Gridiron Grades: Titans blow chance at wrapping up a playoff spot with nightmarish performance

Gridiron Grades with Justin Melo is a recurring piece that will assign a letter grade to each position group following every Titans game.

Ben Jones took the field for his usual pregame stroll despite the wintery conditions. A.J. Brown ran around and threw snowballs at teammates. That was the last time the Tennessee Titans looked excited to play in a snowy blizzard. This team was not prepared for the challenge in front of them. Perhaps the weather had nothing to do with the defense’s failures. This is who they’ve been all year long. But the team as a whole looked ill-equipped to handle the situation they found themselves in.

The Titans wasted a Week 16 gift from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who mounted an unlikely second-half comeback to overcome a three-score deficit against the Indianapolis Colts earlier in the day. The result meant the Titans could clinch the AFC South with a win over the Green Bay Packers. Instead, they put in their worst performance of the season and lost 40-14 on national television. It was a letdown of giant proportions.

The loss means every possible outcome remains in play as the Titans enter Week 17 — ranging from a division title to missing the playoffs altogether.

Let’s get into this hot mess.

Quarterback: D-minus

Ryan Tannehill and the offense looked hampered by the conditions. Tanenhill is a Texas native that’s played his life’s football in warm-weather states. He’s surely played some late December games in snowy, cold Buffalo and Boston as a member of the Miami Dolphins. Those experiences did not help him here. Tannehill and the offense as a whole had their worst game of the season. Tannehill completed just 11 of 24 passes for 121 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. It’s the first time that he’s been intercepted more than once in a game this year. It was also his lowest yardage total of the season.

Tannehill was picked off for the first time on just the team’s second possession of the game. They were already down 12-0 when faced with a third down on their side of the field. Tannehill was under pressure from Packers defensive linemen Rashan Gary when he threw up a prayer. It was ill-advised.

Tannehill showed some life on an excellent drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith near halftime. The score cut the Packers’ lead to 19-7 at the break. Tannehill would find the end zone again on the team’s next possession, which was the first of the third quarter. The score came on a beautiful fake to Derrick Henry. The entire Packers defense flowed his way and Tannehill sprinted into the end zone from 45-yards out. It was the first time the coaching staff called the read-option play not near the goal line.

The score gave the Titans some life and cut the lead down to 19-14. That hope was quickly wiped out by a fast answer by the Packers just a few plays later on a drive that featured a colossal error by both Mike Vrabel and the officials. On the Packers’ first play from scrimmage, running back Aaron Jones went 59 yards down the sideline. Replay clearly showed that Jones stepped out of bounds – with an official looking directly at the Green Bay running back. But the Packers hurried to the line of scrimmage and quickly got a play off before Vrabel was able to get a challenge in. The error cost the Titans about 40 yards.

Tannehill was picked off for the second time early in the fourth quarter. It was similar to his earlier interception, an ill-advised throw under pressure. The turnover ended any faint hope the team had of making a comeback. Tannehill will look to bounce back in a must-win game against the Texans in Week 17.

Running backs: C

This was not the type of performance we’ve come to expect from Henry. It was little fault of his own. The Packers defense sold out to stop the run and were largely successful. They won the battle in the trenches. They built a sizeable lead early and made the Titans’ offense one dimensional. Many felt that Henry and the offense would benefit from playing in the cold and snow. That wasn’t the case.

Henry finished the game with 98 yards on 23 carries. He was held off the scoresheet for the first time since the Week 13 loss to the Browns, a contest that also saw the game flow work against him.

This performance also delivered a significant hit to Henry’s chances of reaching 2,000 yards on the season. He now sits at 1,777 yards with just one game to go. That means Henry will need 223 yards next week to hit 2K. The Texans run defense is abysmal, but I wouldn’t bet on it happening.

Nevertheless, Henry will look to get back on track in Houston this Sunday.

Wide receivers: D-minus

There’s just not much opportunity to be found here when your quarterback throws for 121 yards. The Titans’ receiving corps features one of the best 1-2 punches in the league in Brown and Corey Davis, but they couldn’t get them going.

Brown finished the game with 43 yards on four catches. Davis finished the game without making a single catch. There were several factors that lead to the disappointing output. Tannehill played poorly. The weather certainly played a factor. The drop back passing game never looked comfortable, but the Packers’ large lead forced the issue. The pass protection was abysmal. Shall I go on?

We’ve seen Brown and Davis alternate who gets to have a big day on a weekly basis, but neither player was able to leave their mark on this game.

Similar to the situation Henry found himself in, both Davis and Brown entered this game with a chance to reach a statistical milestone. Both receivers are within reach of hitting 1,000 yards on the season, but this performance somewhat hampers the likelihood of that happening. Brown now sits at 924 yards while Davis remains at 945. There’s a solid chance one of them hits the mark next week, but it’s no longer a sure thing that both of them will do so.

Cameron Batson made one catch for 12 yards and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine caught a pass for a 19-yard gain in the second half.

All in all, this position group totaled just 74 yards on six catches.

Tight ends: C-minus

Jonnu Smith caught three balls for 30 yards and a touchdown. It was his eighth receiving touchdown of the year on a lovely diving attempt when the Titans badly needed a score:

This group was pretty absent minus that one play. Anthony Firkser made a single catch. This offense doesn’t rely on their tight ends to be big contributors in the passing game. The disappointment here more-so comes from the lack of push they were able to get in the run game. When Henry has a big performance, this group usually has a ton to do with it. That’s why guys like MyCole Pruitt and Geoff Swaim are here.

I wouldn’t put too much stock in it, but this was a disappointing performance.

Offensive line: D-minus

I feel pretty confident in saying this group had their worst game of the season. It was a far cry from last week’s performance that saw the starting five contribute to 198 yards on the ground. This was obviously a much better team they found themselves up against.

They simply didn’t do enough up front to get Henry going. I’ve mentioned that game flow didn’t help, but you can’t fully absolve this group for playing a role in that. Things were even worse in pass protection. Tannehill was sacked just twice but that doesn’t tell the full story.

Tannehill was constantly under duress. One of the more frustrating aspects here is that several players were at fault on different occasions. On Tannehill’s first interception of the day, it was David Quessenberry that got pushed all the way back into his signal caller’s lap. On Tannehill’s second turnover, it was Dennis Kelly that got absolutely cooked in pass protection. The pressure came from Preston Smith. An embarrassing rep by Nate Davis also lead to a sack on third down and an ensuing fourth-and-27.

This group needs to be much better going forward. There’s no reason to believe they won’t be.

Defensive line: F

It was a rough day for this group. The Packers did what they wanted offensively and that included a whopping 234 yards on the ground. Lead running back Aaron Jones wasn’t the star of the show. Instead, it was rookie tailback A.J. Dillon who ran wild on the Titans’ defense. Dillon totaled an impressive 124 yards on just 21 carries. That’s good for a 5.9 yard per carry average. He also had two touchdowns, including a 30-yard score.

The Packers offensive line got a ton of movement up front on a snap-by-snap basis. It’s rare to see this defensive line get pushed around like that, but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday night.

It was so bad that I don’t really have anything good to say. DaQuan Jones had a nice stop on a two-point conversion. That was my only positive takeaway.

What is going on with Jeffery Simmons? He hasn’t put in a dominant performance in well over a month. Perhaps the knee injury that he’s been nursing is bothering him more than we know. Either way, Simmons has been very anonymous as of late and that’s a big problem for this unit.

Jack Crawford, Teair Tart and Matt Dickerson all played a significant amount of snaps but failed to leave their mark on the game.

This group has to burn the tape and move on.

Inside linebackers: C

This was the most divisive grade for me. David Long Jr. played a terrific game. He was by far and away the best Titan on the field. He started the day off well by making an excellent tackle on the first play of Green Bay’s second possession. He made another great tackle later on the same possession. Midway through the third quarter, he recorded a nice stop on Dillon. He made another big play on a second-and-short in the third quarter. That drive eventually resulted in a fourth-down conversion and TD, but it wasn’t for Long’s lack of effort. He was the only player on the defense that played a respectable game.

Enter Rashaan Evans into the fray. He was awful. On Green Bay’s second possession, the Titans appeared to force a Packers punt. It would have been a notable stop. Evans was called for a hands to the face penalty away from the play. It kept the Packers offense on the field and as you know, they’d go on to score a touchdown and extend their lead to double digits. It was a huge error. The Titans never recovered. It was the definition of a dumb penalty that hurt the team. Evans continues to be a huge liability on defense.

Nick Dzunbar played three snaps in addition to his usual workload on special teams. Daren Bates and Will Compton were limited to special teams.

Outside linebackers: D-minus

I wanted to go with what feels like the weekly “F” here but they actually recorded a sack! It came from Wyatt Ray. It occurred on fourth down and was actually a pretty notable play at the time. In case you don’t believe me, here it is:

Other than that flash in the pan, there’s nothing else to say here. Different week, same story. This is definitively the worst pass rush unit in the league. Harold Landry played 62 snaps. He did not play a good game.

Derick Roberson missed this game injured and was replaced by veteran Brooks Reed, who did absolutely nothing at all. He played 22 snaps and didn’t look like he belongs in this league anymore.

Cornerbacks: F

I had to go with another hard “F” here. After being on a snap count for his season debut last week, Adoree’ Jackson returned to a full workload. He was terrible. If we’re going to cut him some slack, this was a nightmare matchup for him to return to the starting lineup for. Davante Adams is the best wide receiver in the NFL and I’m going to guess that Jackson isn’t a big fan of playing in the snow.

Jackson was in coverage for the Packers’ first TD of the day, a quick throw to Adams on the boundary. Jackson gave Adams quite a bit of room to work with and failed to make the tackle:

That’s just easy pitch-and-catch. If you’re going to give up that much cushion, you better come up and make the tackle. Adams wasn’t done beating Jackson for TD’s. He scored his second touchdown of the day with Jackson in coverage as well:

Unlike the first one, there’s not a lot that Jackson could have done differently there. That’s just a great route and throw. It probably won’t make Jackson feel better, though. This was a really rough outing for Jackson. He also missed a tackle on Dillon’s 30-yard TD run. I’ve previously said that throwing him into the fire was the best thing they could do. He took his bumps here. Hopefully he’s better for it.

Jackson wasn’t the only cornerback to play an awful game. Desmond King was also abysmal. He had a horrendous first drive that included him giving up a big grab to Allen Lazard that lead to a first-and-goal and Adams’ first touchdown of the day. King was later in “coverage” for this touchdown pass to Equanimeous St. Brown:

King wasn’t even in the same area code there.

Malcolm Butler didn’t have a great day either. He wasn’t as bad as Jackson and King were, but he wasn’t good. He got beat pretty badly for Adams’ third touchdown of the day:

Just look at how much time Rodggers had back there.

Adams caught 11 passes for 142 yards and three touchdowns. You’ve now seen them all. Most of that damage came with Jackson in coverage.

At least Butler made this beauty interception in garbage time:

It goes without saying. This group has to be much, much better going forward.

Safeties: D-minus

As has been the case with this group for most of the year, I just don’t have much to say here. Here’s Kevin Byard getting blocked out of the play on Dillon’s 30-yard run while Kenny Vaccaro takes a horrendous angle as the last line of defence:

Byard played a great game against the Lions last week but was unable to keep it going. Vaccaro made a great open field tackle on a second-and-long on Green Bay’s second possesion of the day.

Amani Hooker played 16 snaps. Josnhua Kalu was limited to special teams.

Moving on.

Special teams: C-plus

Stephen Gostkowski got the Titans off to a bad start by placing the opening kickoff out of bounds. That allowed the Packers to start the first drive of the game on their own 40-yard line. It was a gift of 15 yards and trust me when I say they didn’t need any help. Gostkowski went 2-for-2 on extra points.

The most notable play for this unit came on a horrendous call. When down 19-0, Crawford blocked a field goal. Hooker picked it up and ran it back inside the Packers’ 20. The play was wiped out by a phantom offside call on Kalu. Here’s a helpful screenshot:

What a horrendous call. Kalu is one of the best special teams players in the league. We’ve seen him tow the line before with some excellent jumps off the line. He’s one of the best at timing the snap. This wasn’t even one of those. Luckily, the Titans would get a stop and go on to score a touchdown. It was still an awful call.

Darrynton Evans did some good things in the return game. The snowy conditions lead to shorter kicks. Evans returned six of them for a total of 145 yards including a long of 31.

Brett Kern punted four times for a total of 174 yards. That’s a net average of 43.5. His longest punt of the day went for 60 yards. Those are some good numbers given the weather.

In typical Titans fashion, they now enter Week 17 with every possibility on the table. They could win the division. They could make the wildcard. They could also miss the playoffs. Buckle up.

Author: Justin MeloSenior Writer, Interviewer and Podcaster for Broadway Sports covering the Tennessee Titans and NFL draft. For more than five years, Justin Melo has professionally covered all things NFL draft and Titans for The Draft Network, SB Nation and USA Today. Best known for his Interview Series with NFL draft prospects, Justin has interviewed more than 500 NFL players. Co-host of the Music City Audible podcast alongside Justin Graver (@titansfilmroom).

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