Gridiron Grades: Titans embarrass themselves in blowout loss to Cardinals

Welcome to the 2021 Titans season! ‘Gridiron Grades’ with Justin Melo is a recurring piece that will assign a letter grade to each position group following every Titans game.

It went exactly how you thought it would, right? Right?

The Titans entered Sunday’s contest with a lot of hype. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to recall a regular-season opener that had Titans fans more excited than Sunday’s game against the Cardinals did.

Saying the Titans failed to live up to that hype would be an understatement. They laid an egg, and were badly and truly beaten at home by a final score of 38-13.

The Titans didn’t do anything at the expected level in this game. They didn’t tackle well. They didn’t move the ball on offense. They didn’t get enough stops on defense. They sure as heck didn’t block well. They were piss poor in all three phases of the game. I could go on and on.

Their offense didn’t look like the unit we’ve grown fond of over the past 18 months. Their defense on the other hand, well, they looked exactly like they did a year ago.

Let’s get into this mess.

Quarterback: C-minus

There wasn’t a whole lot Ryan Tannehill could have done differently on Sunday. It was a collective failure, not an individual one. Simply put, the guys around him (especially the ones in front of him) didn’t give him a chance. Tannehill was hit, sacked, knocked down and abused on what felt like a snap-by-snap basis.

Tannehill Finished the game 21-of-35 with 212 yards, a touchdown pass, an interception and a rushing touchdown.

At times, Tannehill did what he could. At others, he didn’t do enough and held onto the ball for longer than he should have. When it was good, it was shades of 2020. Tannehill used his legs to get the Titans on the board via a nifty one-yard scramble that came on a key third down. Later in the game, Tannehill would hit A.J. Brown for a well-placed TD pass that had a ton of zip on it.

There’s really nothing else to say here. That touchdown pass was one of maybe two or three positive plays made by the offense on Sunday. The Titans offense shot themselves in the foot time and time again. Tannehill wasn’t the main culprit, but he’ll still want to forget this one as soon as possible.

Running backs: D

Derrick Henry found little to no room to run the ball. He finished the game with a measly 58 yards on 17 carries. The 3.4 yard-per-carry average is one of the worst outputs we’ve seen from Henry in recent memory. Henry’s longest run of the day went for 19 yards. A tip of the cap to the Cardinals defense.

Henry often defers the credit to his offensive line when he plays well. He won’t blame his O-line here, but they failed to get their engine going and were largely responsible for this misfire. The Cardinals won the battle up front from the opening whistle. Chandler Jones (more on him later) and J.J. Watt made several plays in the backfield. Both players made the world of a difference on Sunday.

Jeremy McNichols carried the ball twice for nine yards.

Henry will look to bounce back against a tough Seahawks front seven next weekend.

Wide receivers: C-minus

We all had Chester Rogers leading the Titans in receptions and yards on our bingo cards, right? It’s safe to say it wasn’t the start we envisioned for this group. Brown caught four balls for 49 yards and the TD you saw under the ‘quarterback’ heading. Brown looked good. The Titans should try targeting him more often. Just a thought.

It was a quiet debut game for Julio Jones in a Titans jersey, and that’s putting it lightly. Jones finished with 29 yards on three catches and missed a few opportunities to make a larger impact. Much has been made about the lack of chemistry between Tannehill and Jones. The two have rarely had practice time together, and the lack of cohesion and timing looked like a real issue on Sunday. You expect these two to get it worked out, but it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Tight ends: F

This group had a disappointing day overall. Anthony Firkser had three catches that went for a quiet 19 yards. Geoff Swaim and MyCole Pruitt were also active, but failed to record a catch. Swaim was credited with a few drops.

There was nothing positive here. Truthfully, what was more disappointing than the lack of catches for Swaim and Pruitt was how they were net negatives in the run game and when called upon to help in pass protection. These two players are here to help open up holes for Henry. They failed to do that. They’re here to help the left tackle or right tackle in pass pro. They failed to do that. You have the Swaim’s and Pruitt’s on your roster to help out in these areas of the game. When they’re not doing that, they’re of no use to the offense.

None of the tight ends did their jobs at the expected level on Sunday.

Offensive line: F

Oh boy. Where do we start? That was PITIFUL.

The Arizona Cardinals’ defensive line won the line of scrimmage on a snap-by-snap basis. It was a collective failure by the starting five. Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan played in his first game since tearing his ACL during Week 6 of the 2020 season. He looked like a guy who hasn’t played football in nearly a year. He was beaten early and often by Chandler Jones, who recorded an ASTOUNDING FIVE sacks (!) on the day.

It didn’t matter if Henry ran it left, right or up the gut — there was no running room to be found. In the passing game, Tannehill was sacked a ridiculous six times and hit or knocked down more times than you can count. You expect better from guys like Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Nate Davis and Ben Jones.

Let’s talk about Kendall Lamm for a second. Lamm replaced Lewan for 12 plays in the third quarter. On those two handfuls of plays, Lamm was responsible for two false starts and gave up a strip-sack. General manager Jon Robinson essentially replaced a very decent player in Dennis Kelly with Lamm. It seemed like an odd decision at the time, and it looked even worse than that today. The sample size is obviously small, but it looks like a real head-scratcher as of now. Not only did Lamm fail to win the starting right tackle job, like many expected him to, but he barely looked like an NFL tackle on Sunday.

If the Titans want Tannehill to make it through the season, their offense line will have to be A LOT better than they were today.

Defensive line: D

I don’t have much for you here. It was insignificant. The Cardinals ran for 145 yards on the ground. Defending Kyler Murray is a tough assignment, and the Titans scored a failing grade. They didn’t get enough pressure. They didn’t tackle well. They didn’t finish plays. They didn’t contain Murray in the pocket. Wash, rinse, repeat.

There’s reason to be excited about the pairing of Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry, but they simply weren’t good enough on Sunday. Simmons did record a sack midway through the third quarter that led to a Cardinals punt, but it was already too little, too late by that point.

Teair Tart, Anthony Rush and Larrell Murchison were also active, but failed to make a mark.

Inside linebackers: D

I don’t have much for you here either. Rashaan Evans missed a key tackle in the red zone. On the very next play, Murray would rush for a touchdown on a play where Jayon Brown failed to keep contain. It capped a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive that took a little over five minutes. That pretty much sums it up. David Long Jr. missed this game and should get a fair amount of playing time when healthy.

Evans was poor last season, Brown was below average when healthy and both of these things were true on Sunday as well.

Outside linebackers: C-minus

It looked better than it did last season, but only marginally. Bud Dupree quietly played a decent game. He set the edge and recorded a few pressures. He was brought here to do more than that, though. He was credited with a single tackle. This defense needs him to impact the quarterback more often than he did in his first game.

Harold Landry was credited with three tackles and was one of very few bright spots on defense. He looked loose and explosive. Ola Adeniyi and Derick Roberson were active ahead of rookie pass rusher Rashad Weaver, but failed to carry over the momentum they built throughout July and August.

Upgrading this group was obviously a must over the offseason, but it didn’t look good enough on Sunday. Baby steps, I guess.

Defensive backs: C-minus

This group had its ups and downs, but it was mostly bad. Jackrabbit Jenkins had a relatively poor showing in his first game as the team’s new CB1. To be fair, DeAndre Hopkins is just about the worst matchup you could ask for in your first game for a new team. Jenkins spent a lot of time shadowing Hopkins, and did very little to make him uncomfortable. Hopkins caught six balls for 83 yards and two touchdowns. As was the case when he was in Houston, Hopkins had his way with the Titans secondary on Sunday.

Rookie DB Elijah Molden saw a lot of time at the nickel in his first career game. He had his good moments and bad moments. Molden started the game on the right foot with good, physical coverage in the red zone on fellow rookie Rondale Moore. The commentators thought a flag should have been thrown, but it looked good to me. Molden was later COOKED in coverage for a 26-yard TD by Christian Kirk, who finished the day with an impressive 5-70-2 line. It was a stark reminder of the physical limitations that Molden showed throughout the predraft testing process. He also had a missed tackle in the backfield that was pretty damning. It will be interesting to see if Chris Jackson takes his spot at nickel when healthy.

Kevin Byard had an up-and-down day. He was playing a good 10 yards off Hopkins on his second TD catch, a play that extended the Cardinals’ first-half lead to 17-0. Hopkins caught the ball, planted his foot and spun Byard out of his shoes. It looked a lot like the defense of last season. Byard may have been late while shifting over on the play.

Byard was later beat by Kirk on a crucial third down late in the second quarter. He was once again beaten by Kirk, this time for a TD for the final score of the game. The Cardinals made it 38-13 on that play and Titans fans began heading for their cars. Putting a safety in 1-on-1 coverage on a speedy, shifty slot receiver like Kirk seems like a bad idea.

Byard did “save” his day by recording a nice interception early in the third quarter. Murray had plenty of time to find an open man on the play. Byard played good coverage for several seconds, stuck with his man and picked the ball off. It was a great play by Byard.

Kristian Fulton was the team’s best defensive back. He was tough, physical and competed at the catch point. He challenged his man at the line of scrimmage on a consistent basis. It was great to see the second-year cornerback start his season off on the right foot. He was Tennessee’s best player on the field.

Special teams: D-minus

This article is a collector’s item. It’s the one and only, very rare edition of ‘Gridiron Grades’ that will include the words, ‘Michael Badgley’ in it.

The Titans kicker curse lives. Badgley was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster after starting kicker Sam Ficken hurt himself at practice earlier in the week. Badgley failed to make the most of the opportunity by missing an extra point and a 46 yard attempt near the end of the second quarter. It was fourth-and-1, and a terrible coaching decision to kick it.

Brett Kern punted three times for an average of 50.3 yards per punt. He looked like his regular stellar self.

The only thing saving this grade from an “F” was Kern’s performance and a trick special teams play that saw reserve safety Matthias Farley complete a pass to Amani Hooker on fourth down. It was well designed and executed.

This was all bad, and the Titans need to figure it out ASAP.

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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