Gridiron Grades: Titans defense embarrasses themselves in second straight loss

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 dropped their second game in a row as they fell 31-20 to the lowly Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8. Unlike last week when the Titans made it close late, it never felt like they were really in this game.

This is going to be a tough week for Mike Vrabel and company. The Titans were abysmal throughout the majority of this contest. These weren’t exactly world beaters on the other side, either — this was a Bengals offense that was missing five starters – four members of the offensive line and running back Joe Mixon. Analysts will have every right to label the Titans as “pretenders” after this loss.

Let’s get into it. Warning: The majority of these grades aren’t for the faint of heart.

Quarterback: C

Ryan Tannehill followed up a subpar performance with his worst game of the season (and possibly as a Titan). He wasn’t downright terrible, but he certainly wasn’t good either. Tannehill completed 18 of 30 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He was lucky to avoid multiple turnovers. More on that later.

Unlike the Steelers defense he saw last week, the Bengals defense is not a unit to fear. There was no reason for Tannehill not to be better in this one. He simply wasn’t. It never felt like the passing game got into a rhythm.

On the first truly noteworthy mistake of the day, Tannehill inexplicably came off his first read on a play that was clearly designed for Kalif Raymond. Raymond ran a wheel route and had a ton of separation by NFL standards. For whatever reason, Tannehill moved onto his next read and threw a checkdown pass to fullback Khari Blasingame instead. If he hits Raymond in stride like the play design calls for, it likely goes for seven.

Tannehill shook off that mistake to make a couple of good plays before he made another grave miscalculation. He picked up a first down with his legs on third-and-5 before dropping this absolute dime to Corey Davis on the next third down:

Unfortunately, Tannehill was unable to stay on the right path. Shortly after that beauty, he made a poor and truly uncharacteristic decision in the red zone. Bengals stud safety Jessie Bates III made him pay for his error:

Bates made some comments throughout the week that insinuated he hasn’t been overly impressed with Tannehill. This game likely did nothing to change his opinion. It was a tight window and Tannehill simply trusted his arm too much.

The Titans all but abandoned the passing game on the next drive, which was their best drive of the game — 75 yards ending in a touchdown. They attempted just one pass, an incomplete attempt to tight end MyCole Pruitt in the end zone.

Tannehill started the third quarter well, but the drive stalled after he was sacked for the first and only time on the day. Tannehill held onto the ball for a long time on his dropback, suggesting it was more of a coverage sack than a breakdown in protection. It wound up being a disappointing quarter for the offense as a whole.

Tannehill showed signs of life in the fourth quarter. He first found A.J. Brown in the flat for a nine-yard score where Brown’s toughness did most of the work, shaking free of multiple tacklers. Just a few minutes later, Tannehill found Davis in the end zone on what was an incredible individual effort by Davis. The score gave the Titans a faint glimmer of hope, but it quickly dwindled.

He was far from being the biggest issue on the field, but it was not a good game for the Titans’ signal caller. He somehow avoided interceptions on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. The first was ruled an interception before the referees ultimately determined that the ball hit the ground, and the second was wiped out by an offside penalty.

Tannehill will want to put this performance behind him ASAP.

Running backs: B-plus

This trio was undoubtedly the best position group on the field for the Titans. After finding little to no running room last week against a tough Steelers front, Derrick Henry (and company) found much more success Sunday.

The Titans did their best to stick with the ground game despite falling behind from the first possession of the game. Henry carried the ball a season-low 18 times, however. Part of that was due to a supporting cast that earned the touches they received.

Despite carrying the ball just 18 times, Henry totaled an impressive 112 yards. That’s good for 6.2 yards per carry. Henry’s longest run of the day went for just 21 yards. Instead of hitting a home run, Henry consistently picked up chunks of yardage. His lone touchdown of the day came on the team’s best drive of the game:

As mentioned above, after falling behind 10-0, the Titans went on a 75-yard scoring drive that saw every yard gained on the ground. Henry himself accounted for 46 of those yards (a received 15 more after a horse-collar penalty against Cincinnati). It was a dominant, tone-setting drive that felt like a momentum swinger. Unfortunately, the Titans were unable to build on it.

D’Onta Foreman made his Titans debut after signing to the team’s practice squad a few weeks ago, and what a debut it was. Foreman ran for 37 yards on just five carries. He averaged a whopping 7.4 yards per carry, and looked quick, tough and decisive while toting the rock. It was the type of performance that should earn him more playing time going forward.

Jeremy McNichols refused to be left in Foreman’s shadow. McNichols has acted as the team’s No. 2 running back over the last few weeks. It was interesting to see Foreman get touches before McNichols did, but he eventually found himself into the game as well. Like Foreman did, McNichols made the most his opportunities as he turned just four carries into an impressive 49 yards.

It will be interesting to see what the team does with rookie running back Darrynton Evans when he’s ready to return from injury. The team spent a third round pick on Evans with the thought that he would be the one to give Henry a breather while bringing a much needed change-of-pace presence to the position room. Evans has been unable to stay on the field, and hasn’t been especially impressive in the little action we’ve seen from him. In the meantime, McNichols and now Foreman have impressed in their part-time roles.

The Titans rushed for a whopping 218 yards. It’s a shame the rest of the team wasted this effort. This was actually the first time in Henry’s career that the team lost despite getting a 100+ yard effort from him. They were 16-0 in such games heading into this game. Make that 16-1. 

Wide receivers: B

Similar to last week’s letter grade for this group, this one is pretty top heavy. It was Brown who carried this unit against the Steelers, but it was Davis’ turn to put the passing offense on his back.

The highlight of Davis’ day was this 12-yard toe-dragging touchdown grab:

The play was initially ruled incomplete, but the refs gathered and ultimately made the right call. It was an incredible display of concentration, effort and awareness by Davis, who made eight catches for 128 yards on the day. He continues to quietly play very good football in a contract year.

After going for 153 yards last week, Brown was held to just 24 yards. The Titans tried to get Brown going with several short passes that mostly backfired. Brown did get on the scoresheet in the fourth quarter with this nifty little touchdown:

It was yet another exhibit of why Brown is one of the most difficult receivers to tackle in the open field.

Adam Humphries suffered a scary injury near halftime. As the Titans were desperately trying to find some points before the end of the second quarter, Tannehill targeted Humphries downfield. Humphries appeared to make an incredible diving grab when Bengals safety Bates collided with him and jarred the ball loose. It was an ugly sight to watch as Humphries saw his head take a hard bounce off the ground. He appeared to be unconscious for several minutes. The stretcher was brought out for him. Humphries miraculously got up and seemed to look in better shape. He didn’t need the stretcher, and left the game on the cart instead. It was an incredible display of toughness. It was ultimately ruled a concussion and he obviously didn’t return. Our prayers and thoughts are with Humphries.

As for the other receivers, Raymond made just one grab for 11 yards. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine was also active but played just two snaps.

The Titans will need more of a group effort from this position going forward.

Tight ends: D

This group followed up an anonymous performance with… yet another anonymous performance. It wasn’t quite as bad as last week’s collective 16 yard performance, but it certainly wasn’t good either.

Jonnu Smith was held in check for the second week in a row as he caught just two passes for 29 yards. One of those was a nice 19-yard catch-and-run, but it was Smith’s only noteworthy contribution.

Anthony Firkser also caught two passes, good for 36 yards. Both catches came in garbage time and were insignificant. The Titans also had Pruitt active, who was targeted once in the end zone but Tannehill sailed it high.

This made it two poor performances in a row from this group. Simply put, they need to be better.

Offensive line: B

This was quietly a pretty good performance. It will get overshadowed by the horrendous defense (more on that later) and a bad scoring output, but the offensive line was not the issue.

Tannehill was sacked just once, and as mentioned earlier, it was more of a coverage sack than anything. This group continues to be very impressive in pass protection.

Ty Sambrailo continues to play decent football at left tackle while minimizing the bad reps. He was blown up by Carl Lawson on a third-and-7. It lead to a negative play and forced a long, failed field goal attempt. Other than that hiccup, it was another sufficient performance for Sambrailo all things considered.

Ben Jones was called for a holding penalty that wiped out a first down run. It was this unit’s only infraction of the day. It was a costly penalty that eventually lead to a punt, but a questionable call as there didn’t appear to be much actual holding going on.

Rodger Saffold left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent shoulder injury. He was wincing in pain before making his exit. Many of us likely feared the worst, but Saffold was thankfully able to return after taking just two plays off. Losing Saffold for any extended period of time with Lewan already out for the season would have been a disaster. The Titans dodged a bullet.

In addition to the good work this group did in pass protection, they routinely pushed the Bengals D-line around while run blocking. The 218 yards gained on the ground should have lead to more points (and a victory), but that failure doesn’t fall at the feet of the O-line.

Defensive line: C-minus

Jeffery Simmons continues to play good football. He has easily been the best and most consistent player on this defense. That’s not saying much, but Simmons has been really good. He routinely gave the Bengals makeshift interior offensive line fits.

Outside of Simmons, there isn’t much to say here from an individual standpoint. Gio Bernard picked up chunks of yardage on several runs. The Bengals ran for 118 yards on 32 total team attempts and two touchdowns. The rushing totals aren’t great given the amount of carries, but there’s more than meets the eye here. The averages were brought down a little by QB sneaks and WR runs. The rushing numbers also look a lot better when you consider the fact that they were without four of their five starters on the O-line. The first two Bengals runs of the day went for 15 yards. The Titans were blown off the line of scrimmage on those runs, but the Bengals quickly turned their attention to a horrid passing defense instead. It was a great decision on their part.

DaQuan Jones has been pretty quiet as of late. Jack Crawford played 10 snaps while Isaiah Mack and Larrell Murchison were on the field for just eight and seven plays respectively. I don’t recall a single impressive play by any defensive linemen not named Simmons.

Inside linebackers: C-minus

Jayon Brown played his best game of the season last week and he was decent in this one as well. He started the game well by making a nice tackle at the line of scrimmage on Bernard on a second-and-1. Brown followed that up with what appeared to be a really nice pass break-up on Drew Sample, but Rashaan Evans was flagged for a hold on the play.

Speaking of Evans, he was quite poor once again. His next notable play after the hold materialized when he was absolutely manhandled by former Titans guard Quinton Spain on Samaje Perine’s one-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Spain arrived in Cincinnati just earlier this week, but he pushed around the Titans front seven a fair bit.

It wasn’t a total nightmare for Evans. He somewhat responded to his bad start by combining with Chris Jackson for a nice run stop. Shortly thereafter, he had another nice rep on a quick play to Tee Higgins.

Both Brown and Evans were completely washed out of the play on Bernard’s 12-yard touchdown run:

Brown and Evans have routinely been lost in the wash on run plays this year. It’s an ongoing problem that has mostly gone unnoticed due to the passing defense.

Evans did a nice job shooting his gap on a first-and-goal midway through the fourth quarter. As per usual, Evans plays his best football near his own goal line. Unfortunately just a few plays later, Brown was beat in coverage by Bernard for a touchdown:

It feels like teams are running that play with regularity near the Titans goal line with a high degree of success.

Brown appeared to have given the Titans a faint glimmer of hope when he picked off Joe Burrow with 2:58 to go, but the play was wiped out by an incredibly soft pass interference call. The referees didn’t even announce which Titans player the penalty was on, but it was apparently on Malcolm Butler. It was a weak call and ended any hope the Titans had of making a comeback.

David Long, Nick Dzunbar and Daren Bates were also active, but all three players were limited to special teams.

Outside linebackers: F

This letter grade may seem harsh, but I think it’s warranted given the circumstances. Burrow had been sacked an astounding 28 times entering this game, including an eight-sack game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Now that we’ve established that the Bengals starting O-line is horrible, let’s not forget that they entered this game with four of their five starters on the mend. They rolled out a patchwork offensive line that probably met for the first time in the parking lot prior to the game.

What did this high-priced outside linebacker group do against this hurting unit? Nothing. Nothing at all.

For the first time this season, Burrow wasn’t sacked. In fact, he wasn’t even hit (while releasing the ball):

I’ve been relatively patient and positive with this group, but there’s no silver lining to be found here. None. I’m pretty sure Jadeveon Clowney is either allergic to sacks or snake bit at this point. He had Burrow all but on the ground in the first quarter, but the rookie signal caller somehow escaped his grasp. Clowney recorded another pressure just minutes later that forced a Burrow throwaway on third down. He continues to play good football in the run game while routinely recording pressures, but when will he bring a quarterback to the ground?

The low point of the day for this group came when the Bengals decided to go for it on fourth-and-4 late in the second quarter:

Just look at how much time Burrow had to scan the field there. He could have taken a bathroom break while waiting for one of his receivers to become open. Just pitiful. That’s a six-man protection against three pass rushers. That means you have eight guys covering four receivers, and one of them still found a way to get open. More on the secondary later!

Speaking of pitiful, let’s move on to the abomination that is Vic Beasley. At this point, you’d have a hard time convincing me that Beasley isn’t one of the worst Titans free-agent signings of all time. Yes, of all time. Not only are the Titans not even close to sniffing a return on their $9.5 million investment, but Beasley is actively hurting this team. He’s a complete liability. You’d probably get more out of an undrafted free agent. He played 35 snaps. I’m not sure what he did outside of being flagged not once, but twice for lining up in the neutral zone. Yay! He’s played one decent game of football (last week) so far.

Harold Landry continues to play nearly every snap on defense. He’s recorded just 1.5 sacks so far this season. The Titans need to find a way to rotate some other pass rushers into the game on occasion. A fresher Landry would likely be more productive. The problem is they seem content to go into every game with just three active rushers.

The Titans are paying a lot of money for zero sack production. They now have seven TOTAL sacks through seven games. A lot of this has to do with how easy they are making it for opposing quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly, but the pass rushers have to do a better job of finishing as well.

Cornerbacks: F

Buckle your seatbelts. I mentioned in last week’s article that this group flirted with an “F” grade against the Steelers. I ultimately landed on a D-minus, but this performance was somehow even worse.

Ben Roethlisberger’s pass chart painted a sad picture last Sunday, and Burrow’s chart does more of the same:

The Bengals entered this game with a game plan that was pretty similar to the Steelers plan last week, and why wouldn’t they? They simply identified the weak link in coverage and went after that player all game long. While last week’s embarrassment was shared by Johnathan Joseph and Tye Smith, Sunday’s was exclusively held by Joseph.

I don’t know how else to put it. Joseph played one of the worst games I’ve ever seen a Titans cornerback play, and I’ve been exposed to some gems by Brice McCain, Valentino Blake, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Perish Cox.

At one point in the fourth quarter, Joseph had given up eight catches on 10 targets. It was worse than it sounds. Players have lost their jobs for far less.

Let’s attempt to give you a breakdown of Joseph’s horrific day. It began when he was embarrassed by Higgins on a third-and-5 early in the first quarter. Higgins climbed the ladder on him to make an impressive grab. Joseph never stood a chance. It was a sign of things to come.

Just a little later, Joseph was flagged for a 23-yard pass interference in the end zone that lead to an easy Bengals touchdown from the one-yard line. Higgins was the receiver on the play. Joseph may have felt harshly done by the call as he did a nice job to get his hands in through the ball and wasn’t face guarding. Still, Joseph failed to get his head turned around and when you do that, you give the referees a great reason to throw the flag.

In the second quarter, Higgins climbed the ladder once again with Joseph in coverage. It resulted in a first down. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to see a pattern here.

It was around this point in the game where it appeared that Breon Borders may have replaced Joseph. Borders gave up an easy slant to Auden Tate before we saw Joseph reenter the game. Joseph was then beaten down the sideline by Tate for another first down grab. It occurred on, you guessed it, third down.

Shortly after that Tate grab, the Bengals threw a quick out to him with Joseph in coverage. Joseph, who was a solid 7-9 yards away from his man, didn’t even come up to meet Tate at that point. Instead, he was caught flat-footed and actually backed away from Tate. It was a sign of weakness. If you’re going to play off your man on a quick pitch, the idea is to at least become aggressive and attempt to make the tackle where the catch transpired. Joseph didn’t even do that. Perhaps he already had no confidence in himself at that point.

Joseph was later beat for another first down on a third-and-3. Kenny Vaccaro took a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on the play. I wanted to take an unnecessary roughness penalty on my remote control.

Joseph was then beat in coverage for this Tyler Boyd touchdown:

Like most of the grabs the 36-year-old Joseph gave up on the day, that’s just far too easy.

To wrap up his day, Joseph was beat by Auden Tate one final time on a third down that sealed the Bengals’ victory. It was a great play by Tate, but it was a fitting conclusion.

Despite struggling right from the get-go, Joseph was in on a whopping 89.9% of the snaps on defense. I understand that this group is without Adoree Jackson and Kristian Fulton, but continuing to give Joseph snaps over any other cornerback that was active in this game is a real head-scratcher.

You may as well let me play in coverage.

It’ll be interesting to see where Vrabel and company go from here in regards to the players left in the building. How can you possibly trot Joseph out there next week? Joseph being released for this performance would make more sense than allowing him to play a single snap next weekend.

Chris Jackson would seemingly be next in the pecking order. He played 42 snaps, about 20 plays less than Joseph did. Kareem Orr was also active and in on 19 plays. Both players should out-snap Joseph going forward. I can’t think of one reason why they shouldn’t. The Titans appear to view both Jackson and Orr as nickel corners exclusively, however. I wouldn’t expect them to replace Joseph at this point, even if they should.

The next question will be how quickly the newly acquired Desmond King can get up to speed. Even if he doesn’t know the defensive scheme, his athleticism and experience make him an upgrade over the corpse of Joseph and the ineffective young players the Titans have tried and failed to get stops with.

Lost in this game was a pretty solid performance by Malcom Butler. For the second week in a row, Butler shadowed an opposing receiver. It was Chase Claypool last week, and it was A.J. Green this week. Claypool made one catch for -2 yards while Green made two catches for 19 yards. It’s safe to say that Butler is playing some pretty good football right now. Opposing quarterbacks have no reason to look his way, but that’s not Butler’s fault.

Butler was aggressive in coverage all day long. The Titans could use more cornerbacks with his confidence, attitude and mentality.

The Steelers converted 13-of-18 third-down attempts last week, good for a 72 percent clip. It was more of the same as the Bengals converted 10-of-15 third down attempts and scored on four-of-five trips in the red zone.

The Titans have allowed opponents to convert 43-of-64 third-down chances over the past four games.

Incredible. This team continues to field the worst third down defense in NFL history and there’s no reason to believe that a vast improvement is coming, even with Monday’s trade for King.

Safeties: D

Last week, I labeled this group as the most anonymous group on this defense and this performance did nothing to change my mind. I don’t know what to say about Kevin Byard. What in the world is going on with him? He merely exists. That’s it, that’s all. He’s a non-factor out there. If you hadn’t watched Byard prior to this year, you’d never guess that he’s a good NFL player. The coaching staff needs to figure out how to get more out of their star safety.

It’s similar with Kenny Vaccaro. He’s taken a 15-yard penalty in back-to-back games. I don’t really have anything else to say about him. Moving on.

Amani Hooker played 18 uninspiring snaps. Joshua Kalu and Chris Milton were limited to special teams.

Special teams: F

It was more of the same from this pathetic unit.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal. It was a 53-yard attempt going into the wind, but he’s paid to make kicks and rarely does so. Gostkowski is now 10-for-17 on the year, good for a 58.8 percent success rate AKA the worst in the league. I’m sure Vrabel still has an unwavering amount of confidence in him.

The Steelers returned a punt for 57 yards last week and the Bengals returned a kick for 49 yards this week. The big return occurred right after the Titans cut the lead down to 24-14 in the fourth quarter and needed a quick stop. Instead, the special teams coverage laid another egg.

For the second week in a row, Beau Brinkley had an ugly snap. It lead to a circus-like extra point. Brett Kern was forced to pick up the ball and throw it. It was intercepted and Kern appeared to hurt himself on the play. Brinkley has rarely made mistakes throughout his nine-year career, but that’s two gaffs in as many weeks.

The Titans are 5-2 but can’t be feeling good about themselves right now. The Nick Foles-lead Chicago Bears are the matchup next week. Chicago’s anemic passing attack versus this secondary is must watch television. Something’s gotta’ give. A good performance shouldn’t give you any confidence that this passing defense is ready to turn a corner, but another bad performance would further cement the league-wide embarrassment that they currently are.

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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