Sunday’s matchup between the Titans and Steelers was a big game. It was the final battle between undefeated teams in the NFL in 2020 and it was an AFC matchup that could have playoff seeding implications in a couple months.
Losing the game stings from a Titans perspective. Losing it on a missed 45-yard field goal after your team spent the entire second half valiantly clawing themselves out of the mile-deep grave they dug before halftime… stings that much more.
Losing by three points on a late missed field goal to an undefeated Steelers team is far from a disaster and it certainly doesn’t expose the Titans as pretenders any more than the Chiefs home loss to the 3-3 Raiders did a couple weeks ago. If anything, it proved that Tennessee is capable of hanging with anyone, even when they don’t have their A-game.
The loss to the Steelers didn’t expose anything about the Titans that we didn’t already know. They miss Adoree’ Jackson badly and have real problems when either Johnathan Joseph or Tye Smith are on the field. They have what is on pace to be the worst third-down defense in NFL history. They cannot get to the quarterback. They continue to have a hex on their kicking game.
Those were all known issues and they continued to be issues against the Steelers. The only change was that the offense failed to put on the Superman cape and rescue them from the burning building on the final drive for the first time all season.
The positives were the same too. A.J. Brown and Jeffery Simmons were incredible. The offense — considering the opponent and the positions they were put in throughout the game — was effective enough, even if it’s fair to say that this wasn’t the MVP-level performances from Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry that we’ve become used to over the past year now.
The Titans also won the turnover battle for the fifth time in six games, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger three times and keeping the ball out of the Steelers defense’s hands. Their plus-nine turnover differential on the season is tops in the league.
Having an elite offense and winning turnover differential are the two biggest traits that correlate to winning in the NFL. Even if the Titans don’t drastically improve their weaknesses, they can still win a lot of games by scoring efficiently and turning their opponents over.
As long as those two things continue to be strengths, this team will win the division and cruise into the playoffs. However, if they want to go further than that, these are the three things that have to be fixed.
1. Third-down defense
Let’s talk about the Titans mystifyingly bad third-down defense and whether it is something that can get better.
Through six games, Tennessee has allowed their opponents to convert 50-of-83 third-downs this season for a league-high 60.2% conversion rate. The worst season-long conversion rate allowed since 1991 (the furthest back Pro-Football-Reference’s database goes for this stat) belongs to the 1995 Browns, who gave up 49.6% of their opponent’s 226 third-down tries.
The Titans would need to get stops on the next 18 third-downs to get under that mark and they’d need 33 consecutive stops to reach the league average rate of 43.1%. That’s how bad this problem has been in 2020.
However, the Titans are not alone in that misery. There are currently seven NFL teams — Titans, Panthers, Bills, Saints, Cowboys, Giants, and Raiders — that are on pace to finish with a worse third-down performance than the ’95 Browns. Whether it’s the reduction in offensive holding penalties — which have been reduced by more than 50% in 2020 — or the effects of no training camp/preseason, something is causing NFL defenses to struggle on third downs across the league.
Is there hope for a remarkable mid-season turnaround? Well yes, there is actually, and you don’t have to look far to find one.
The 2019 Falcons ranked dead last in stopping third-downs through the first seven weeks of the season, giving up first downs on 54.9% of third-down plays. From Week 8 on, they ranked first in the league (by a wide margin) on third-downs, allowing just a 26.5% conversion rate.
How did the 2019 Falcons fix their third-down problems? Well, the majority of the credit was given to a change in defensive playcaller. Atlanta shuffled their coaching staff, moving Raheem Morris from wide receivers coach to defensive coordinator and took defensive playcalling duties off of head coach Dan Quinn’s plate and split them between Morris and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich with Morris specifically handling the third-down and red zone playcalling while Ulbrich took first and second down calls in the middle of the field.
What, specifically, did Morris do differently than his predecessor? There is a good deep dive here from Joe Julius of Football Film Room, but the big takeaways are that he played more zone coverage, dropped more players into coverage, but most importantly, he got better execution from his players.
We don’t know the exact breakdown in responsibilities on the Titans defensive staff right now so it’s hard to say if there is a corresponding move that they could make to fix things. We know that outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen is responsible for calling the plays on game days, but that Mike Vrabel is very involved in game planning and coaching the defense during the week.
It’s entirely possible that they are already dividing the third-down/red zone responsibilities, but if they aren’t, maybe it’s time to consider cutting that area off and giving it to someone who can devote more time to it (like inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett, for example).
Also, we should note here that screaming for heads from the Titans defensive staff right now is just as premature as calling for Arthur Smith to be fired after six games last season. No, there isn’t a Ryan Tannehill coming to rescue the Tennessee defense (though Adoree’ Jackson’s imminent return should certainly help), but football teams evolve as the season wears on.
The Titans turnaround on offense and the Chiefs turnaround on defense in 2019 are both examples to add to the Falcons impressive rebound from a year ago. The book is far from closed on the 2020 Titans defense, but they do need to start changing the story pretty quickly.
2. Special Teams
Let’s start with the kicker, because it’s the biggest story after the way that game ended. Stephen Gostkowski has had the strangest season of any kicker that I can remember through six games.
More weird Gostkowski stats:
- Less than 50 yards: 5 of 11
- From 50 or more: 5 of 5
I have no idea what to make of that. Clearly, he still has enough leg to hit long kicks and he had been nails on late game kicks before missing against Pittsburgh, but 62.5% is still way too low for an NFL kicker.
He is going to get another shot, in part, because the Titans don’t really have better options. Greg Joseph is on the Buccaneers practice squad and they have protected him every week this season, keeping other teams from being able to swoop in and sign him away. Cody Parkey is successfully kicking in Cleveland, Ryan Succop is successfully kicking in Tampa Bay, and even Cairo Santos is successfully kicking in Chicago.
In a season where most teams are sitting on two kickers thanks to the unique COVID roster rules, finding a useful leg off the street is tougher than ever. The Titans are stuck with Gostkowski for better or worse for now, unless they want to take the plunge and try UDFA rookie Tucker McCann, which is certainly not guaranteed to be an upgrade.
However, the special teams woes extended further than just Gostkowski in this game. Long snapper Beau Brinkley had a rough game with a couple low snaps, including one that got compounded when Brett Kern panicked and threw the ball instead of punting when he had time.
The Titans punt coverage team also gave up a huge 57-yard return that gifted the Steelers an easy 17-yard touchdown drive just before halftime. Meanwhile, the kick return team pinned their own offense inside the 15-yard line twice thanks to a holding penalty on Daren Bates and a muffed pooch kick by Kalif Raymond. Against a defense like the Steelers, that’s a huge problem.
While the kicking troubles are nothing new, the special teams mistakes are. The Titans had been very good on coverage units this season, and while Kalif Raymond rarely makes big plays in the return game, he hadn’t made many mistakes this year either. I think it’s okay to write those off for now, but figuring out Gostkowski’s struggles is going to be critical for this team moving forward.
3. Missing Pass Rush vs Loose Coverage
Pass rush and coverage go hand in hand. It’s hard to excel in either area without at least having adequate play from both. Your pass rush can beat blocks all day long, but if the coverage can’t push the quarterback off their first read, they’re never going to get home.
That’s what happened in this game. Ben Roethlisberger averaged 2.02 seconds from snap to throw according to PFF charting, the lowest average time to throw in the NFL by 0.28 seconds in Week 7. That’s not unusual for Big Ben, who leads the league in quick releases, averaging 2.16 seconds over the course of the season, but it provides some context for the lack of sacks in this game.
Looking at all six quarterbacks that the Titans have faced in 2020, only one — Josh Allen — has held the ball longer than their season-long average in the game that they played Tennessee. Allen, who leads the NFL in time to throw at 2.85 seconds was just marginally off his usual mark at 2.91 seconds in Week 5.
This is not meant to excuse a pass rush that hasn’t gotten home nearly enough, but those numbers tell me that the Titans pass defense issues are at least slightly tilted towards being a coverage problem. Seeing corners like Johnathan Joseph and Tye Smith lining up eight yards off the ball because they know they can’t run with opposing receivers is a huge problem when you’re playing a team like Pittsburgh that loves nothing more than nickel and diming their way down the field.
This thread from Matt Waldman gives some pretty straightforward analysis of how the Steelers attacked the Titans on the opening drive.
Saying that Adoree’ Jackson’s return fixes everything is naive, but it’s clear to me that Smith and Joseph are being picked on by opposing offenses at this point. They’re also tying the hands of their coaching staff to some degree. The Titans seem to have all but abandoned man coverage at this point and I have to think that a lack of trust in personnel is at the heart of that decision.
Despite losing Kristian Fulton to an injury against Pittsburgh, a trio of Adoree’ Jackson, Malcolm Butler, and either Chris Jackson or Kareem Orr in the slot should give them more athleticism in the secondary than what we’ve seen so far.
You’d also hope that guys like Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley — who both missed all of training camp — would start performing at a higher level as they round back into game shape and get more comfortable in the Titans defense.