Gridiron Grades: Titans’ defensive issues return in letdown 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 have issues on defense. You already knew this. That’s been the case for most of the season, but back-to-back impressive performances in wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts provided some hope that the defense had turned a corner. That was not the case in Sunday’s 41-35 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns racked up 344 yards in the first half (!) en route to a 38-7 lead at the break. 296 of those yards came through the air. The Titans’ defense found a way to make an average Browns offense look like a juggernaut. A Browns team that hadn’t scored 30 points TOTAL in their last four games put up an NFL-best 38-first-half points. The numbers speak for themselves. They looked like the Kansas City Chiefs out there. Baker Mayfield threw four touchdown passes in the first half. He entered the game with two TOTAL touchdowns in the previous five weeks.

The Titans made a faux attempt to comeback in the second half, but dug themselves too deep of an early hole to ever take them seriously in this one.

The loss coupled with a Colts victory over the Houston Texans means we have a tie atop the AFC South, again. The Titans hold the tiebreaker for now, but the Colts are once again on their heels.

Quarterback: B

Ryan Tannehill was not the problem. Turnovers on the ground and a non-existent defense forced this passing attack to chase the game for most of the day. Tannehill responded with 389 passing yards and three touchdowns. His numbers benefitted from the negative game script, but Tannehill was quite sharp nonetheless. It’s a shame the running game and defense did nothing to help him.

Tannehill started well. He connected with Corey Davis on his first passing attempt of the day, a nice gain that came via play action. Down 17-0 early, Tannehill led a quick scoring drive by leaning on his two-headed monster at receiver. It was capped off by this lovely touchdown pass to Davis:

Tannehill did a great job rolling to his right and finding Davis in the end zone after his first read was unavailable.

Tannehill kept things rolling in the second half, but the offense couldn’t overcome the disastrous first half by their counterpart.

Running backs: D-minus

Derrick Henry had himself a day against the Colts last Sunday. It’s unfortunate the momentum didn’t carry over. Henry is the best player on this team, so we’re not going to harp on this too much, but he certainly played one of his worst games in a Titans uniform. It proves that even the best of players have bad days.

After going for 140 yards in the first half just eight days ago, Henry could only manage 60 yards on 15 carries against the Browns. Game flow understandably took him out of the game quicker than we’re used to seeing.

The killer wasn’t the disappointing yardage total. It was a rare fumble from Henry that really put a damper on things. Prior to Sunday, Henry hadn’t fumbled since 2019. That streak came to an end when Henry coughed up the rock on the first play from scrimmage while already battling a 10-0 deficit. The turnover set the Browns up inside the Titans’ 25-yard line and lead to yet another touchdown. The route was on at that point.

It wasn’t Henry’s only first half mishap. On the Titan’s first possession of the game, they elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Browns’ 42-yard line. Henry failed to pick up the first down and the ball went back to Cleveland on downs. It initially looked like a bad spot, and Mike Vrabel challenged the call. It’s a challenge that head coaches rarely win, but this one had some merit to it. After much discussion, the referees decided to hold up their initial ruling. Cleveland would take the ball and march right down the field for their first of many touchdowns.

But even if this was a poor call, Henry could’ve done more to fight or extend for that one yard than he did on the play. He looked generally off for the majority of the game, not running through tackle attempts like he has the ability to. Henry will obviously bounce back from this. He has a prime “get right” spot against the Jacksonville Jaguars next week.

Jeremy McNichols caught a trio of passes in garbage time, and found the end zone late. D’Onta Foreman and Senorise Perry were limited to special teams play. Khari Blasingame was on the field for just five plays.

It’s incredibly rare to see Henry play just six more snaps (36) than his backup (30). It was a necessary evil that the Titans don’t want to happen again.

Wide receivers: B

If I was grading players individually, Davis would obviously get an A-plus here. Davis continued his impressive season with a career day on Sunday. He recorded 11 catches for an astounding 182 yards and a touchdown, which you saw above under the quarterback heading. He was routinely covered by cornerback Kevin Johnson, who had no answer for him. Davis has spent a lot of his time in Tennessee as a secondary role player, but he’s much more than that nowadays. He now leads the team in receiving yards with 801.

A.J. Brown totaled 87 yards on four catches, but the numbers don’t tell the full story. It wasn’t a good day for him. Brown put the ball on the ground twice. He lost a fumble at the end of the first half and nearly lost another one at the goal line in the third quarter. He was fortunate that MyCole Pruitt was in position for the scoop-and-score. Brown also dropped a deep ball in the second half. It wasn’t the first time he’s struggled with dropped passes this season, but the ball security issues were new.

Brown helped set up the team’s first scoring drive of the game with the big catch you’re about to see. It was his finest moment of the day.

Cameron Batson continues to be involved and continues to make the most of his opportunities. Batson caught just three passes for 14 yards, but two of those were significant. He made a lovely catch in the second half on fourth down to keep the comeback hope alive. The referees initially ruled it incomplete, but this time Vrabel would be successful in challenging the play. The replay revealed that Batson did a remarkable job controlling the ball while completing the diving catch near the sidelines. Batson later provided one final glimmer of hope with this impressive touchdown grab:

Batson appears to have blown past Kalif Raymond on the depth chart. He’s received many opportunities over the last few weeks and has impressed with most of them.

Adam Humphries returned to the lineup after a month-long absence following a nasty concussion. His return should’ve been a welcome sight, but he unfortunately hurt the team more than he helped them on Sunday. While trailing 41-21 with over five minutes left in the third quarter, the Titans were on the move inside the Browns’ 10-yard line. The hole was still steep, but the Titans had played a pretty good second half, and you felt like they somehow had a chance of pulling off an unlikely comeback. That hope died when Humphries let a ball go through his hands and hit him in the facemask. It was intercepted by M.J. Stewart.

Davis will look to keep things going next week while Brown and Humphries will hope for better days.

Tight ends: C-minus

It was always going to be a group effort with Jonnu Smith out of the lineup with injury. Pruitt returned for the first time in several weeks and found the end zone twice. His first touchdown was a brilliant play design that was aided by the defense having to account for a swing pass to Henry, similar to the one he scored on last week. It lead to an easy seven for Pruitt:

Pruitt scored his second touchdown of the game when he recovered a fumble at the goal line. It was a heads up play on his part:

Anthony Firkser caught five passes for 51 yards, but all of his production came in the definition of garbage time. Geoff Swaim was held off the stat sheet, and was lucky to not account for a Humphries-like error when a pass bounced off his hands and into the waiting arms of a defensive back. The play was called back due to an illegal hit on Swaim, which occurred after he had already dropped the pass.

This group contributed little in terms of tangible production last week, but at least did a great job blocking in the running game. That wasn’t the case this week, as they failed to help Henry and the offensive line establish their usual dominance on the ground.

Offensive line: C

This group failed to properly follow up what was their best performance of the season in last week’s victory. In all fairness, the defense didn’t give them much time to do so. Henry finished the game with a solid average of four yards per carry, but the run game had to be left in the dust as the team tried to mount a comeback.

Ryan Tannehill was sacked three times. Once again in fairness, the opposing pass rush is licking their chops when your offense is playing from behind and are forced to attempt 45 passes. Guys like Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi will make you pay for that.

David Quessenberry faced the ultimate test in his second career start. He saw a lot of Garrett in this one. I thought Quessenberry held his own, all things considered. Garrett definitely got the better of him on occasion, but it wasn’t the disaster we saw when Ty Sambrailo went up against Yannick Ngakoue just a few weeks ago.

This game qualifies as a forgettable one for the offensive line. They never really had a chance to make a positive impact here.

Defensive line: C-minus

This group was probably the best part of this defensive performance, but that isn’t saying much. It’s like being the nicest car at the dump. The Browns have the best one-two punch in the league at running back in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. They combined for 113 yards on 32 carries. Those numbers are in favor of the Titans given the size of the challenge here, but I feel like it was more a result of the Browns smartly choosing to attack the Titans via the air as opposed to on the ground. And even then, it would be naïve to think they made that decision because they feared this group. It was likely because they identified a secondary that was ripe for the picking. That’s just good coaching.

DaQuan Jones, Jeffery Simmons and Jack Crawford would pop up on occasion with a good stop in the run game, but any positive glimpses were pretty few and far between. They also did nothing to apply pressure on Mayfield. Simmons took a very silly unnecessary roughness penalty. This defense can’t afford to give up free yards via penalties. They do plenty of that through actual play. Matt Dickerson played 36 snaps. Teair Tart left the game with a shoulder injury. We hope it’s not severe.

Inside linebackers: D-minus

This position group struggled mightily. There’s just nothing good to say here. Rashaan Evans is supposed to be the leader of this group with Jayon Brown on injured reserve. How did Evans lead? By accounting for two personal foul penalties while being a giant liability in pass coverage.

David Long Jr. was able to provide a spark last week, but that wasn’t the case yesterday. Long played a little too eager and out of control. His best qualities are his instincts and fearless trigger. Sometimes it leads to him over-pursuing and taking himself out of the play. Unfortunately, it was one of those days for him.

Long was announced as a starter and was on the field for 51 plays. Will Compton got in on the action with 21 snaps. He was also ineffective. Seeing Long out-snap Compton by a margin of 30 is a stark contrast versus what we saw last week. It insinuates that Long is the guy going forward.

The defense as a whole allowed 10 yards per attempt through the air. That falls on everybody, but the linebackers contributed to this mess by constantly biting on play action. It often allowed Cleveland’s pass catchers to get wide open behind them.

You know the coaching staff is searching for answers when even Nick Dzunbar sees the field on defense. Spoiler alert: You’re not going to find any answers there. Daren Bates was limited to special teams.

Outside linebackers: F

Boy, this was rough. I’m not sure a Titans edge rusher got close enough to speak with Mayfield, let alone sack him. I seriously can’t recall a single rep where Mayfield was truly under duress because an edge rusher won their one-on-one matchup. Predictably, Mayfield wasn’t sacked in this one.

Harold Landry is overworked and it shows. He’s always on the field because he’s the only good edge defender they have. It’s taking a toll on his production. He did tip a redzone pass at the goal line in the first half, leading to an incompletion, but the Browns scored two plays later. He also forced an intentional grounding penalty on an un-blocked rush, but it was too late at that point.

Derick Roberson and Tuzar Skipper continue to operate as the team’s second and third rushers, but didn’t do anything of note. Roberson matched his snap total (25) from last week. Skipper saw a big increase in playing time. He was on the field for 24 plays as opposed to just six last week. It’s likely that the Titans were looking for a spark from someone, anyone that could get after the quarterback. Skipper is not that guy.

With the news breaking that Jadeveon Clowney is officially OUT for the remainder of the season, and the Vic Beasley debacle still looming large, there’s little to no hope that this group will be an asset going forward. It’s much more likely that they continue to be the liability they’ve been for most of the season. Fixing this group has to be priority numero uno this offseason.

Cornerbacks: F

Its been a while since this group had a stinker, but all of their bad early season tendencies returned to the forefront here. The Browns’ pass catches were open on a snap-by-snap basis. Soft coverage, bad communication and flat out losing their reps led to the embarrassment we witnessed.

Breon Borders has received a lot of praise for his play as of late, but he looked more like a journeymen undrafted free agent here. He had a really rough day. It started when he gave up a big catch on a key third down early to Rashard Higgins. He later got embarrassed by Donovan Peoples-Jones for this 75-yard touchdown:

Borders bit hard on the play action and the out-and-up route. He wasn’t even in the same area code as Peoples-Jones. The Browns likely noticed Borders’ willingness to come downhill and tackle in the run game during their week of film study. They did a great job designing a play to take advantage of Borders’ eagerness.

Unfortunately, his nightmarish day didn’t end there. Just a few minutes later, Borders gave up another touchdown. It was Higgins who got behind him this time:

He was routinely picked on by Mayfield and company. This game doesn’t erase all of the good things Borders has done in recent weeks, but if you were one of those people who thought this team doesn’t need Adoree Jackson back, then shame on you. This team still needs Jackson back in every way possible. Borders will take his spot on the bench when the time comes.

Malcolm Butler has been terrific in recent weeks but he also had a rough game. He got absolutely roasted by Jarvis Landry for the first touchdown of the day. This video captures how badly Butler lost the rep right away before eventually falling down. Also, I have no idea what Kevin Byard is doing here.

The team’s highly-publicized third down issues returned, allowing the Browns to convert 10 of 16 attempts. A lot of that obviously falls on the cornerbacks.

Desmond King was a non-factor in coverage, and he failed to properly wrap up and tackle Mayfield on a blitz. Chris Milton and Tye Smith were both active. They played exclusively on special teams.

Safeties: F

I wish I had more to say here. I don’t. Byard and Kenny Vaccaro have been insignificant players for most of the season and that trend continued on Sunday. It’s like they’re not even on the field most of the time. They contributed to the terrible coverage that we routinely saw throughout the game. They’ve offered little to no value in 2020. I don’t expect things to change now.

Vaccaro recovered a fumble late. He was caught from behind while attempting to run it back.

Amani Hooker was a non-factor despite playing 30 snaps. Joshua Kalu played exclusively on special teams.

Special teams: C-plus

There isn’t much to note here. Brett Kern punted three times for a total of 138 yards, which works out to 46 yards per punt. He had a long of 54. It’s nice to see him back in action. He’s punted the ball well since returning from injury.

Stephen Gostkowski didn’t attempt a single field goal as the team often needed seven points instead of three. He was a perfect 3 for 3 on extra points.

Batson is now the team’s primary kick returner. He averaged 20.8 yards per return with a long of 27. The Titans don’t scare anybody on kickoff or punt returns.

The Titans will try to restore their pride in Jacksonville next week.

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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