NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The big question for months has been how Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel will replace defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
Three weeks before the Titans are scheduled to open the season, a final answer remains elusive.
Vrabel hired Jim Haslett, a former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator, as the Titans’ inside linebackers coach in February. A former defensive coordinator too, Vrabel has been an option to simply call the defensive schemes himself.
The Titans coach also says outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen is his voice in defensive meetings when Vrabel is elsewhere. But Bowen, who called defensive plays during a practice at Nissan Stadium last week, made clear Monday that a final decision has not been made who is calling the defense Sept. 14 in Denver.
“We’ll see where this thing goes,” Bowen said. “I’m not dead set on calling the plays just so you guys know. This is a work in progress. We’re working through it me, Mike and everybody. I think the main thing is just being comfortable and being able to get in a routine and staying ahead of the game with it as it goes.”
Which man was handling the defensive play calling has not been an issue for Tennessee for years. Pees came out of a brief retirement to work as Vrabel’s coordinator the past two seasons, and he followed Dick LeBeau who had the job in 2016 and 2017.
Pees’ latest retirement didn’t lead to scrapping the defense, merely the usual tweaks from year to year for a unit that ranked 12th in the NFL in points allowed last season. The Titans followed that up by allowing a playoff-best 12.5 points a game through the first two rounds of the postseason.
Tennessee also returns 10 starters on defense from the unit that lost the AFC championship game in Kansas City.
That eases the need for someone with the title of defensive coordinator. But someone has to call the defense during games.
The Titans also have made Bowen available on days when coordinators spoke to reporters, including Monday, along with offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman. Vrabel said at the start of training camp in late July that they would work through play-calling with either himself or Bowen.
“We’ll see how that play-calling process goes,” Vrabel said then.
Bowen called in plays during an unscripted period to linebackers Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown. Other practices have been scripted, limiting the need for a change.
Evans said he doesn’t think anything has changed except the voice coming into his helmet, and he sees Bowen pushing the Titans to be an elite defense.
“Shane has done a great job with making this as normal as possible as far as the schemes and techniques, all that other stuff,” Evans said. “All we can do right now is follow his leadership, keep learning, keeping him coasting, and just keeping doing what we’ve been doing.”
Vrabel was defensive coordinator in Houston in 2017 before being hired by the Titans as head coach.
Bowen, who went into coaching after an injury at Georgia Tech, first worked with Vrabel in 2012 when he was a defensive graduate assistant at Ohio State and again in 2016 and 2017 as a defensive assistant with the Texans. Then Vrabel brought Bowen with him to Tennessee as his outside linebackers coach.
Bowen said he enjoyed calling the defensive plays and felt comfortable. He’s done it before in practice and several preseason games.
“Really I’m just the relay man in terms of getting it those guys right now,” Bowen said.
NOTES: Vrabel gave a handful of players the day off Monday including QB Ryan Tannehill and RB Derrick Henry. That left all the work to QBs Logan Woodside and Trevor Siemian. … DB Kareem Orr limped off at the end of practice.
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