Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 7, 2020

With Pees gone, concern over Xs and Os of Titans defense

The departure of Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees leaves head coach Mike Vrabel to, in addition to his many other duties, oversee the defense. - Photo by Mark Humphrey | AP

The Tennessee Titans have talked all year about how continuity – especially on offense where 10 of last year’s starting 11 return – is a key to finding success in an offseason curbed by the pandemic.

True enough, but something not talked about quite as much coming out of Saint Thomas Sports Park are the changes that are afoot on the defensive side of the ball.

Two of last year’s stalwarts – defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and cornerback Logan Ryan – could be tough to replace. And in the early going, at least, the camp whereabouts of free agent signee Vic Beasley has been a major question.

But the biggest change on the Titans defense might be how they go about replacing venerable defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

After the Titans lost at Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game, Pees announced his retirement and head coach Mike Vrabel admitting he “didn’t have the heart” to talk Pees out of retirement a second time to stay on as the Titans defensive coordinator.

While the Titans tinkered with the defensive staff in the offseason, bringing in veteran coach Jim Haslett to coach inside linebackers and Anthony Midgett to coach defensive backs, a successor to Pees was never hired.

Vrabel insisted throughout much of the offseason that it would be worked out, leading to plenty of speculation that he himself would ultimately be responsible for the defensive calls.

But as head coach, there are times Vrabel’s attention might be needed on offense or special teams or just in administrative work and decision-making. That’s why Vrabel will have a lieutenant by his side in outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen, who is being called the “voice in the room” when Vrabel is not in a defensive meeting.

Vrabel made the announcement in June, and reiterated again last week when training camp opened.

“Dean hasn’t been with us since the end of the season, so I feel like we’ve transitioned on, just like every other year,” Vrabel says. “There’s a lot of change. There’s turnover. I’m very appreciative of what Dean did, what he provided for two years, but again, extremely excited about the staff that we have now, working defensively.

“I think that, again, I’ll reiterate what I said in June, when I’m not in front of the defense, Shane Bowen will be that voice. When I’m not in the defensive meeting with the coaches, that will be Shane running it.

“And I would imagine that as we continue to work through practices and the unscripted environment, where we’ll come up with ways to make calls, whether I make them or whether Shane makes them, we’re going to work through that process as we get through practice.”

The selection of Bowen as defensive mouthpiece might come as a surprise to outside observers, a deeper dive shows he is probably the right fit for what Vrabel wants.

Bowen, who played college football at Georgia Tech, wound up as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2012, working under Vrabel in his first assignment.

From there, the two have struck up a friendship and working relationship that also included a stopover with the Houston Texans before Vrabel landed the Titans head coaching gig in 2018 and brought Bowen along to coach outside linebackers.

“My job, first and foremost, is to get these outside linebackers to play at a high level and to continue to develop them to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do and contributing the way they’re supposed to on defense,” Bowen says.

“But Mike isn’t always going to be around, so they need somebody to help him out, and I’ve been with him a long time,’’ he continues. “One thing I will say, I think I’m an extension of him when it comes to our defense and what he expects and what he wants. I think that’s where it has competence, and comfort level comes with me just because we’ve been around each other for a while now.”

While Vrabel’s stamp is expected to be on the defense this season, Bowen says defensive game-planning will be a collaboration of the entire defensive staff.

“I don’t see game-planning being much different, I mean, Mike (Vrabel) was involved last year, obviously not to the extent that he’s going to be this year without having Dean here, but he was still involved in the game plan,” Bowen says.

“When we game plan it is a group effort through and through, like everything we’re talking through, everything together, we’re coming up with the best plan because ultimately every coach has to be comfortable with what we want to do and feel comfortable teaching it to their players, that their players can actually execute it on Sunday.

“So I think that’s a group deal so I don’t see that changing a whole lot,’’ Bowen says.

And what about the play calls? How much of a voice will Bowen have on that? It remains to be seen, but it is something to be worked through in training camp.

“In terms of play calls on game day, I think that’s just something we’ve got to work through here in this training camp to kind of see where things are at, in terms of what Vrabes (Mike Vrabel) feels like he’s comfortable doing game day and everything else,” Bowen explains. “So I think that’s going to be something that we work through here in this next month before we get into Sept. 14.”

For Bowen, as much as anything, he knows how Vrabel wants things done, and part of what he is being tasked to do is to make sure that those things do get done in a timely fashion.

“I think as a group, we’re doing a good job in terms of collaborating as we work through some of this stuff. But when push comes to shove and we got to kind of move on to the next task, I’m going to push it that way,” Bowen says.