Gridiron Grades: Titans defense struggles in Week 3 victory

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

Sunday’s win over the Minnesota Vikings felt a lot like Week 2’s victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The offense was once again able to surpass 30 points and bail out the defense after yet another poor performance on that side of the ball.

The Titans are 3-0, and you have to praise their resilience for their continued ability to win these tight matchups…

But at some point, they’re going to start falling on the wrong side of these if they don’t clean up their play.

Quarterback: B

Ryan Tannehill continues to look sharp. When the team needed it most, Tannehill put them in an excellent position to win the game. He’s made a habit of that.

Tannehill completed 23 of 37 passes for 321 yards and an interception. It was Tannehill’s (and the offense’s) first turnover of the season, a poor throw on a late read. The underthrown pass targeted UDFA Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, who had done well to gain some separation in the end zone. The interception was squarely on Tannehill. Tannehill also failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season.

So why the “B” grade? It wasn’t perfect, but Tannehill still threw for more than 300 yards and lead the offense to yet another 30-plus point performance. He showed up when they needed him most. Tannehill gives this team a chance to win every week.

Running backs: B-plus

The run game finally looked like its dominant self in the second half of this contest. Henry didn’t find much running room in the first half, which was also the case against Denver and Jacksonville. But the Titans stayed patient with the run game, and Henry started to roll in the second half. He ran for 119 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 26 carries. That’s good for 4.9 yards per carry, which is easily Henry’s best output thus far. This could be the catapult that propels this rushing attack forward.

We also saw the debut of Darrynton Evans. Evans carried the ball 3 times for just 9 yards. We’d like to see him get more involved in the passing game going forward.

Wide receivers: B-minus

Kalif Raymond made a couple of explosive plays and had himself a career day, but this group left a little something to be desired. The Vikings secondary entered the game ravaged with injury, and I expected to see more Corey Davis.

Davis hauled in 5 of his 6 targets for an efficient 69 yards, including a long of 38. Adam Humphries continues to be a chain mover, and a key player in a passing attack that is missing their best player in A.J. Brown.

Just four true receivers were targeted throughout the game, and one of them (Westbrook) failed to haul in a pass. Westbrook also dropped a key pass near the end of the game. The Titans are slightly hurting for depth here.

Tight ends: C-plus

I feel similarly here. Jonnu Smith saw a team high 8 targets and hauled in 5 of them for just 61 yards. Tannehill targeted Smith early and often, but last week’s magic wasn’t there. Smith has the ability to make explosive plays, but just one of his receptions really popped on Sunday. It’s worth noting that Smith made two key grabs on the game-winning drive. He was also targeted in the end zone, but the coverage was consistently good. There’s no doubt that the Vikings paid Smith some special attention this week.

MyCole Pruitt caught 2 balls for 16 yards, and was his regular impressive self as a run blocker.

It was a surprise to see a goose egg in the targets department for Anthony Firkser. Given the current lack of depth at the back end of the receiver room, you’d expect to see Firkser receiver a solid handful of targets each week. He routinely came up big in the prior week’s victory over the Jaguars. I’d consider this one an outlier for him.

Offensive line: B-plus

This unit played their best game of the young season. A lot of that had to do with the success of the run game I touched on above. We saw some much-needed magic in the second half of this one. Rodger Saffold was the standout performer. He continuously won the line of scrimmage and opened up rush lanes for Henry. Dennis Kelly continues to quietly play some really good football. He’s been a pleasant surprise so far. Ben Jones had an errant snap early, but recovered well. Nate Davis has built on the development he showed down the stretch as a rookie last season.

Pre-snap penalties had been an issue in Weeks 1 and 2, but this group played a clean game in that department. Mike Vrabel will be pleased with that.

There is some cause for concern here though. Taylor Lewan left the game with a shoulder injury and didn’t return. He was replaced by Ty Sambrailo, who had some ugly moments both in the run game and as a pass blocker. To be fair, he’s a swing tackle who routinely went up against a very good Yannick Ngakoue, and he limited his losses.

If you want to be nitpicky, the pass protection wasn’t quite as good as it was the previous two weeks. Tannehill took only one sack, but he was forced to get rid of a couple of balls earlier than he would have liked to and took a number of hits.

The focus for this group shifts to the health of Lewan. Hopefully he’s ready for Pittsburgh next week.

Defensive line: C

After a slow’ish start, the Titans got a big performance from Jeffery Simmons. He notched his first sack of the season and routinely jumped off the screen.

The rest of the line, though, really struggled. DaQuan Jones was largely anonymous and Jack Crawford didn’t pop outside of an early pressure. Isaiah Mack and Larrell Murchison were invisible. Not including Simmons, the rest of this unit combined for just 3 tackles. Not a single one of those tackles went for a loss. Dalvin Cook ran for a career-high 181 yards on just 22 carries. That’s good for an average of 8.2 yards per carry, and it’s not like he busted a 75-yard run either. Cook’s longest run of the day was 39 yards. Remove that play and he still goes for 6.7 yards per carry. Yikes.

The Titans have now surrendered 391 yards on the ground over the past two weeks. That’s not good, and it starts up front. This letter grade would be worse if not for an impressive performance by Simmons.

Inside Linebackers: D

What is going on with this group? Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown have suffered poor starts to their seasons and yesterday was more of the same. Evans was completely washed out of the play on Cook’s 39-yard TD run. It looked awfully similar to his error on James Robinson’s 17-yard scamper last week. Evans did recover a fumble, but this was a poor showing for him overall.

Brown wasn’t any better. He made an impressive play early when he killed a screen on Minnesota’s first drive of the game, but that was his brightest contribution. Neither player made a stop behind the line of scrimmage. I assigned some blame to the D-line for the amount of yards the Titans have given up on the ground over the past two weeks, but this group shares a lot of that responsibility.

Where is David Long? He didn’t play a single snap on defense. It seems like he’s fallen behind Will Compton on the depth chart, who was caught in no man’s land on Kyle Rudolph’s short touchdown grab. It was a highlight worthy grab by Rudolph, but the coverage was poor. The defense badly needs this unit to pick it up.

Outside linebackers: C-plus

This group continues to apply some pressure, but have yet to get home. Harold Landry, Jadeveon Clowney, Kamalei Correa and Vic Beasley have combined for 0 sacks through three games. That’s not the type of sack production general manager Jon Robinson envisioned after signing Clowney and Beasley to one-year deals while budgeting to bring Correa back into the fold as well. It’s early and not cause for concern yet, but this group needs to start knocking the quarterback down at some point.

Landry and Clowney played a ton of snaps once again, 61 and 55 respectively. Landry continues to be a workhorse in this regard. He came off the field for just 4 snaps the entire day. Clowney also continues to play a ton after totaling 85% of their defensive snaps in this one. Beasley played just 16 snaps in his debut, but we expect to see that number rise in the coming weeks.

Clowney made some impressive plays in the run game, and had yet another great day pressuring the quarterback.

Disruption is production, but I expect more of this group. They also didn’t do a good enough job setting the edge in the run game.

Cornerbacks: C-minus

This group was largely poor once again. They were routinely burned in man coverage. For the second week in a row, Malcolm Butler got picked on a little. He was often seen around rookie Justin Jefferson, who had himself a day. After easing him into the offense over the first two weeks, the Vikings unleashed Jefferson in a major way. He caught 7 balls for 175 yards and a touchdown, including a 71 yard TD where he embarrassed Johnathan Joseph, who looked every bit of his age on that one. This group managed to make Jefferson look like a world beater.

Speaking of Joseph, he did some good things in the run game and also came up with an interception. His big plays redeemed this group a little, but it was a poor performance overall for a unit that really misses having Adoree Jackson back there. The cornerback play often made Kirk Cousins look like a top-10 quarterback, something he certainly is not.

Kristian Fulton went mostly unnoticed, which is typically a good thing for a cornerback. He did record a key sack which wound up being a big play in the game.

This group needs to get healthy and clean up their play with the Steelers passing attack coming to town in Week 4.

Safeties: C-minus

Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro were largely anonymous throughout this one. You don’t see that every day. These two are going to be tasked with a helping out a hurting cornerback group, and they failed to do that on Sunday. Byard recorded just two tackles and failed to make a memorable play. He took a bad angle on Cook’s 39-yard touchdown run. It was the second week in a row that Byard took a bad angle and missed a tackle on a long touchdown run. He’s not this team’s primary run defender, but he needs to be better than that, and usually is. It’s certainly nothing to worry about yet, and we’ll likely look back on this game as an outlier for him.

Amani Hooker made the game-clinching interception on a prayer of a pass. This group simply needs to be better. A lot better.

Special teams: A-plus

How about Stephen Gostkowski? He’s making Vrabel look like a genius for not giving up on him after his Week 1 nightmare. Gostkowski was a perfect 6-for-6 on the day, including 3-for-3 on field goals of 50 yards or more. Wow. Gostkowski hit a 55-yarder with just 1:48 to go to put the Titans ahead by one point. It was the third week in a row that Gostkowski hit the game-winner; his performance alone earns this group an A-plus.

Brett Kern was his usual reliable self. He punted 3 times for an average of 47.7 yards per punt. He just missed out on a highlight worthy punt that would have put the Vikings at the 1-yard line.

Joshua Kalu blocked a field goal, but was correctly ruled offside. He’s lucky that Vikings kicker Dan Bailey missed the follow-up attempt, as his error made a difficult 54-yard try a more makeable 49-yard kick. Perhaps his effort got in Bailey’s head, but it could have been a game-swinging mistake.

The Titans squeaked out another victory to move to a perfect 3-0, but they’ve yet to play a complete football game.

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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