Gridiron Grades: Titans offense flounders in disappointing end to 2020 season

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

Sports are a funny thing sometimes. We spent much of the 2020 season heaping praise on the Tennessee Titans offense while cursing the defense. To be fair, both reactions were well deserved. It felt like the offense needed to score 30-plus points a game in order to survive. But in the end, it was that same high-powered offense that let them down when it mattered most.

Teresa Walker of AP Pro Football summed it up perfectly.

Let’s provide some details. Tennessee jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead in the first quarter. It was a dream start but it didn’t last long. Baltimore scored 17 unanswered points and took a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter.

The second quarter was particularly nightmarish. The Ravens outgained the Titans 135 to -7 and outscored them 10-0. Yikes.

The defense wasn’t perfect, but they gave the offense plenty of opportunities to catch up and even take a lead. Arthur Smith’s unit was unable to take advantage.

Mike Vrabel also deserves some flack. Vrabel is a great coach, but he isn’t immune to making a bad in-game decision (remember all those fake punts/field goals last year?). For a coach that has been very aggressive throughout his tenure in Tennessee, he picked the worst time to make the most cowardly decision of his coaching career thus far.

With 10:06 left in the fourth quarter and trailing 17-13, the Titans were faced with a fourth-and-two from Baltimore’s 40-yard line. Instead of trusting his high-powered offense to convert, Vrabel decided to punt the ball. Brett Kern got off a bad punt and the play netted the Titans just 25 yards. For reference, Baltimore would go on to gain 54 yards in their next five plays. The decision wasn’t the only reason the Titans lost the game, but it certainly contributed.

Not only was it unfathomable, it was unrecognizable. This is the same coach that went for it on fourth-and-11 last week against the Texans. This is the same coach that once passed up the opportunity to end the game in a tie against the Eagles and went for a win in overtime. This is the same coach that once went for a two-point conversion in London against the Chargers in attempt to win the game in regulation instead of playing for OT.

This was how Vrabel explained the decision:

Alright then.

The Titans had a chance to make up for Vrabel’s blunder near the end, but like the rest of the day often went, the offense wasn’t up to the task.

Let’s get into it.

Quarterback: C-minus

It wasn’t nearly good enough. It was more of a collective failure than an individual one, but we’ll get to that later. Ryan Tannehill has to do more than he did. The Ravens sold out on defense to stop the Titans’ rushing attack and it worked. That meant the team needed more from their passing game. The Ravens loaded the box all day long and left plenty of 1-v-1 passing opportunities on the outside. Tannehill failed to take advantage and completed 18 of 26 attempts for just 165 yards, a touchdown pass and an interception.

Tannehill’s lone touchdown of the day opened the scoring at 7-0:

It was early, but you felt like the offense was going to ho-hum along to another big day. It wasn’t to be. In fact, it was their brightest moment of the afternoon and it was mostly downhill from there.

There were several negative plays we can harp on. Midway through the second quarter, Tannehill was sacked on a third down. It forced a punt and was one of the reasons why the offense didn’t gain a single yard in the quarter.

The Ravens would go one to tie the game at 10 apiece. Tannehill would make a mental error on the very next play. An attempted screen pass was batted into the air by a Ravens defensive linemen. Tannehill, instead of batting it to the ground and living to fight another down, caught it and lost 10 yards. It’s a bang-bang play, but it was a mental error that capped off yet another uninspiring possession, pitting the Titans in a second-and-20 hole that they couldn’t overcome.

The death blow was a Tannehill interception while targeting Kalif Raymond. Some have made the case for defensive pass interference on the play, but I thought Raymond simply fell down on minimal contact. What really hurts about the play is that A.J. Brown had a step on his man down the sideline, and may have tied the game if Tannehill makes the correct read and throws it his way. Instead, he locked in on Raymond fairly early, and some bad luck lead to the nail in the Titans’ coffin — although it was a good throw and likely completed if his receiver doesn’t fall down. It was a huge missed opportunity either way.

Tannehill had an excellent season, but this one will haunt him for the next several months.

Running backs: F

The last seven days are a stark reminder of how quickly things change in the sporting world. Derrick Henry spent the last week reaping the fruits of his labor after an incredible Week 17 performance lead to him hitting the prestigious 2,000-yard mark.

But Henry was held completely in check on Sunday. He finished the game with a season-low 40 yards on 18 carries. The 2.2 yard-per-carry average is also a season low. Henry’s longest run of the day went for a measly eight yards. A tip of the cap to the Ravens defense.

Henry often defers the credit to his offensive line when he plays well. Of course he won’t blame his O-line here, but they failed to get their engine going and were largely responsible for this misfire.

We mentioned it earlier, but the Ravens sold out to stop the run here and were 100% successful in doing so. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams missed the Week 11 matchup between these two teams. Both players made the world of a difference on Sunday.

This playoff loss has at least one thing in common with last year’s AFC Championship Game loss to the Chiefs: The Titans didn’t have an answer on offense when Henry was shut down by the opposing defense. There are plenty of other areas to focus on this offseason, but it’s something the Titans must reflect on.

Jeremy McNichols carried the ball once for four yards. Darrynton Evans gained a single yard on one carry.

Henry should get some well deserved rest this offseason, but the ultimate competitor in him will be itching to get back to work. He referred to this game as a “humbling” experience.

Wide receivers: C

Brown was the Titans’ best player on offense. He was hobbled throughout the week of practice with the same ankle injury he’s been battling all season long, but you wouldn’t know it based on his performance. Brown finished with 83 yards and the TD you saw above on six catches. His 10 targets were easily a team-high (nobody else had more than three). Brown got the better of Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey on several occasions. 10 targets are plenty, but you almost feel like Brown should have gotten even more looks.

Brown is a superstar. He’s already the best receiver to ever don the two-tone blue. He should only get better in Year 3. He’s already looking forward to it. In a now-deleted tweet, Brown proclaimed that he’s going to become the best receiver in the league one day. We look forward to watching his progression.

It wasn’t Corey Davis’ day. I pegged him for a big game following his disappointing showing in Houston last week, but it actually got worse. Davis failed to record a single catch and finished the game on the sidelines with a mysterious injury. As per usual, Vrabel was unwilling to explain why:

Yet another head-scratching quote. If this is it for Davis in Tennessee, he deserved better. It was wonderful to see Davis finally put it all together in Year 4. He now hits free agency after producing what was easily the best season of his young career. Tennessee should make a strong effort to bring him back, but there will be plenty of suitors on the open market as well.

Nick Westbrook-Ikhine recorded two catches for 17 yards before also exiting the game with an injury. One of them was a fairly big catch on a play-action pass late in the third quarter to set the Titans up inside the Ravens’ 10-yard line. Cameron Batson recorded just one catch, but it was a big third down conversion when the team badly needed to move the chains.

This group could look very different when the Titans take the field next.

Tight ends: D-plus

This group had a pretty disappointing day overall. Anthony Firkser made some big plays in the passing game. His first catch was a nine-yard grab that moved the chains. Later on a third-and-1, Firkser ripped off a huge 35-yard catch-and-run. He’s been such a nice weapon for this team on third down.

Outside of those Firkser grabs, there was nothing positive here. Jonnu Smith put in yet another anonymous performance that included two catches for nine yards. He also had a fairly important drop on a third-and-two. It was a pretty good hit that dislodged the ball loose, but you’d like to see him come down with it. Smith now enters free agency with less leverage than I thought he’d have. He didn’t have a great second half of the season. The Titans should bring him back, but they shouldn’t have to break the bank to do so.

Where this group really disappointed on Sunday was in the run game. We’ve often praised MyCole Pruitt and Geoff Swaim for the work they do in this area, but they were completely ineffective here. Run blocking is the true reason both of these players are on the roster, and they failed to do their jobs at the expected level on Sunday.

All four tight ends could hit free agency.

Offensive line: F

I went with an A-plus last week after this group powered the offense to 288 rushing yards and four TDs on the ground. I’m going with an “F” after this week’s pitiful performance.

The Baltimore Ravens’ defensive line won the line of scrimmage on a snap-by-snap basis. It was a collective failure by the starting five. It didn’t matter if Henry ran it left, right or up the gut — there was no running room to be found. You expect better from guys like Rodger Saffold, Nate Davis and Ben Jones. They just couldn’t get it going. They lost the battle of the trenches.

Tannehill was sacked just once but was also pressured a fair amount.

The offensive line should get a healthy Taylor Lewan back next year at left tackle while the other four starters are also set to return.

Defensive line: B

This group had a decent day. They held J.K. Dobbins to 43 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. Dobbins’ 4.8 yards-per-carry average suggests he could have had a bigger day if given more carries.

Lamar Jackson did run for 136 yards and a touchdown, but the majority of his yards came on two carries. He’s a dynamic athlete that’s going to make some big plays from time to time. I thought this D-line played him well overall.

DaQuan Jones was his usual disruptive self in and around the line of scrimmage. He also recorded a rare sack near halftime. It was a big play that ensured the Ravens wouldn’t get more points before the half came to an end. It was a coverage sack on a three-man rush.

Matt Dickerson recorded his first sack midway through the second quarter. He got a nice assist from Desmond King, who was responsible for the contain and played it so well, forcing Jackson to step up into the waiting arms of Dickerson, who did a nice job cleaning the play up.

Jack Crawford and Jeffery Simmons did some good things. Simmons was in on a key stop when the Titans were chasing the game down 17-10.

Larrell Murchison was active and played a few snaps.

Jones is an unrestricted free agent. The Titans should make an attempt to keep him at the right price. Simmons needs to get healthy and take another step forward in Year 3.

Inside linebackers: B

David Long Jr. finished his season on a high note. He replaced Jayon Brown in the starting lineup due to injury and played at an extremely high level. Long is the ideal defender you want to have on your side when facing an athletic Ravens offense. He’s a highly instinctual, aggressive and speedy linebacker. Despite Jackson’s final stat line, I thought the Titans defense did a terrific job keeping him in check and Long was a big part of that. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Long was this team’s best defender down the stretch.

I thought that Rashaan Evans had some good and bad moments. He made some plays in the run game, but also missed some opportunities. It’s worth noting that he recorded the pressure on Jackson’s interception. All in all, it was a very disappointing campaign for Evans, who took a big step backwards in 2020.

Nick Dzunbar played quite a bit as an outside linebacker on early downs. It was an interesting and effective choice. It was likely a wrinkle added to the gameplan this past week with the idea of getting a more athletic defender on the field to help contain Jackson. I don’t have any complaints there.

Will Compton and Daren Bates received their usual workloads on special teams. Bates was responsible for a bizarre penalty sequence at the end of the first half that ultimately ended in a Jackson kneel-down.

Outside linebackers: B-plus

This group certainly played one of their best games of the year. Harold Landry was terrific. He finished the game with a team-leading eight solo tackles (10 total), two sacks and two assists. He did a great job pressuring the quarterback and finishing while also containing Jackson as a runner on the edges.

Brooks Reed recorded a sack for the second week in a row. It was a big play in the red zone that held the Ravens to a field goal.

Upgrading this group obviously needs to be a huge priority for Jon Robinson this offseason, but in a twist we didn’t expect, the Titans didn’t lose a playoff game because of this anemic pass rush. They were good today.

Cornerbacks: B-minus

This group had its ups and downs. Jackson finished the game with just 179 passing yards while failing to throw a touchdown. He also threw one of the worst interceptions you’ll ever see, an absolute arm punt that was picked off by Malcolm Butler:

Desmond King played a great game. He may be a cornerback, but he actually did his best work in the run game as he bottled up Jackson on several QB run attempts.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of effort the Titans make to keep King in free agency. Robinson and co. will have to make wise decisions this offseason, and keeping Corey Davis at WR while upgrading the pass rush should take priority over keeping someone like King. Kristian Fulton could be viewed as an obvious replacement. On the flip side, there’s no doubt that King made this defense better when he arrived.

Adoree Jackson was bad. He routinely struggled to cover Marquise “Hollywood” Brown who accounted for all but 70 of his quarterback’s passing yards. Jackson had a rough game as a tackler as well.

This fan base waited so long for Jackson to return to the lineup as they clutched onto the idea that he would improve the passing defense. In reality, Jackson came back, played a truly awful game in Green Bay, an average at best game in Houston and another terrible game here.

The Titans will need Jackson to be healthy and so much better in 2021.

Safeties: C

This group didn’t do much. They were the worst position group on the field for the defense. They weren’t awful, just mostly anonymous.

Kenny Vaccaro played a role in a couple of run stops. Kevin Byard had a nice coverage rep on Mark Andrews on the Ravens’ first possession of the day, which forced a three-and-out. Outside of that, both Byard and Vaccaro had some disappointing moments. Byard took a terrible angle on Jackson’s electric 48-yard TD run. Vaccaro often looked like he was running in molasses and missed a few tackles himself.

Amani Hooker didn’t make an impact.

No Titan took a more surprising step backwards in 2020 than Byard did. He has to figure out what went wrong this year and return to form in 2021.

Special teams: C-plus

There’s not much to say here.

Stephen Gostkowski went 2-for-2 on on field goals with a long of 45. It was nice to see him return to form after a bout with Covid-19. He was also reliable on kickoffs.

Brett Kern got more work than usual due to the offense’s struggles. He punted five times for an average of 45.6 yards per punt. He got off a really poor punt on Vrabel’s questionable decision to boot it away.

The Titans wasted a season in which they had one of the best offenses in the league. They now enter a crucial offseason that has to be a lot better than the last one was.

Thanks to all who read along. I enjoyed embarking on this new series. I will do everything in my power to provide you with some very captivating offseason content, and will get back to this series in September.

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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