By John Glennon
Thank heaven for surprising storylines.
They help add a little spice to the drudgery of the preseason, which ended for the Titans on Saturday night with a 27-24 loss to Chicago at Nissan Stadium.
How often, after all, does someone with the title of coordinator of football development – which John Streicher holds for the Titans – ever get a chance to essentially function as a head coach for a night, even if the outcome is meaningless?
The 6-7 Streicher didn’t shrink in the spotlight, either, as he filled in for Mike Vrabel, who remains in COVID-19 protocol after testing positive for the virus last Sunday. On two fourth-down occasions near the Bears’ goal line, Streicher passed on field goals, aggressively looking to get in the end zone. On both occasions, the Titans proved him right, as Mekhi Sargent barreled in from one yard out and Logan Woodside connected with Cam Batson for a six-yard pass.
Just for good measure, Streicher challenged a Chicago pass completion that would have resulted in a first down, scoring a reversal that forced the Bears to punt.
“He enjoyed it a lot,” Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said of Streicher. “He does a lot of that stuff, him and (Vrabel) communicate a lot during the game anyway, just in terms of game management and situations and all that type of stuff. So, he’s been involved in that throughout his time here. It was good to see him down there and kind of doing it.”
As for what transpired on the field, the game provided one more opportunity for Titans players to leave impressions before final roster cuts, which – by Tuesday afternoon — will trim the team’s roster to 53 players.
With that in mind, here are 10 takeaways from the Titans’ final preseason contest:
Sloppy battle for second spot — When discussing the battle for the Titans’ back-up quarterback spot, coaches have consistently emphasized the importance of not turning over the football.
From that standpoint, Saturday was not great for Woodside nor Matt Barkley.
Barkley started for the first time this preseason, so he got the opportunity to play behind the first-team offensive line. But on the Titans’ second possession – following a three-and-out on the first possession – Barkley threw a red-zone interception. He made a bad decision, trying to force the football to a well-covered Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. Backtracking linebacker Danny Trevathan snared the toss.
Woodside suffered an even costlier interception, when Tre Roberson picked off a pass intended for Fred Brown and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown. But Woodside’s mistake was easier to forgive, as he was hit while throwing the football – after left tackle Christian DiLauro had been beaten off the edge.
Neither quarterback posted a rating better than 50.0 through the first two quarters. But Woodside eventually bounced back in more impressive fashion, finishing 12-for-17 for 100 yards, one touchdown and a quarterback rating of 80.5. Barkley didn’t throw any more interceptions either, but the Bears should have picked him off twice more – once when he was late throwing to Mason Kinsey on an out route.
“I think any time you put the ball in harm’s way, it certainly is a demerit,” Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “I’ll have to look at the tape and get a full evaluation of how both of them played and how often we did put the ball in harm’s way.
“But we’re going to hold those quarterbacks to a high standard, and we expect that ball to be protected at all times, particularly down there in the red zone when we have points on the board. Red zone non-scores are unacceptable around here, let alone turnovers.”
Barkley finished seven-for-15 for 126 yards and the interception, posting a quarterback rating of just 48.2. Afterward, he sounded a bit like a guy who’d missed an opportunity – not taking full advantage of being the starter.
“We’ve been kind of going back and forth this camp, so read into that what you want,” Barkley said of starting the game. “I thought I did some good things. Again, I wish a few plays I could have had back tonight. Sometimes there’s just games like that but again, as long as I keep building, I think I’ll be in a good place.”
Batson steps up — When the Titans make their final cuts at the highly competitive wide receiver position, who knows what preseason plays – in retrospect — will wind up earning one player a roster spot and another player a pink slip?
Cam Batson knows all too well what it’s like to live on the fringe of the roster, as he was cut by the Titans in both 2018 and 2020 before eventually working his way back to the team.
So he made sure to leave a good final impression on Saturday, catching four passes for 45 yards and a touchdown. The six-yard touchdown came on a perfectly placed back-shoulder throw from Woodside, the second time Woodside has hit Batson with a back-shoulder throw for a preseason touchdown. Batson made another impressive catch in the first quarter, sliding to the ground to snare a Woodside pass for a 10-yard pick-up on a third-and-five situation.
“This is the last day of camp obviously, so it was being on me to try and go out there and try to solidify my spot and try and make this roster,” said the 5-8, 175-pound Batson said. “Me and the guys were joking, they would say like, ‘They can’t measure your heart,’ and that’s the thing, like I have a big heart. You can measure my height, my weight, but I’m going to go out there and give it my all regardless of my size.”
Fitzpatrick frustration — Just as prospects seemed to start looking up for receiver Dez Fitzpatrick, the Titans’ fourth-round pick suffered a setback.
In the third quarter, Fitzpatrick got open cutting across the middle and hauled in a 28-yard catch from Barkley. But Fitzpatrick failed to add to his night in the fourth quarter, when he got half a step on a defender in the end zone. Woodside dropped a perfectly thrown pass into Fitzpatrick, but the ball bounced off Fitzpatrick’s chest and fell to the ground for an incompletion.
“Yeah, I think I would have to see the replay to see exactly what happened — looked like a pretty good ball, looked like some separation there, so I’m not sure how it wound up on the ground,” Downing said. “We expect guys to go up and make plays in one-on-one contested situations and that certainly was one of them.”
Holding weapons in reserve — Titans fans who arrived early for Saturday’s game at least got to see wide receiver Julio Jones, wide receiver A.J. Brown and running back Derrick Henry in action, as the three ran as a unit through some pre-game sprints.
That’s as close to preseason action as any of the “big three” got, as they remained glued to the sideline once again. It’s understandable that Vrabel chose not to play Jones, Brown or Henry in the preseason, as he wanted to avoid the kind of injury that knocked Baltimore’s starting running back, J.K. Dobbins, out of the Ravens’ final preseason contest on Saturday.
Still, the Titans will go into the regular season without Jones – who’s playing for a new team and a new quarterback – having played any snaps with Ryan Tannehill. The Titans’ top offensive weapons will also have to hope they’ll adjust to Downing’s new scheme without any preseason game snaps together.
“I think that the offense has taken strides each week in finding our identity, doing things our way,” Downing said. “We haven’t been consistent enough at this point, but we have laid the foundation of what we expect this thing to look like, and regardless of who is in there or how much practice time we get together, that standard’s been set. So, we’ll take advantage of the time that we have between now and the opener and we got a lot of work to do, but I believe we’ll accomplish it.”
Lewan, Saffold debut —None of the Titans’ starting offensive linemen played in the team’s first two preseason games, but left tackle Taylor Lewan and left guard Rodger Saffold did make appearances against the Bears. The powerful components of the left side of the line played two series before taking a seat for the remainder of the night.
For Lewan, it marked his first game action of any sort since Oct. 18 of 2020, when Lewan suffered a torn ACL that ended his season.
So even if it wasn’t a huge night’s work for Lewan, it was reason to celebrate.
“It was awesome,” Lewan said. “I was just so excited to go play, and I have worked so hard since October to make that happen. I felt like the exact same guy.
“It was literally just one of the best feelings ever. You keep telling yourself through the process you are going to be OK, it is going to be alright, then when you are actually able to play, you know it is going to be alright.”
Another injured WR — The Titans have one of their most talented wide-receiver groups in years, both in terms of quality and depth. But injury and illness have taken their toll at the position.
Marcus Johnson became the latest casualty Saturday, as he limped off the field following a Titans kick-off return in the first half. It’s been a very good training camp for Johnson, who’s been one of the team’s most reliable receivers. Unfortunately for Johnson, he’s suffered a number of injuries over the years in the NFL.
As referenced earlier, Julio Jones, A.J. Brown and Josh Reynolds have all missed significant time in camp due to injuries. In addition, rookie Racey McMath was placed on the team’s Reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday.
Also injured Saturday was center Daniel Munyer, who started the game in place of Ben Jones. Munyer hurt his ankle on the Titans’ second drive and didn’t return to the contest.
Confidence gained — The Titans weren’t as strong defensively against Chicago as they were in their first two preseason games – wins against Atlanta and Tampa Bay, respectively. After giving up a combined six points to the Falcons and Buccaneers, the Titans surrendered three scoring passes to the Bears – all thrown to tight end Jesper Horsted.
Still, the Titans had to be especially pleased by their defensive success on third downs through the preseason. After allowing opposing offenses to convert an NFL-worst 52 percent of third-down attempts last season, the Titans allowed just seven third-down conversions on 36 attempts in the preseason – a success rate of only 19 percent.
Granted, those numbers were produced against second- and third-team quarterbacks. Still, Bowen said he feels better about the overall energy this defense will take into the regular season – as opposed to the group that struggled through so much of last season.
“That’s what we have been preaching, getting these guys to fly around, play with confidence, challenge, expect to win their one-on-ones across the board, whatever it is,” Bowen said. “Any call that’s made, expect to execute. I think they’re taking hold of it. I think they’re accepting the challenge. I think they’re embracing it.”
Blasingame’s big night — In most games, Titans fullback Khari Blasingame is fairly anonymous, burying his head into defenders’ chests so that Henry can gobble up yardage.
But Blasingame recorded one of the game’s biggest plays Saturday – and had a couple more impact moments as well.
On third-and-13 near the end of the first half, Blasingame took a screen pass from Barkley and roared 50 yards down the field, giving the Titans a first-and-goal at Chicago’s 6-yard line.
Blasingame’s running stats were modest – two carries for six yards — but important. On his first carry, Blasingame picked up five yards – and a first down – on a third-and-three situation. On his second carry, Blasingame hammered away at a packed Chicago defensive line to earn a first down on third-and-one.
“It was cool, a little throwback to the college days,” said Blasingame, a Vanderbilt alum. “It was fun.”
Scrambled safeties — The Titans’ back-up safeties – a few of whom had been signed during training camp – had made some big contributions in the team’s preseason win over Tampa Bay. But the back-up safeties weren’t as sharp against the Bears.
Clayton Geathers, for instance, was guilty of not turning his head back for the ball near the end of the first half, when Chicago rookie quarterback Justin Fields connected for a 20-yard touchdown pass to Hoorsted. Then, on the Bears’ first drive of the second half, Bears wide receiver Dazz Newsome nearly faked Bradley McDougald out of his cleats, turning a short pass into a 19-yard gain to the Titans’ 7-yard line. And finally, on that same series, Matthias Farley was turned around and beaten for a six-yard TD pass to Hoorsted.
Added Adeniyi value? — When the Titans signed outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi during the offseason, it was clear they would put him to work on special teams. After all, Adeniyi had been on the field for 63 percent of the Steelers’ special-teams snaps last season, and for 51 percent of all Pittsburgh’s special-teams snaps in 2019.
But Adeniyi has shown pass-rushing potential during his first Titans’ preseason – even in limited defensive snaps. He picked up half a sack on Saturday, combining with Derick Roberson to take down Fields on his first dropback of the contest. Adeniyi also notched a sack in the preseason opener against Atlanta. In his 32 career games with the Steelers, Adeniyi didn’t record any sacks.
“Get off the ball — that’s what you saw on the first sack there,” Bowen said. “I’m excited about his role and what he can bring to us in terms of helping us rush the passer.”