. You’re fighting him the whole time, you just push. A stalemate is pretty good so long as he isn’t getting any penetration.”
If Pitoitua and fifth-round rookie Lavar Edwards (277) pan out, they can help chop down the snap counts of starting ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley. They both played more than 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last season, which is far too much.
Rocker said that ideally, the Titans would be on the field 60 to 75 snaps a game, and guys such as Morgan and Hill would play 45 of them. That would be 60 to 75 percent.
Although the league is increasingly about good quarterbacks and stopping them, slowing the run helps a defense in its ability to focus on the QB.
That’s a primary reason the Titans wanted to be bigger.
A season after giving up 4.2 yards a carry, that bigger defense needs to have bigger games when it comes to stopping the run.