The Titans’ bye week has come and gone, and with it, the answers to the many questions surrounding the underperforming two-toned blue have not gotten any clearer. The one thing that is clear as crystal? The importance of this bye week for Vrabel’s squad.
When asked about the break, Vrabel stated, “I’m going to get these guys home, try to get these guys as healthy as possible. Figure out who needs what …some guys will need treatment, some guys will need reps.”
Vrabel made this case nearly a week ago after a deflating and disappointing 24-16 London loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Since then, the Titans have done just that and are well-rested and recovered with the exception of the team’s most crucial piece: Ryan Tannehill.
The veteran quarterback left the London contest more than halfway through, with the dagger being an interception on an under-thrown ball to Chig Okonkwo. Tannehill after the game commented on his exit, citing that under-throw as the reason for the turnover and why he chose to take himself out of the game.
So with the team looking to possibly get key pieces back like sophomore receiver Treylon Burks and standout nose tackle Teair Tart, can the Titans claw their way back into playoff contention? Or will the fire sale begin shortly? Let’s assess both sides of the ball through 6 weeks.
A Rollercoaster Of Offensive Production
The Titans 2023 offense is one that has attempted to reshape the identity of Tennessee football. New offensive coordinator Tim Kelly has brought an emphasis on passing the ball with star skill players new and old in Deandre Hopkins and rookie Tyjae Spears, and a reworked offensive line that looked to right the wrongs of a historically bad squad in the recent past.
It’s safe to say that when the pieces click, this offense can play with the best in the league (except maybe for the greatest show on surf). The Titans have put together two well-executed games in an overtime win against the Chargers and a blowout beatdown against the Bengals. Unfortunately, when the pieces don’t sync up, the team looks like a disaster. This is due in large part to a few key players. Andre Dillard, who was benched for Nicholas Petit-Frere on Sunday, has been an easy target. However looking deeper, the problems go past the abysmal left tackle play.
The introduction of rookie Tyjae Spears has been a bright spot on a Titans offense averaging 110.3 yards on the ground despite an average of 4.6 yards per carry through 6 games. However, it’s been frustrating when considering how it affects Derrick Henry’s ability to be a factor. Offensive Coordinator Tim Kelly has found unique ways to integrate both into the offense, but Kelly has failed to find a balance between using the bulldozer and the lightning bolt.
Red Zone efficiency has also been a disappointing regression from the ‘22 season. The Titans’ stellar 64.9% from last year has fallen to a measly 35% through 6 games. It’s a shocking fall from grace, considering the addition of red-zone machine DeAndre Hopkins, along with the supporting cast from years prior. It simply hasn’t clicked so far for the Titans’ receiving corps, only scoring 2 touchdowns both by way of Nick Westbrook-Ikhine.
How can the Titans get back on track? For starters, they need to fix the left tackle problem. Andre Dillard was served a pretty damning sentence after being benched for the sophomore NPF, making his season debut. Can Petit-Frere lock down the left side? That is yet to be seen. If NPF does indeed get the nod, he won’t have the stiffest competition next week versus a Falcons front seven ranking 26th in pass rush win rate. It should serve as a good trial before the Titans take on TJ Watt and company in Week 9, however.
That’s most likely the Titans’ plan, though I believe it is the wrong move. What the Titans should do is move left guard Peter Skoronski to left tackle immediately. This move has been speculated about since before the draft, but now more than ever would prove a shrewd maneuver. The Northwestern product–touted as the best offensive line prospect in the draft this past offseason–has had a lot of experience out on the left end. Skoronski not only spent three years playing the position but went up against some of the best competition the Big Ten had to offer: First-round talents finding early NFL success in Aidan Hutchinson, Jack Campbell, and Lukas Van Ness to name just a few. If the Titans truly want to explore all options and take a chance on finding their next stalwart left tackle. It would be irresponsible not to give the rookie a shot.
Shocking Defensive Regression?
Heading into the 2023 season, most thought the Titans’ defense would be the stoutest in the AFC South. While the two-tone blue have shown flashes, much like the offense, the defense has been inconsistent at best.
The most concerning factor is the run game, where the once dominant and distinguished run defense has been leaking the past few weeks. The Titans have allowed an average of 102 yards per game including a 3.6 yards per carry to opposing backs. Despite being around league average, it’s an issue and one that team leaders like Jeffery Simmons have spoken to often after games. The Titans still have some opponents with formidable ground attacks left on the schedule, starting out with perhaps the best run-blocking unit in the country: the Falcons. Oh, and to make matters worse, the Falcons have a dynamic rookie back still looking for his first rushing touchdown. The soul-searching that the Titans’ front seven do over the bye week will have to pay off quickly once Simmons and company hit the gridiron again.
The frontlines of the Titans’ defense are not the only ones with troubling issues, however. The secondary in all aspects has been even worse, giving up an average of 237 air yards per game, good for 21st in the league. It’s not all doom and gloom though; Titans sophomore cornerback Roger McCreary and newly added Sean Murphy Bunting have quietly had good seasons.
The main focal point is contract-year Kristian Fulton. Fulton, who was the topic of off-season controversy as well, has been downright horrific.
Can he have a second-half bounceback? It would be a miracle given his track record and nagging injury history, but even a slight improvement could provide a massive dividend for the team, though maybe not on the field.
Could the Titans trade Fulton? They’ve already done so with star safety Kevin Byard. Could they make an even bigger move, shipping out other defensive teammates such as Dencio Autry? Maybe so, but that is a question to handle after Atlanta.
The Case For Will Levis
Will Levis must be the quarterback for the Tennessee Titans in Week 8. The move would open more doors for the team than close, and most importantly, it gives the Titans a chance to win.
Playing Levis this week (and beyond, if Tannehill misses extended time) would give the Titans the perfect trial run at what Ran Carthon and Mike Vrabel have been looking at all along: Life after Tannehill. It’s the reason so much draft capital was used to move up in the second round to grab the Kentucky quarterback. After missing the chance at CJ Stroud, it was clear Ran Carthon and Mike Vrabel saw Will Levis as the next best available option.
Now with the schedule ahead, Levis starting would give a glimpse into what Titans brass had in mind when drafting him. Seeing Levis’ big arm in tandem with Tim Kelly’s new look scheme may start to answer the question of Levis being The Guy going forward.
It also gives the Titans the best chance at success now. Malik Willis’ play-making ability on the ground has been dynamic at times, but implementing Willis as the starter in Tannehill’s stead will require a total detour from what Tim Kelly has been trying to do with the scheme. Willis still lacks the patience and vision in his second year to fully let plays develop and frequently will scramble when the first look isn’t open. Levis offers more true pocket passer potential, and can more easily deliver opportunities for DeAndre Hopkins and company to cash in on suspect secondaries.
The Titans are backed into a corner. A loss against Atlanta (more so an embarrassing one) may lead to a complete firesale and true cleansing of Jon Robinson’s old regime. A win may spark hope and momentum in a team whose frustrations have reached a boiling point. Regardless of the path they choose, all roads should lead to Levis and seeing what the young kid has got.