He and his Tennessee Titans teammates weren’t quite sure who they had as a defensive coordinator back in 2001. Jim Schwartz had just taken over the defensive play calling duties on Jeff Fisher’s coaching staff following the departure of Gregg Williams, who was hired as head coach in Buffalo. Schwartz was a successful linebackers coach, who also handled the Titans’ third-down packages, but now he had to lead Tennessee’s defensive unit, which was coming off an AFC title and Super Bowl appearance.
Forced to run a mixture of his own calls with those of the man he succeeded in Tennessee, Schwartz’s first year as defensive coordinator wasn’t easy and there were a host of peaks and valleys as the team finished 7-9. What the men on defense quickly learned however, was their 34-year old defensive coordinator was committed to their success.
“I remember one time we were up in Minnesota and we got crushed,” recalled Bulluck, who played 10 of his 11 NFL seasons under Schwartz. “I think it was his first year as a DC and he was very emotional in talking to us after the game. It just showed the passion that he coached with. I was an emotional player so to see your defensive coordinator like that, after a regular season loss, made you feel like he was one of you.”
The following season the defense finished in the top 10 and 11th in points allowed as the Titans won the AFC South with an 11-5 record and advanced to the AFC title game.
“It wasn’t until Schwartz’s second year that we got a lot better,” Bulluck said. “He was a young coordinator then, but we started to come into our own and went to the playoffs back to back. He was a good teacher in the way he got his material across. He wasn’t confusing. Everyone understood what their alignment and assignment was and he was very detail oriented.”
Those details were the things that Schwartz worried about. He never passed it on to his players. His presentation of the team’s preparation is what enabled players to play fast and confident.
“He had a certain way that he would draw up the opponent’s tendencies. He had it down pretty much as far as game plan-wise,” Bulluck said. “I think he did a great job of preparing his defense for the opponent that we were playing. Those little things that he did may have been looked at as hobbies by us, but it was part of his way of getting his defense prepared for the opponent. He had a way to help us remember things in the heat of battle. The way he put it catered to us remembering it more effectively on the field.”
Bulluck described Schwartz’s run defense, which has a handful of top 10 league finishes, as a gap-filling scheme where every player has a gap and the linebackers direct traffic.
“Our front four was good because of the way we communicated. For example, I would tell Albert (Haynesworth), ‘If you’re playing that gap stay there. There’s no jumping gaps.’ You have to be disciplined in the way that you play your defense. If you have the ‘A’ gap stay in the ‘A’ gap. If you can’t get to the ‘A’ gap you have to have linebackers behind them smart enough to know to gap replace. We had a smart bunch. Our whole thing was if you can’t run, you can’t win.”
Their pass rush was entrusted with their front four most of the time. With the likes of Kevin Carter, Jevon Kearse, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch you can understand why. It leads Bulluck to believe the approach will be similar in Buffalo with three Pro Bowl players on their defensive line.
“I definitely didn’t blitz,” the linebacker said. “You tell Schwartz I’ve got more interceptions (21) than I have sacks (18) in my career and that’s mostly due to that Tennessee style defense.”
Third down was a particularly strong down for Schwartz’s defenses, not only in Tennessee, but Detroit as well.
“The way that he drew up the tendencies and how detail oriented it was, we knew what teams were going to do on third down,” said Bulluck. “It was just on us to stop them.
“I played for three different coordinators, but I think the way that Schwartz got his group ready to play was second to none in my eyes. He’s able to simplify assignments to make it easier for guys to just go out there and let loose and play.”