Gridiron Grades: Titans can’t overcome disastrous first half vs Steelers

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

The Tennessee Titans suffered their first loss of the season as they fell to the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. The Titans made it close late, and should have sent it to overtime, but were ultimately unable to overcome a slow start.

The Titans have four come-from-behind victories on the year and they had every chance to make it a fifth on Sunday. In fact, when the Titans drove inside Pittsburgh’s 25-yard line with a minute still left on the clock, it looked as if they were going to win the game. They didn’t, and they were due to fall on the wrong side of one of these close games at some point.

The Titans were embarrassingly bad in the first half before coming up with a second half rally that just fell short. This wasn’t the first time the Titans played a poor half of football this season but unlike the ones before it, they were unable to overcome their mistakes and pull this one out. This was almost the opposite of last week’s win over Houston when they started fast and struggled some in the second half. It was bound to catch up with them eventually, and it did so on Sunday.

Like this game was, the grades here are mostly a mixed bag. There are plenty of things that need to be fixed going forward.

Quarterback: B-minus

Ryan Tannehill was far from terrible, but I felt like it was his worst game of the season. You’re in pretty good shape when your worst performance of the year sees you complete 18 of 30 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers.

The Steelers defense represents the best unit Tannehill and this Titans offense has seen so far, and it will probably remain that way even at the conclusion of the season as I’m not sure there’s a better defense in the NFL. Tannehill and the offense as a whole struggled to get into a rhythm in this one. He was nearly picked off early in the game near his own end zone. In fact, Tannehill didn’t have his first bright moment until a pair of successful rushing attempts opened up an opportunity for the first of many play action passes.

Tannehill was lucky to not lose a fumble in the red zone before he threw his first touchdown of the day on third-and-goal.

One of the key plays in this game that won’t get much attention occurred when Tannehill missed Corey Davis on a third down with less than two minutes to go in the first half. Tannehill had Davis, but flat out missed him. His error forced a punt which was returned for 57 yards by Ray-Ray McCloud. The poor special teams coverage deserves some blame as well, but the error began with a Tannehill misfire and led to the Steelers blowing open their lead to 17 points just before the second quarter came to a close. It felt like a fitting end to what was a nightmare opening half.

Tannehill was much better in the second half. He nearly lead the offense to an improbable comeback and showed excellent leadership skills while doing so.

Tannehill was putting together what appeared to be a great final drive before the late intentional grounding penalty was a killer. It contributed to this loss in a major way according to the analytics:

As bad as it was, I’m not sure what the alternative is. If Tannehill takes that sack, and he was absolutely going to get sacked if he didn’t let the ball go, they still lose a ton of yards and the down while the clock continues to run. Tannehill felt hard done by the call, but it was the right one. Perhaps the Steelers should have been flagged for a late hit on the play though:

Going for it all on the final third down of the game was an interesting decision. I felt like they should have simply tried to make an easier field goal attempt given the situation. It came back to bite them.

Tannehill needs to be better than this going forward, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be.

Running backs: C

This was always going to be a tough matchup for Derrick Henry and company. This Steelers defense isn’t the same one that Henry saw against the lowly Houston Texans last weekend en route to a career day.

Henry found incredibly little running room against an excellent Steelers front. Henry ran for just 75 yards on 20 carries. It was only the second time in Henry’s career that he was held to 75 yards or less on 20 or more carries. As we’ve seen at other points this season, Henry was often hit at or behind the line scrimmage. He also had a hiccup in pass protection that contributed to one of Pittsburgh’s two sacks on the day.

Henry (and the offense as a whole) was much better in the second half. I liked that offensive coordinator Arthur Smith stuck with the run despite its first half struggles. There were times where you felt like the Steelers defense was starting to get a little tired of having to tackle Henry as the game wore on. As we’ve often seen throughout his career, Henry is more of a second-half player.

Henry was able to find the end zone on a goal line carry that helped cut the lead down to 27-24 in the fourth quarter:

Jeremy McNichols handled the ball just once for a short gain. As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, McNichols also had a role on third down, largely in part due to his sound technique in pass protection.

Henry and this entire rushing attack will have better days.

Wide receivers: B

This grade would be worse if not for A.J. Brown. The sophomore receiver continued his journey to superstardom with an electric performance that saw him total 153 yards on just 6 catches.

The highlight of Brown’s day was this 73-yarder that in reality was a 10-yard catch and a 63-yard scamper to pay dirt:

Brown’s work in the open field may be second to none among his peers. His ability to catch the ball and run away from defenders in the open field is a sight to behold. Brown is truly special after the catch. It was the sixth time Brown has reached 100 receiving yards or more in his 20-game career. That’s quite an incredible feat. Brown is one of the best young receivers in the game.

The Titans got Corey Davis back in action for the first time since he went on the reserve/COVID list a little over two weeks ago but he was mostly held in check. Davis did score the first touchdown of the day, a 4-yard pass that gave the Titans life after falling behind 14-0 early:

I expected to see more Adam Humphries, but he was held to just one catch for 19 yards. It was a play where Humphries wasn’t even the intended target. He made a great adjustment to catch a ball on third-and-long that went off the fingertips of Davis. It was a key play that kept the drive alive, but it was the first and last time we saw Humphries throughout the game:

No other Titans receiver caught a single pass. Kalif Raymond and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine combined to play just three snaps. The Titans will need more from their secondary pass catchers next week.

Tight ends: D-minus

This was the most anonymous performance I can recall from this group. The Titans had four tight ends active and they combined to catch 3 passes for less than 20 yards. Yikes. Jonnu Smith has enjoyed a breakout campaign thus far, but to say he was held in check would be an understatement. Smith caught just one pass for nine yards. He also had a holding penalty on the team’s first offensive snap of the game that killed a drive before it even started.

Anthony Firkser enjoyed the finest game of his career last week when he topped 100 yards for the first time, but he managed just 7 yards on Sunday. The Titans also had MyCole Pruitt and Geoff Swaim active, but neither player was targeted in the passing game. They both had some effective moments in the running game while combining to play a total of 25 snaps.

You can probably chalk this one up as an anomaly for this group.

Offensive line: C-plus

This was a half-decent day for this group all things considered. It was mostly a mixed bag, but the challenge was enormous.

There are some things to like here. Tannehill was sacked just twice. You can live with that given the quality of the opposition. One of those sacks came on the first play of the second half as Dennis Kelly was beaten in pass protection. Kelly has been great this season, but this was a performance he’ll want to move on from.

This group didn’t have a single penalty, which is excellent. To not have a single false start or holding penalty is an impressive feat, especially against this Steelers front.

It was an especially impressive day for Ty Sambrailo, who is replacing Taylor Lewan at left tackle. Sambrailo pitched a shutout despite drawing a tough assignment in Bud Dupree. Not only did Dupree fail to record a sack, but he wasn’t even credited with a tackle. That’s a huge win for Sambrailo. We would be silly to not point out that Sambrailo was afforded help on several plays whether in the form of chips or double teams. Overall, it was the type of performance that will give offensive line coach Keith Carter confidence that his unit is in good shape going forward despite the loss of their star player in Lewan.

Sambrailo’s performance will also allow the Titans to continue to bring Isaiah Wilson along slowly. A nightmare performance by the new left tackle would have likely led to more frustration from the fan base that Wilson isn’t the guy stepping in for Lewan. As long as Sambrailo has more days like this one, the Wilson chatter will be held at bay, and I’m sure that’s how Mike Vrabel prefers it.

On the flip side, there were some bad things as well. Giving up just two sacks is great, but Tannehill was under duress quite often. He was forced to get rid of the ball sooner than he would have liked to on several occasions, including on the backbreaking intentional grounding call. The Steelers also recorded six quarterback hits. T.J. Watt was downright terrific in this one. He was a pain in Tannehill’s butt all day long.

The O-line also failed to get any consistent push up front in the run game which lead to the pedestrian rushing numbers for Henry.

This group should have a much easier time handling the Bengals’ front next Sunday.

Defensive line: C-plus

Jeffery Simmons was once again very good. He probably played the best game of his young career against the Texans last weekend. It was nice to see him follow that up with another good performance against the Steelers.

Simmons announced himself early by getting under Ben Roethlisberger’s skin with what he deemed to be a late hit. Simmons wasn’t flagged on the play. Simmons continued to be a nuisance as he spent a lot of time in the backfield.

Simmons made his biggest play of the game when he got his fingertips on a Roethlisberger pass that lead to a Jayon Brown interception:

It was a key turnover that gave the Titans hope and confidence as they continued to mount a comeback. It was the second time in as many weeks that Simmons came up with a huge batted pass after he denied Deshaun Watson a two-point conversion last week that wound up being a key play in that comeback victory. I feel like I say it every week, but Simmons is well on his way to becoming one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league.

I didn’t notice much from any of the other defensive lineman. I have to review the tape, because Daquan Jones often does the dirty work that goes unnoticed, but he certainly didn’t pop on my initial viewing. The Steelers were held under 100 rushing yards, so this group obviously did some good things here.

Larrell Murchison had a nice rep that forced a holding penalty on Pittsburgh’s first rushing attempt of the game. Murchison continues to flash as a fifth-round rookie. I feel as if the future is bright for him. Jack Crawford played 27 snaps while Isaiah Mack was on the field for just 12 plays.

Inside Linebackers: B

I’ve been particularly harsh on Jayon Brown as of late. He has routinely struggled this year, and he had some bad moments early before he really stepped up. He may have been the best defensive player on the field for the Titans on Sunday. This grade would be significantly worse if not for Brown’s second-half performance.

Brown’s day got off the wrong foot. He was stiff-armed on a third-and-short by James Conner in the first quarter. In the second quarter, he hesitated to fill his gap and was washed out of a 24-yard Conner pickup.

Brown and the defense as a whole really picked things up in the second half. After the game, Titans safety Kevin Byard mentioned that pride kicked in after an embarrassing first half performance:

It sure felt like pride kicked in for Brown especially because we saw a very good Brown in the second half. It was more like the Brown we’ve come accustomed to seeing over the years. His string of excellent plays began with a great pass break-up in coverage against Juju Smith-Schuster. Brown has always been a great player in coverage, and it was impressive to see him record a PBU against a receiver of Smith-Schuster’s stature. Shortly thereafter, he made the interception that you saw under the defensive linemen header above.

Brown wasn’t done there. He denied the Steelers a chance to put the game away with under three minutes to play when he got his hands on a third-and-12 pass that resulted in a Amani Hooker interception. It gave the Titans a fighting chance when they needed it most. It was a terrific play and effort from Brown who did well to fight through the catch point:

Hopefully Brown can carry over this fine form into next weekend. This defense badly needs him to be consistent.

Unfortunately I don’t have good things to say about the rest of this group. Rashaan Evans continues to disappoint as he failed to make his presence felt. Daren Bates was elevated from the practice squad once again and was limited to special teams as per usual. Nick Dzubnar, who is usually limited to special teams was inexplicably on the field for this Steelers touchdown:

Why. Just why? It was Dzunbar’s lone snap on defense, but even one is too many. I would love to know what David Long did to this coaching staff. After playing just three snaps last weekend, Long was flat out inactive on Sunday as a healthy scratch. Long flashed a decent amount last season. He’s athletic and instinctual, something the Titans currently lack at the position (and maybe on the defense as a whole). Inexplicably, they’d rather have Bates and Dzubnar active. I understand the need for special teams aces, I really do, but Long’s lack of playing time is a bit of a mystery to me. Will Compton was also active, but was waived on Monday.

Outside linebackers: C-minus

I’m starting to feel like a broken record when writing about this group. Our very own John Glennon pointed out a very important fact in his 10 takeaways article: The Titans are paying Jadeveon Clowney $13 million this season and Vic Beasley $9.5 million, but the two edge rushers have combined for zero sacks this season. The Titans put up a big fat zero in the sack column on Sunday. That leaves them with just seven sacks through six games. Yikes.

The reason this grade isn’t worse is that Ben Roethlisberger got the ball out incredibly quick. And why wouldn’t he when the corners are playing 7-9 yards off their man? (More on that later):

The coverage on the back end rarely gave the pass rushers a chance. Jadeveon Clowney started the game well. He batted down a pass on the first play of the game and made a highlight-worthy play when he forced a fumble in the backfield on a Chase Claypool jet sweep. Claypool was fortunate to have the ball bounce right back into his arms. Clowney had a scary moment when he left the game in the second half with a lower body injury. He was seen having difficulty putting weight on his leg/ankle and later slumped to the ground after having trouble riding a stationary bike. Clowney thankfully returned to the field and played a total of of 58 snaps.

Harold Landry had a disappointing day. He failed to build on what I thought was his best performance of the season last week. Landry has just 1.5 sacks through six games. He continues to play almost every snap on defense. The Titans constantly talk about getting Landry some breathers, but rarely allow it to happen. They need to have Derick Roberson active on gameday. Continuing to roll with just three outside linebackers is a puzzling decision.

I thought Vic Beasley played his best game in a Titans uniform so far, but that isn’t saying much. After playing just 11 snaps last week, Beasley nearly tripled his snap count on Sunday. He had a really nice tackle for loss in the second half. Hopefully he can build on this performance.

The Titans can’t get to the quarterback to save their lives. Some of that is due to the horrid coverage on the back end, but this group has to own a lot of that responsibility as well.

They have a get-right matchup next week against a hurting Bengals O-line that has given up an astounding 28 sacks so far.

Cornerbacks: D-minus

I flirted with an “F” grade here. I thought long and hard about it, but I guess it can get worse. It’s tough to imagine right now, but it’s true.

Let’s get right into it. Roethlisberger’s pass chart paints a sad picture:

The game tape reveals an even uglier picture. The Steelers game plan was hilariously simple and yet brilliant: Figure out which Titans cornerback is allowing 7-9 yards of cushion in coverage and get the ball out quickly in their direction. If you don’t believe me, I highly suggest that you go through this Matt Waldman thread on Twitter:

It feels as if the Steelers keyed in on two members of the Titans secondary specifically: Johnathan Joseph and Tye Smith, who both had games to forget. Smith played just 23 snaps, but gave up 5 catches on 7 targets including a touchdown. Smith’s day got off to an ugly start when he inexplicably gave up the outside on the first of many third down conversions for the Steelers:

I’m not sure it gets easier than that on third-and-11. Speaking of third down, you’re probably aware that the Titans are currently historically bad in this category, and I do mean historically.

I’m going to borrow from Glennon’s 10 takeaways once again, because I can’t imagine putting it any other way for you: The Titans came into Sunday’s contest with the worst defensive third-down percentage in the league (57.8 percent) and somehow managed to get even worse in that category.

The Steelers converted 13-of-18 third-down attempts, a 72 percent clip that was almost as good as the Bills’ 13-for-17 third-down performance against the Titans three games ago. In fact, over those last three games, the Titans have allowed opponents to convert 33-of-49 third-down chances, a 67 percent success rate that’s mind-blowing.

Not all of that falls on the cornerbacks, but a lot of it does.

We mentioned that Joseph also had some rough moments. The 36-year-old Joseph was never going to fare well against the athletic Diontae Johnson:

The angle taken there is just atrocious.

While Smith’s and Joseph’s bad moments are easy to point out, they were not alone. Malcolm Butler contributed with a deep pass interference penalty largely because he failed to get his head turned around. Kristian Fulton was beat by Juju Smith-Schuster on a third-and-long (I know, right?). Fulton will now miss the next several weeks according to Paul Kuharsky. Chris Jackson was also active and played 32 uninspiring snaps.

I don’t have much else to say here. This team needs Adoree Jackson back in the worst way possible. The good news is that he’ll probably be back for the next game. The bad news is that I don’t expect any one person to solve these woes. When a defense is this bad, cornerback group included, it takes all 11 players (and coaches) to contribute. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. The players need to communicate and play better. The coaches need to coach better (and call better plays). With that said, I would be interested in seeing Kareem Orr get a chance to play more snaps. At this point, why not give him some of Smith’s or Joseph’s snaps? What’s the worst that could happen?

Safeties: C-minus

This group continues to be the most anonymous group on this defense and it’s tough to figure out why. In fact, I think one of us Broadway writers are going to have to take a deep dive into the Kevin Byard tape specifically and figure out what’s going on with him. I don’t know what to say about Byard right now. He’s just there. He has not been himself. You barely notice him. Maybe it has to do with the scheme. If so, the coaching staff needs to figure out how to get more out of their star safety.

It’s similar with Kenny Vaccaro. I’ve noticed Vaccaro a bit more than I have Byard this season, but he’s been largely anonymous as well. The only note I took down from Vaccaro’s game on Sunday during the broadcast was that he took a boneheaded 15 yard penalty. He was probably just venting his frustration.

Amani Hooker played 20 snaps and came up with the crucial interception you saw under the inside linebacker heading above. Dane Cruikshank also came down with an interception in the end zone on the last play of the first half, his only defensive snap in the contest.

Special teams: F

It went from bad to worse. Penalties and kicking errors plagued this unit last week and it was more of the same, just on a larger scale.

Daren Bates was called for a holding penalty on the first kick return of the game. Raymond later mishandled a kickoff while trying to get a running start. The error forced the Titans to start that drive inside their own 10-yard line.

The Steelers then returned a punt for 57 yards which set up an easy touchdown drive. Sigh.

Even the usually reliable Brett Kern and Beau Brinkley got in on the ugliness. A rare, bad Brinkley snap forced Kern to panic and throw it to one of several ineligible men downfield. I’m not sure why Kern did what he did. Adrenaline must have taken over, because he had plenty of time and space to still punt the ball away instead of trying to throw it. This punting gaff gifted the Steelers the ball back in Titans territory, but miraculously didn’t lead to more points.

Ah, the icing on the cake was yet to come. As inconsistent as the Titans were throughout the day, they had a chance to tie the game at the end when, you guessed it, the kicking woes reared their ugly head once again. Stephen Gostkowski missed from 45 yards out as the game came to a close. Gostkowski is now an abysmal 10-of-16 on the year.

The Titans fall to 5-1 and will have to be better in all three phases of the game next week.

Comments

  1. It’s amazing to see so many bad grades, and we still had a chance to win at the end. Ryan Tannehill has proven to be an elite quarterback who always has a chance to come back. It’s also amazing how our ability to get turnovers can make up for a lot of bad plays, but you can’t always expect tipped passes to fall in your direction. The Bengals have a bad record, but I heard last night on The Mike Vrabel show that they were leading in the 4th quarter in 4 games, but failed to win. A much better team than their record indicates. Joe Burrow is going to put up a lot of yards on our secondary, and if we don’t get the turnovers that we have been getting, then they could put up a lot of points.

    1. Thanks for reading. It’s true, the Titans had a chance to win despite some ugly performances. It’s a sign of a great team. They must take Cincinnati seriously. Burrow is very good and the weapons are as well. Hopefully the pass rush can finally get going in an ideal matchup for them

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