The Titans have problems to solve as a football team right now. In fact, they have lots of problems — some old, some new — that they must look to address as they head into their mini-bye.
At 6-3 and tied for the division lead, this team still has all of its goals in front of them. They’re in a much better spot than they were through nine games a year ago when they were sitting at 4-5, two games behind the 6-3 Texans, coming off a bad looking loss to a poor Panthers team, and staring down the barrel of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs coming to town.
However, the 2019 Titans team was still trending in a more positive direction. They’d won two of three after making the move to Ryan Tannehill and had seen their offense jump to life. The 2020 squad has now lost three of four and the offense is trending down at the moment. There is a lot that needs to be done to get this season back on track, so here are the issues they must tackle if they want to win the AFC South, ranked from most fixable to least fixable.
1. Trevor Daniel
Daniel was a disaster on Thursday night. He punted three times, one for 47 yards, one for 17 yards, and one was blocked and returned for a touchdown. Obviously, the block isn’t all on him, but the 17-yarder was and it came at a crucial moment in the game.
Ryan Allen was excellent against the Bears so I’m guessing he must have looked terrible in practice last week, but this is an easy fix… send Daniel back to FedEx and roll with Allen until Brett Kern can return (he’s out at least one more week by rule after being put on IR before the Bears game).
The Titans had gone a long time without having any major drop issues, but the past two games have seen a sudden spike in catchable passes hitting the ground. This feels like a focus issue and it should be something that can be addressed relatively easily. You don’t go for a season and a half with one of the lowest drop rates in the league and then suddenly forget how to catch.
3. Stephen Gostkowski
I probably should have this lower on my list after the past year and a half. The Titans have tried five different kickers over that time frame and only Greg Joseph and Cody Parkey have been even halfway decent.
I do understand the team’s reluctance to part ways with the veteran kicker. COVID rules have allowed teams to protect practice squad kickers, essentially making the top 50 to 60 options unavailable to a team like the Titans, including Joseph, who they really should have kept. It’s also not like Gostkowski is shanking kicks left and right. He’s proven that he still has plenty of leg and the ball looks good coming off of his foot… it just drifts right far too often.
That said, I don’t see how you can continue to trot him out there. He’s left 26 points on the board this season and it has directly cost them at least one game. Giorgio Tavecchio might not be better, but surely he can’t be worse, right?
4. Special Teams Gaffes
In 2019, the Titans special teams units were mostly good with the notable exception of the placekicker situation. They made key plays in wins over the Chiefs, Colts, and Patriots and generally avoided the killer mistakes that we’ve seen so far in 2020.
It’s hard to know how much of this to place on coaching versus execution, but the Titans simply can’t afford to continue giving away points and field position in the kicking game. I find it highly unlikely that Vrabel makes an in-season firing with Craig Aukerman, but the seat is certainly warming up for the special teams coordinator.
5. Explosive Plays
Last season, the Titans were elite at creating explosive plays on offense. This year, they’re still above average, but that’s not quite good enough with all the other problems on this list.
For the past few weeks it has seemed like the offense has gotten away from some of their top play action shot concepts. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of trust in the offensive line with Taylor Lewan out or simply a game plan decision, but they must find a way to get those back into the offense.
They also must improve their screen game. Last season, screens to Derrick Henry, Jonnu Smith, and A.J. Brown were some of the best calls on the sheet for Arthur Smith, but they seem to be lacking timing in 2020.
The Titans are struggling on the back end of their defense, but it’s not just the corners. In fact, against the Colts, the trio of Kevin Byard, Jayon Brown, and Kenny Vaccaro gave up 16 catches on 18 targets for 166 yards per PFF charting. There were way too many easy yards to be had in the middle of the field for Philip Rivers.
Adoree’ Jackson’s return will give the Titans their best corner back and that’s a huge deal. Not only does it give them better matchups outside, but it allows the coaching staff more flexibility with what they can call from a scheme standpoint. However, his return is not going to magically fix whatever is going on with Byard, Brown, and Vaccaro. Those guys must play better if this defense is going to pull out of the death spiral they’re in right now.
7. Pass Rush
It’s hard to see this one getting fixed. The Titans defense has managed just 11 sacks in nine games so far this season. Jadeveon Clowney is still waiting to open his account in Tennessee and Harold Landry leads the team with just 2.5 on the season.
Removing Vic Beasley from the rotation seemed to help a bit in Week 9, but the rush went dormant again on Thursday night against a much better Colts offensive line. Of course, Rivers getting 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 — has a lot to do with that, but it’s also not like the Titans pass rush was getting close with any sort of regularity.
Unlike the secondary, where Adoree’ Jackson looms as a potential big addition, there is no white knight coming for the Titans pass rush. Unless Landry and Clowney can flip a switch and start winning more one-on-one matchups, this is unlikely to become the impact unit that fans hoped for when Clowney signed.
8. Pass Protection
This is the Achilles heel of an otherwise solid Titans offense and it’s not going to get better. Ty Sambrailo has been okay filling in for Taylor Lewan at left tackle, but going from borderline Pro Bowl level play to replacement level at one of the most important positions on the football field is a huge blow.
The team reportedly tried to trade for Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff before the trade deadline, but could not find acceptable terms for both sides (likely relating to how much of his $5.9-million base salary the Titans wanted Minnesota to eat). That tells you a little bit about how they view Sambrailo.
The issue has been made worse in the last two weeks as Rodger Saffold has been in and out of the lineup with shoulder and ankle injuries. Ben Jones left last night’s game briefly with some sort of issue and then came back in. Even Dennis Kelly missed some snaps against the Colts and we know that he’s been working through a knee injury in recent weeks.
Getting Saffold, Jones, and Kelly healthy would help matters for sure, but the ceiling for this offensive line is capped with Sambrailo and Kelly at the tackle spots. You don’t feel good about leaving either one alone with top level edge rushers and that limits a lot of what you can do in the passing game from a scheme standpoint.
I think it’s probably a long shot, but I wonder if the Titans will give any thought to the idea of getting Isaiah Wilson into the mix over their mini-bye. His 2020 has gone about as bad as it could have, but he’s still an incredibly talented guy and it seems as if he’s at least strung together a couple weeks of progress now. I’m not sure that he’s the answer, but if he’s not, it’s hard to see how this problem gets fixed this season.