NASHVILLE -- After 15 minutes on the phone with Keith Millard, I was ready to rush the passer.
The newest addition to Titans coach Mike Munchak’s staff won’t oversee a position but a skill set. And although Millard will spend a lot of time with defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and his group, he’ll also rove and talk nuances of getting to the quarterback with linebackers, safeties and even cornerbacks.
His initial speech will go like this:
“Before you even start, you’ve got to pick a line and you’ve got to stay on that line. And that goes for every position, no matter what you are doing. It’s from wherever you start to the quarterback and that thing can’t vary. You know the old saying the shortest distance between two spots is a straight line? That’s as true in pass rush as there is. You stay on that line, get your blocker off it. Now how you do that is where it gets interesting, where technique and fundamentals come in.”
Tennessee needs to rush the passer better than it did last season, which was its first without Jim Washburn since 1998. The former defensive line coach, now in Philadelphia, pieced together an effective four-man rush most of the time.
After Munchak hired Jerry Gray as defensive coordinator, the team concluded that getting to the quarterback at all costs wasn’t the way to go because the run defense suffered.
In Year 1 of the new regime, the team sacked the quarterback less -- managing just 28 sacks, 31st in sacks per play in the NFL -- and was still just 24th against the run.
Both the personnel and the coaching need to be better.
Enter Kamerion Wimbley, the former Oakland Raider whom the Titans pounced on when he was released. Enter Millard.
Wimbley should be a boost for the pass rush. He’s worked a lot in his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker but in Tennessee he’ll be a 4-3 end. He can rush the passer well from there, but the team could put his durability to the test if he’s on the field for too many snaps.
Millard’s a big believer in a four-man rush, as the Titans have long been. But if they can’t get to the quality quarterbacks they are scheduled to face in 2012 with just four rushers, they should be better equipped to bring more blitzers than they have been in some time after Millard coaches them up.
“I’m thrilled about Millard,” Titans outside linebacker Gerald McRath said. “For me, I’ve never had someone who took time to teach me pass rush. You can fine tune a skill, and that’s a skill that makes you more valuable to your team. I think that will be great, that you can have someone who can focus on that.”
Munchak and Gray talked about the idea early on after the new staff was assembled. It didn’t come together during the initial staff assembly and the lockout. But then Millard came free after Raheem Morris and the Tampa Bay staff were let go.
Millard played nine seasons as an NFL defensive lineman, primarily with Minnesota. He coached in Denver and Oakland before spending 2011 in Tampa Bay.
Although he’s worked mostly as a defensive line coach, he was a pass rush coach at times with the Broncos and Raiders.
Specialized coaches are increasingly popular in the NFL. Many 3-4 teams have outside linebacker coaches. Some teams have cornerback and safety coaches in their secondary, or a coach who concentrates on the nickel defensive backs.
A coach like Millard qualifies as being outside the box for the Titans. He gets fired up talking about his office, and initially makes it sound big. Then you realize he means big enough to have three or maybe four guys in there at a time to go over pass-rush nuances.
“Not only is he going to be doing D-line, and that’s a good thing, we’re going to be sending him linebackers and safeties and things like that,” said Gray, who played nine seasons as a cover corner. “I’ll be honest and tell you I don’t know anything about blitzing. Beating a running back, I can tell you, but I’ve never felt that. So I really don’t know how it feels.
“He’ll be able to help us, more than saying ‘Hey, I’ve got a clear open spot for you to hit the quarterback.’ The best thing you can do is offer a one-on-one. Now show me how to win the one-on-one. That’s what he’s going to be doing.”
Warren Sapp, who’s widely regarded as an all-time great pass-rushing tackle, raved about Millard’s influence on him to The Tennessean after the Titans made the hire.
Gray still emphasizes the need for players to stop the run. Millard and Gray talk about earning the right to pass rush. And nothing does that more than stuffing a run play on first down to help create second- and third-and-long situations.
Millard calls himself a self-taught pass-rusher.
He’s eager to share what he knows, and says it will be a lot more about feet than hands for both blitzers and guys who make a living rushing the passer. For Millard, that second group generally falls into two styles, straight-liners (like Kyle Vanden Bosch or Jason Taylor) and basketball types (like Sapp and Derrick Burgess).
“I think doing it myself from different positions has given me a real edge at teaching the true fundamentals,” Millard said. “Being able to study blockers and find their weaknesses and how to take advantage of them. I’m really about teaching the concept of getting the blocker on your terms and how to do that. It’s not so much a repertoire with your hands as it is your footwork and trying to work a blocker’s weaknesses against him.
“Hands are really just kind of a second nature thing. When you really get down to it, it’s about feet. Getting blockers off balance and using your hands to keep them off balance. Whether you are bull-rushing, whether you are going from one edge to the other and back, it’s really got to be about balance and footwork and your approach -- getting to a point where you own that guy, you know where his weaknesses are and you just continually, constantly, work on those weaknesses. There is a lot that goes into that.”
Millard will spell out for a guy what his body has to do to counter the body trying to block him: flipping hips, making yourself small, understanding what blockers are doing with their hands. Get the guy in your way off balance and keep him off balance.
It seems uncertain just where and how Millard will fit into the regular practice schedule, but he’s certain to work with specific guys before and after practices and outside of regular meeting times.
Those office sessions will be kept small -- he'll rarely work with more than two linebackers or two defensive backs at a time.
If he’s what Munchak and Gray expect, the Titans will do a far better job of getting from Point A to the quarterback and the defense will make big gains.
Millard’s motivated me. I’m heading outside right now to see about making myself small and finding the best way to stay on my straight line.