Gridiron Grades: Titans embarrass themselves on national television

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

Well, that was bad. There’s no way around it. The Tennessee Titans were lapped by their AFC South rivals on national television. An embarrassing second half meltdown resulted in a 34-17 loss. The end result means the Titans have lost the division lead to the team that just mopped the floor with them. This team has some serious soul searching to do.

The mini-bye week couldn’t come at a better time. This team has some glaring deficiencies on defense and special teams. They need to use this time wisely to figure out solutions before their season spirals out of control.

Let’s get into this mess.

Quarterback: C-minus

Ryan Tannehill and the passing attack continues to slump. Tannehill followed up a 158-yard performance in last week’s win with a 147-yard showing. This team obviously has other issues, but this passing offense has been average at best over the past four weeks. The offense is no longer masking the problems of the other units.

Tannehill completed just 15 of 27 passes. That’s “good” for a completion percentage of just 55.56%. It was the second week in a row that Tannehill posted a clip below the acceptable mark of 60 percent. In fact, Tannehill had NEVER finished a game below that mark since he took over as the starting quarterback in the middle of last year. He’s now done it in back-to-back games.

Part of the passing game’s recent struggles could be attributed to the opponents. There aren’t many good defenses in the NFL nowadays, but the Titans are seemingly seeing all of them on short notice — the Steelers three weeks ago, the Bears last week and the Colts this week. It doesn’t get better. The Ravens pose another defensive challenge next week, and the Colts rematch follows that up.

The passing game just isn’t in a rhythm right now.

It started so promising. Tannehill looked especially sharp on the team’s first drive of the game, a six play, 67-yard scoring drive that took just a little over three minutes and ended with this touchdown throw:

It appeared that the Colts defense were in for a long day, but that wasn’t to be.

The game got away from them in the third quarter. Two big, underrated plays in this contest came on the offensive side of the ball in the middle of the meltdown. Barely nursing a lead still, the Titans faced a crucial third-and-one. The play call was bad. A naked bootleg backfired and ended in a sack. The Titans then “got off” a horrific 17-yard punt that set up the Colts for an easy scoring drive. More on that later.

On the very next possession and play, Tannehill had a wide open man. He simply missed. It lead to a three-and-out, which was the last thing this team needed at that point. That’s when the block punt occurred. Meltdown complete.

Tannehill and this passing attack badly need to get back on schedule soon.

Running backs: B

Derrick Henry was the team’s best player on Thursday. In fact, it wasn’t even close. Henry played very well. He ran tough and finished with 103 yards on just 19 carries. It’s a shame that the game flow took carries out of his hand in the second half. This team has now wasted two very good Henry efforts this year. Prior to this season, the Titans had never lost a game when Henry rushed for triple digits. It’s now happened twice in three weeks. Sigh.

It was surprising to see Henry find so much room to run against a stout Colts defense. The running game really struggled in the first quarter, but found much more success in the second quarter. Henry’s longest run went for just 20 yards. It means he was, for the most part, consistently picking up chunks of yardage.

D’Onta Foreman carried the ball seven times for a measly 18 yards. His 2.6 yards per carry wasn’t even half of what Henry achieved (5.6). His touchdown catch you saw above was a great play design with Henry split out to the right of him. Tannehill faked it to Henry, which you always have to respect near the goal line. Foreman was wide open in the flat for an easy six.

Jeremy McNichols handled just three carries but looked more explosive than Foreman did. McNichols picked up an impressive 26 yards on his three attempts, mostly due to a 16-yard pickup. Khari Blasingame also had a nice 13-yard catch on the first play of the game.

This offense needs to get back to giving Henry 22-plus carries a game. The defense has to get off the field for that to happen, though.

Wide receivers: C-minus

The Titans needed more from A.J. Brown. He’s their star wideout but finished with just one catch for 21 yards. This poor effort was in spite of seeing four targets. Brown had a key, rare error when he dropped a sure touchdown that would have put the Titans up 14-0 early. It would have been a game-changing moment. It was very unlike him. There’s no reason to worry going forward.

Brown has also been suffering from a case of the dropsies as of late. He now has four drops in his last three games, which equals the same amount he had during the entire 2019 season. Brown will be beating himself up over that.

Corey Davis played with a heavy heart. He was by far and away the best receiver on the field. He turned six targets into a five-catch, 67-yard performance. Davis was a headache for the Colts. Our prayers are with him and his family during this incredibly difficult time.

This group continues to be top heavy with Adam Humphries out of the lineup. Cameron Batson made two catches for eight yards. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine failed to haul in his lone target. Kalif Raymond wasn’t targeted at all.

Tight ends: D-plus

This group continues to do very little. After opening the season on a hot streak, Jonnu Smith has gone nearly invisible. It’s worth noting that the injury to Taylor Lewan has impacted his usage. He’s being asked to help the tackles a lot more now than he did before Lewan’s injury. The hit he’s taken statistically probably isn’t a coincidence.

Some of the blame has to be placed at his feet though. He looked lethargic for a lot of this game. He caught just two of six targets for 14 yards. That’s not the type of production that’s going to land him the contract he’ll be looking for in free agency. He did score a touchdown on a carry at the goal line:

Anthony Firkser caught one pass for five yards. Geoff Swaim continues to do a decent job filling in for MyCole Pruitt as run blocker.

Offensive line: C

This was mostly a mixed bag. They did some good things, but made a few key mistakes in critical moments as well. Tannehill was sacked just once. As mentioned earlier, it was more about poor execution on a play call that I’m not a fan of (the naked bootleg).

Most of the struggles came in pass protection. More on that shortly.

This group did a pretty good job in the run game against a huge challenge. The Colts D-line is very good, but the Titans were able to manage 157 yards on the ground. It’s a shame the rest of the team wasted this effort.

Ty Sambrailo probably played his worst game so far. On the team’s second possession, he turned a manageable third-and-6 into a third-and-11 thanks to a false start. It lead to a punt. Later in the game, he overstepped in pass protection and got beaten badly by Justin Houston, who absolutely smoked Tannehill as he released a pass.

Jamil Douglas was called into action for the second week in a row. He actually played multiple positions. He first replaced Ben Jones at center for a series in the second quarter. Jones was thankfully able to return. Rodger Saffold left the game for the third week in a row. He limped off the field while putting very little weight on his left leg. It’s pretty obvious that Saffold is trying to play through something at this point. Douglas replaced him at left guard. Saffold actually returned in the second half before making another exit in the dying seconds of the third quarter. Douglas continues to play poorly in pass protection.

Nate Davis was called for a huge holding penalty in the second half. Down 27-17, Henry had a big run well into Colts territory on second-and-10. Davis’ penalty wiped out the run and effectively killed the drive and any hope of a comeback.

The Ravens’ front seven will prove to be another huge challenge in Week 11.

Defensive line: C-minus

Jeffery Simmons is a monster, but he was relatively quiet in this one. There could be lots of reasons why. The Colts routinely double-teamed him. He’s also been hampered by injury as of late and this game was played on a short week. Quinton Nelson also represents a tough matchup for anybody. Simmons has easily been the best and most consistent player on defense, but he didn’t stand out much here.

This group just didn’t do much collectively. DaQuan Jones had an excellent sack in the dying seconds of the second quarter. The Colts somehow had enough time to spike the ball and salvage a field goal.

Overall, the Titans DL just didn’t make enough plays. The Colts racked up 430 yards of total offense on just eight total drives. As our own Mike Herndon pointed out, that’s good for more than 53 yards per drive. There’s plenty of blame to go around for that, and I’m of the opinion that this D-line is far and away the best defensive group on this horrid defense, but some of this debacle falls at their feet as well.

Inside linebackers: D-minus

Jayon Brown had been playing some good football as of late before this contest. Brown started the season poorly before playing three solid games in a row. Unfortunately, his struggles returned on primetime. Brown often does his best work in coverage, but he was very bad in coverage here:

Nyheim Hines caught five balls for 45 yards and a touchdown. Brown had no answer for him.

Its been a down year for Rashaan Evans. It feels like nothing is going right for him right now. He had an excellent tackle for loss shortly after the Titans missed a field goal, but was called for a facemask on the play. It sums up his year so far. I’ve mentioned in the past that Evans does his best work near the goal line and he came up with another big play there on a fourth down stop that helped preserve a 17-13 lead at the time.

But overall, Brown and Evans were horrid. As I’ve said at the conclusion of most games so far this year, the Titans need more consistency from them both. I’m not holding my breath at this point.

Outside linebackers: C-minus

This group showed signs of life in Week 9 but once again disappeared in Week 10. The Colts have a fantastic offensive line. As our own Mike Herndon noted, Philip Rivers got rid of the ball in 2.10 seconds on average — almost a quarter of a second faster than his 2.34-second season long mark. Quarterbacks seem to be getting the ball out quicker against the Titans than any other team in the league this season. The Titans never applied consistent pressure on Rivers despite him being a statue in the pocket.

That’s not to say they didn’t make any good plays at all. Harold Landry got good penetration on a third-and-short on the Colts’ first drive of the game. Jadeveon Clowney made several plays in the run game early. He recorded a pressure on another third-and-short that forced an errant throw. On the subsequent fourth down play, he essentially made the stop that went down officially as a Malcolm Butler tackle on the stat sheet. Clowney also made an excellent tackle for loss in the third quarter.

Simply put, this team isn’t getting anywhere near the level of pressure on the quarterback they thought they would this season. They’ve played nine games and Landry leads the team with 2.5 sacks. Clowney still hasn’t recorded one. Jon Robinson invested quite a bit to improve this group and the return on investment has been nonexistent.

Cornerbacks: C

There is so much blame to go around for this defensive performance, but the coverage made it way too easy for the 38-year-old Rivers. Its been a recurring issue this year and there’s no sign of it improving. Death by a thousand paper cuts continues to be a problem. Rivers threw for 308 yards despite connecting on just one pass that traveled more than 20 yards downfield. The defense continues to give up anything and everything underneath. Rivers completed 29 of 39 attempts. It was an easy day for him. Nobody fears the Titans defense right now. Nobody.

The Colts offense didn’t suffer a single three-and-out the entire day. They didn’t punt for the first (and only) time until the game was well in the bag.

Unlike some of their other miserable performances prior to this week, I wouldn’t point to one or two corners as having a particularly bad day. In fact, Breon Borders and Malcolm Butler looked quite decent. I actually thought other players (such as the linebackers and safeties) were more responsible for the poor coverage than any cornerback was, hence why this grade isn’t as bad as the others.

Safeties: F

I’m running out of ways to voice my displeasure with Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro. What can I say that I haven’t already said? I’m going to invest in a thesaurus so that I could start using some new terms for our readers. Both players have played well below their talent level all season long and there’s no reason to believe they’re going to improve in 2020.

Byard and Vaccaro were downright awful in this one. They allowed everything thrown their way to be completed.

Amani Hooker played just 18 snaps.

If Byard and Vaccaro had different last names, at least one of them would have been benched by now.

Special teams: F

This has to be without a doubt the worst special teams unit in all of football and it’s not particularly close.

It started so promising. Cameron Batson opened the game with a 34-yard kick yard return that included a fake to Raymond. Their first punt went for 47 yards. Stephen Gostkowski made yet another 50 yard field goal.

It was all downhill from there.

Despite a terrific debut performance from new punter Ryan Allen in Week 9, Mike Vrabel and company made a curious decision to bench Allen and move forward with practice squad punter Trevor Daniel. I broke the news midweek, and the reasoning given to me was that Daniel outperformed Allen in practice. I would love to know what Allen did in practice. Did he shank every single punt?

This decision proved to be a disaster of epic proportions. Putting it nicely, Daniel was a trainwreck on Thursday night. He punted just three times but found a way to contribute to an epic second half meltdown. His *checks notes* 17-yard (???) punt from his own end zone came at a crucial moment. He later had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. Obviously, the block isn’t all on him, but what a nightmare this was.

Vrabel made an odd, curious decision and it backfired in the biggest way imaginable. He opened up a can of worms and deserves every bit of criticism he receives for this. There’s no doubt that Allen will rightfully return as the punter next week while Brett Kern continues to heal from a wrist injury.

Back to the blocked punt. It was a colossal mental error by David Long who simply took the wrong guy. He allowed a clear path to the punter. It was an easy block and scoop-and-score for the Colts. The Titans are good for at least one special teams gaffe a week.

Let’s revisit Gostkowski. He missed yet another field goal, this time from 44 yards. He’s now 12 of 20 on field goals in 2020. The Titans inexplicably continue to stand by him. I find it sadly hilarious that he’s an impressive 6 of 7 from 50 yards or more. 40-49 has been his achilles heel. He’s now just 2 of 7 from that range.

The Titans are still in a decent spot at 6-3 but it sure as heck doesn’t feel like it right now. The sense of urgency to correct their mounting errors and downfalls should be at an all-time high.

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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