Gridiron Grades: Titans can’t overcome turnovers vs. Patriots

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 preached taking care of the football after a five-turnover performance led to a letdown against the Houston Texans a week ago. Things did not improve unfortunately, as the Titans coughed the ball up three times in a blowout 36-13 loss to the New England Patriots in Foxboro. Whether it was costly special teams errors, untimely fumbles or failing to convert on fourth down, the Titans largely failed to get out of their own way on Sunday afternoon. It resulted in their second consecutive defeat for the first time this season.

Let’s get into it.

Quarterbacks: C-plus

Ryan Tannehill played better than the box score indicates while competing against an excellent Patriots defense alongside what is arguably the worst group of skill position players in the National Football League. Tannehill started strong, but fell behind the eight ball as the Titans had to rely on their traditional drop back passing game against a surging secondary that feasted against a group of receivers that struggled to separate.

Tannehill finished 11-of-21 for 93 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He added 24 rushing yards via five scrambles. Tannehill’s largest ‘error’ was one that simply went down as an incompletion on the stat sheet. The Titans were faced with a third down in the first half while trailing by a small margin. Tannehill had Chester Rogers, but some miscommunication on both sides led to a devastating miss. Rogers likely scores if Tannehill hits him in stride. It went down as a “what if” play. To add insult to injury, the Titans missed the field goal on the very next play.

Tannehill will hope to get Julio Jones back for their next game following a much-needed Week 13 bye.

Running backs: C-plus

Grading this group was a strange exercise. Dontrell Hilliard ran for 131 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. D’Onta Foreman gained 109 carries on 19 carries. Both players crossed the 100-yard mark against a stout front seven. As a team, the Titans rushed for a season-high 270 rushing yards. So why the subpar grade? You likely know why.

Hilliard coughed up the football shortly after the two minute warning in the second quarter. Tennessee’s offense was driving well into New England territory. They were trailing 13-7 at the time and looked poised to come away with points, possibly seven. Hilliard’s fumble was one of several backbreaking moments.

Foreman would join Hilliard in the doghouse in the third quarter. It was similarly haunting. Foreman was galloping for a 34-yard gain when some poor ball security allowed the Patriots to easily knock the ball out of his hands. Jalen Mills recovered it near the sidelines and it went down as yet another wasted opportunity on what was shaping up to be a good drive.

Hilliard at least somewhat made up for his error by rushing for an excellent 68-yard touchdown that cut New England’s lead to 16-13. It was nice to see an explosive running play. It was the first one since Derrick Henry went down with a foot injury.

You love the rushing production, and you really hate the turnovers. The Titans will likely continue to move forward with this duo in Henry’s absence when they resume play in Week 14.

Wide receivers: D

Tennessee entered this game with one of the saddest group of receivers you’ve seen. They carried just four, and they were Nick Westbrook, Dez Fitzpatrick, Chester Rogers and Cody Hollister, who rejoined the team just earlier this week via the practice squad. Hollister was immediately thrusted into the starting lineup on the outside opposite Westbrook as a response to Fitzpatrick’s multiple mental lapses from a week ago.

Hollister made a pair of big catches on Tennessee’s second drive. Hollister’s first grab went for 14-yards, and he did a nice job holding onto the ball despite taking a big shot to the midsection. His second catch was equally as impressive, as he made a man miss in the open field to help set up a first-and-goal. It was Hollister’s only two catches.

Westbrook caught a 24-yard flea flicker late in the second quarter as Tennessee’s offense pulled out all the stops. Westbrook also got into the end zone for a score that needed to be challenged due to some poor officiating.

Fitzpatrick caught a single pass for 14 yards. Rogers caught one pass for 2 yards. It’s all bad.

Tight ends: D-plus

I don’t have much here for you. MyCole Pruitt caught a single pass for 10 yards in the first quarter. Geoff Swaim caught one ball for eight yards. Anthony Firkser caught a seven-yard gain. That was it. No tight end recorded even two catches. Tommy Hudson was banged up early in the game.

It’s worth noting this group did some nice things up front as run blockers, Pruitt and Swaim particularly. Tennessee had a big day running the ball and this group was a positive part of that.

This group continues to be non-existent in the passing game, even with so many targets being available to go around due to injury.

Offensive line: A-minus

The big boys up front were easily Tennessee’s best performing position group on Sunday. As mentioned, the Titans found a shocking amount of success running the ball against New England’s excellent front seven. It was ironically Tennessee’s season-high rushing performance (270 yards) and it was largely because of how this group executed their blocks and assignments up front.

Aaron Brewer played an excellent game at right guard. He’s legitimately a better option than Nate Davis at this point. Davis has struggled mightily this season, and is now dealing with a concussion.

Things were largely positive in pass protection as well. Ryan Tannehill was sacked just twice on the day and typically had an adequate amount of time to operate from the pocket. The first sack went to Matthew Judon, who beat right tackle David Quessenberry, but Tannehill did Quessenberry no favors by stepping into Judon’s path.

All in all, this was a very strong performance up front.

Defensive line: B-minus

This group failed to make impact plays, but quietly played a good game in the trenches against a really good and tough offensive line. New England’s two-headed monster at the running back position was mostly held in check. Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris combined for 86 rushing yards on 20 carries. Harris found the end zone late in garbage time. I’d say Tennessee’s defensive line won the battle in the running game.

You sure would have liked to see the likes of Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry apply more pressure on the quarterback, but it wasn’t to be on Sunday. Undrafted free agent Naquan Jones recorded his second sack of the season with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. He executed a great arm-over move en route to the quarterback.

Linebackers: C-minus

Tennessee’s defense missed David Long Jr. in a major way. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones attacked the short middle of the field on an extremely consistent basis, and the likes of Jayon Brown, Dylan Cole and Monty Rice failed to stifle that strategy. Brown was especially disappointing, given that he’s hung his hat on his coverage ability for so long.

Rice also struggled. He was called for a first quarter hold while in coverage. It’s clear to see the rookie is out of his element as a young player trying to play coverage on the fly in the NFL. Rice eventually exited the game with an ankle injury and did not return. Tennessee only had three healthy inside linebackers, so Rice’s snaps went to Cole, who dropped a potential Pick-6 early in the third quarter. Sigh.

Harold Landry made some plays in the run game but didn’t impact the pocket like we expect him to. He was rarely around the quarterback. John Simon did not look like an NFL-calibre player. Derick Roberson was credited with half a sack, but did not play a consistent game.

This group badly needs Long, Bud Dupree and Rashaan Evans back.

Secondary: C

It was a mixed bag. Kevin Byard made some nice plays on New England’s first drive, but had his letdowns too. He was in coverage for a third-and-goal touchdown catch by Kendrick Bourne. In Byard’s defence, it was an excellent throw-and-catch, and I’m not sure Byard could have played it any better. Byard’s big error came on a 38-yard completion to Jakobi Meyers. Byard simply mistimed and misplayed the ball in the air. It could have been an interception, but went down as a big completion for the opposition instead. It was a rare error by Byard, who’s been in All-Pro form this season. Byard would later record a nice sack on a third-down blitz.

Amani Hooker got abused in coverage all throughout New England’s second possession. They attacked him in coverage constantly and found great success doing so. Jackrabbit Jenkins was called for a crucial 15-yard facemask penalty shortly after the Titans turned the ball over offensively. Jenkins would later suffer an injury in the fourth quarter. Elijah Molden, who popped up on the injury report late in the week, appeared to be playing through something. He did not compete with the energy and feistiness we’ve seen from him. Buster Skrine made his Titans debut.

All in all, Jones found too much success in the passing game, finishing 23-of-32 for 310 passing yards and two touchdowns. He routinely made crucial and clutch plays in the passing game. The secondary has to do better going forward.

Special teams: F

We’re going with the haunting “F” here. Where do we start? A bad special teams penalty wiped out a good Brett Kern punt following Tennessee’s first three-and-out offensive drive. It forced Kern to punt again, and ultimately cost the Titans 37 yards. Ouch. New England would receive the ball on Tennessee’s 40-yard line, and would go on to score a touchdown.

Ranny Bullock missed an extra point following Westbrook’s touchdown catch. Just minutes later, Bullock would miss a 44-yard field goal attempt. Bullock has been great this season, but he left a crucial four points on the field when the game was still close and could have gone either way. Patriots kick returner Gunner Olszewski had a big 37-yard kickoff return.

It was a bad special teams performance in all phases.

Coaching: B-minus

I did not have an issue with the way Vrabel coached the game. Down 7-0 late in the first quarter, he made the correct decision to keep the offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 in Patriots territory. Tennessee converted the fourth-down attempt via a Tannehill quarterback sneak. Vrabel later challenged a terrible call that ruled out receiver Westbrook short of the end zone. Vrabel rightfully won the challenge, and the Titans were awarded the TD.

On fourth-and-goal with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, down 26-13, Vrabel decided to go for it again. It was the right decision, despite Tennessee’s failure to convert. I DID have an issue with the play call. It was terrible. Tannehill rolled out to his right and targeted Hollister in JC Jackson’s direction. Jackson may be the best corner in all of football right now, and he came down with an interception. In fact, the entire four-play series on the goal line was called poorly. Todd Downing went galaxy-brain there. Both passing plays were poorly called and designed. That series of events dragged down this grade a bit.

The Titans will enter the bye week, and I can’t remember a team needing a bye as bad as this one does right now.

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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