Gridiron Grades: Titans flounder crucial opportunity vs. Steelers

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 continue to shoot themselves in the foot. An opportunity to move into the No. 1 seed in the AFC was wasted as the Titans were beaten 19-13 in Pittsburgh after being shut out in the second half. Tennessee continues to turn over the ball at an alarming rate. A five-turnover performance against the Houston Texans was followed by a three-turnover showing against the New England Patriots. After playing a clean game against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars a week ago, Tennessee’s offense returned to its sloppy ways, turning over the ball four times in a one-score defeat at Heinz Field. The defense did all it could, limiting Pittsburgh to just 168 yards of offense. Simply put, the offense isn’t good enough to win many football games right now.

Let’s run through this massive disappointment.

Quarterbacks: C-plus

Ryan Tannehill played better than the box score indicates while dealing with several issues that weren’t his own. Tennessee’s available group of skill players may be the worst in the National Football League, and that fact reared itself true in various instances.

Tannehill finished 23-of-32 for 153 yards and one interception. He added 18 rushing yards and a touchdown via five scrambles.

Tannehill’s largest ‘error’ was an interception that was a great play by Taco Charlton, who batted the pass into the air and into the waiting arms of Joe Schobert. It occured in the fourth quarter and allowed Pittsburgh to take a 19-13 lead, an outcome that became especially important at the end of the game.

Tannehill will hope to get A.J. Brown back for Thursday’s contest against the San Francisco 49ers.

Running backs: B-plus

The Titans had a lot of success running the ball. D’Onta Foreman was especially excellent, picking up 108 yards on 22 carries. The former Houston Texan added 27 receiving yards to his totals. Foreman was banged up several times throughout the game and managed to return when necessary. Foreman ran hard and showed great leadership by toughing it out.

Dontrell Hilliard had a nice game as well, gaining 49 yards on nine rushing attempts. Foreman averaged 4.9 yards per carry and Hilliard finished with 5.4 yards per attempt.

Jeremy McNichols picked up 26 yards on six carries. He made an excellent play on third down in the first quarter. It was third-and-8, McNichols caught a Tannehill pass and made an incredible individual effort to move the chains. He was hurt on the play by Casey Hayward, who collided with McNichols’ head/neck area. It appeared concerning, but it was ruled a shoulder injury and McNichols returned to the game.

You love the rushing production. Offensive coordinator Todd Downing should have stuck with the run in the red zone, particularly on the second-and-6 play that became third-and-14. The Titans will move forward with this trio.

Wide receivers: F

This group is unbelievably bad. Let’s recap some of their errors.

Nick Westbrook dropped a potential 40-yard gain early in the second quarter. The Tannehill pass was a bit in front of him, but he should have come down with it. We aren’t going to blame Westbrook for failing to pick up the first down on Tennessee’s final offensive play of the game. It was a great tackle and stop by Joe Haden. Westbrook “led” the team with 32 receiving yards on four catches.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Julio Jones left the game with a hamstring injury. Shocking, we know! Jones just can’t seem to get past recurring hamstring injuries. You’d be silly to think he’ll get healthy at any point. He hasn’t proven capable of doing so, despite being given ample opportunities to heal.

Racey McMath fumbled late in the third quarter. It was all imploding at that point. It occurred when Tennessee was up 13-10, and they’d never see the lead again. Tannehill screamed at McMath earlier for running the wrong route on a play. This is what he has to work with unfortunately.

There were *some* decent plays. Cody Hollister made a big third down grab early in the second quarter to crucially move the chains when the Titans were attempting to build on their 10-3 lead. A second-and-20 wide receiver screen to Chester Rogers picked up 13 and set up a favorable third-and-7. Rogers later moved the chains on third-and-11 early in the fourth quarter. He’s their most reliable receiver.

It’s all bad.

Tight ends: D-minus

I don’t have much here for you. This group is really bad. Anthony Firkser coughed up the football when Tennessee was up 10-0. It was a crucial turnover, the first of many on the day. On the next possession, Firkser moved the chains with a decent third-down grab. It wasn’t “redemption,” but it was a worthy catch-and-play. Firkser was later asked to chip T.J. Watt on a pass rush, but couldn’t do it correctly, and actually aided Watt in his pursuit of the quarterback. Geoff Swaim made one catch for five yards. MyCole Pruitt made one catch for one yard. Yay.

It’s worth noting this group did some nice things up front as run blockers, Pruitt and Swaim particularly. Tennessee had a big day running the ball and this group was a positive part of that.

This group continues to be non-existent in the passing game, even with so many targets being available to go around due to injury.

Offensive line: C-minus

This group just can’t pass protect to save their lives. They can’t. That goes for all five starters. Taylor Lewan has taken a massive step backwards in that area. Nate Davis has struggled all season long. Rodger Saffold missed this game, but his shoulder injury has also hampered his ability in pass pro. David Quessenberry was outmatched by T.J. Watt.

Let’s recap some of their errors.

Aaron Brewer started at left guard and was beat by Chris Wormley for a sack on the first play of the game. It’s worth noting retired offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz thought Hilliard was to blame. Lewan was called for a hold on Alex Highsmith in the red zone late in the second quarter in the midst of what appeared to be a great drive. Just plays later, Brewer was called for a false start that moved a second-and-goal from the 4-yard line back to the nine. Brewer did not play a very good game.

Nate Davis was called for a hold early in the fourth quarter that forced a first-and-20. David Quessenberry only avoided a drive-killing hold late in the fourth quarter because Pittsburgh denied the penalty since it resulted in a Tannehill fumble (that Tennessee recovered), turning a second-and-6 into a backbreaking third-and-14.

This group is largely atrocious in pass protection.

For as bad as they are in pass pro, this group continues to be excellent in run blocking. It’s maddening.

Ryan Tannehill has been sacked more than 40 times this season. It’s amazing he’s still healthy.

Defensive line: B-plus

This group played an excellent game. Undrafted free agent Naquan Jones played his best game as a pro. He was routinely in the backfield and made countless impact plays. Jones recorded an excellent sack (alongside Elijah Molden) midway through the first quarter. It forced a third-and-long and eventual punt.

Jeffery Simmons delivered a crushing blow on Najee Harris on third down that forced a punt. Mike Vrabel was fired up and seen celebrating with Simmons on the sidelines. The defense as a whole had terrific energy all day long, and consistently swarmed to the football.

A questionable roughing the passer call on Simmons took away a huge fumble (non-related to the call) that was forced by Amani Hooker.

Harris gained just 18 yards on 12 rushing attempts. Pittsburgh gained 35 rushing yards all game long. This group is playing great football. They deserved better from the offense today.

Linebackers: B

Zach Cunningham made his Titans debut and earned a surprise start alongside Rashaan Evans. Cunningham was replaced by Jayon Brown on obvious passing downs. Evans and Cunningham played some great football and were very energetic all game long.

It was GREAT to see Bud Dupree record a sack against his former team and quarterback. You know it meant a lot to him. Dupree got an excellent get off early in the third quarter to take down Ben Roethlisberger.

Harold Landry made some plays in the run game but didn’t impact the pocket like we expect him to. It will be interesting to see how David Long Jr. works back into the rotation at inside linebacker.

Secondary: B-plus

Buster Skine once again replaced the injured Jackrabbit Jenkins on the outside and played a great game in coverage. The referees were very questionable though. Skrine made an excellent play deep in coverage midway through the third quarter that was somehow called defensive pass interference. Pittsburgh were called for a hold on the play, so the penalties were offsetting. Still, it would have been an undeserved 40-plus-yard-penalty on Skrine for playing textbook coverage. It also saved Pittsburgh from getting a deserved 10-yard penalty.

Greg Mabin played great coverage on Chase Claypool on third down on Pittsburgh’s first possession of the game. It forced a punt. Kristian Fulton was called for a DPI at the goal line late in the third quarter. It was another highly questionable call that gifted Pittsburgh a first-and-goal at the one-yard line. Pittsburgh would eventually score a touchdown.

This group played a great game overall. Roethlisberger threw for just 148 yards on 16 completions. Dionate Johnson led the team in receiving with just 38 yards on five catches. It was a great day for the defensive backs, who were ultimately let down by the offense.

Special teams: B

Chester Rogers had an excellent 51-yard punt return that got Tennessee off on the right foot. It wasn’t all perfect for Rogers, who should have called a fair catch on a second-half punt. He didn’t, he was immediately hit and lost his handle on the football, but luckily recovered.

Randy Bullock was 2-for-2 on field goals and 1-for-1 on extra points. Brett Kern punted three times for 143 yards, with a long of 54. He also had one rather average punt in the first half.

It’s a short turnaround as the Titans will host the 49ers on Thursday.

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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