We spent all week rolling our eyes as the Titans told us this wasn’t a revenge game. Based on how they played, perhaps we should have believed them.
Tennessee lost for the third consecutive time to Joe Burrow’s Bengals on Sunday, their second-straight loss to Cincinatti in Nissan Stadium. I don’t need to remind you about the one that came before this.
The good news for the Titans is that this wasn’t a must-win game. They still hold a comfortable lead in the AFC South, and their 7-4 record is far from panic-worthy. The bad news is that this wasn’t just a tough loss; it was an ugly one. This was a bizarre Tennessee performance that was almost completely the opposite of what their identity has been all season.
With plenty to unpack before a tough game against the Eagles on the road next week, let’s dive into the Week 12 Winners and Losers:
Loser: Redzone regression
If you’re looking for specific reasons why the Titans didn’t win on Sunday, here is one of the two main ones (we’ll get to the second in a moment).
Tennessee had four trips to the redzone against the Bengals, and they failed to find the endzone on any of them. Coming into this game, the Titans were ranked 2nd in the league for redzone touchdown percentage (74.1%). This had been a key ingredient for them all season: rarely wasting opportunities to score when they managed to move into scoring position.
This was one of the key ways in which Sunday’s performance was wildly out of character for Mike
Vrabel’s team. At the end of the day, you cannot expect to win in the NFL when you go 0-4 in the redzone. This game was no exception.
Winner: Treylon Burks
Congratulations to Treylon Burks for being the only “winner” that felt fully deserved.
Burks’ breakout continued where it left off in Green Bay last Thursday night. Burks finished this game tied for the team high in targets (6) as well as receptions (4), amassing 70 yards. His play of the game was a 51 yard play action bomb from Ryan Tannehill, in which he had make a phenomenal contested catch over his defender. It was a true “I’ve arrived” moment for the rookie in front of his home crowd.
Tannehill demonstrated increased trust in Burks, throwing to him in contested situations and tight windows. As this connection grows, The Titans ceiling in the passing game only increases.
The Titans have long been the most physical team in the NFL. They’ve prided themselves on it. They’ve built their roster specifically for it. It’s who they are.
So when a team comes into town and does what you do better than you in every aspect of the game, you lose that game. That is what happened to the Titans this week.
In the same calendar year that this Titans team recorded a monstrous nine-sack outing against Joe Burrow and company, They only managed to get home once on Sunday. The defense got pushed around up front as well as in the secondary. Look no further than to the Bengals two biggest plays of the game: completions to Tee Higgins on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter that set the Bengals up in the low redzone.
Both of these completions were backbreaking, and both came on simple go routes up the righthand side of the field to the Bengals only remaining great receiver in the game. Tennessee’s two standout cornerbacks both got a taste of Higgins on this route; first Roger McCreary, and then Kristian Fulton. Neither one put up a great fight, both losing the battle to a more physical receiver than them.
Cincinnati absolutely deserves their flowers for this performance and this gameplan. They came into the den of the biggest baddest bully squad in the NFL and they out-physicalled them.
Winner: Targeting good players
This was the first week that the Titan’s “receiving” section of the box score felt like players were in the correct order.
Treylon Burks, Chig Okonkwo, Austin Hooper, Nick Westbrook Ikhine and Robert Woods all saw 4+ targets in this game. They accounted for 16 of the team’s 22 receptions.
To any outsider, this likely sounds like a strange thing to praise. What they wouldn’t know is just how much this team loves to target guys who frankly shouldn’t see the field all that much in the first place. The pecking order of Okonkwo, Hooper, large gap, and then Geoff Swaim in the receiving game finally came to fruition. Depth receivers such as Cody Hollister weren’t taking looks that should be going to Treylon Burks and Robert Woods.
This is a very low bar, Tennessee. Keep these priorities straight moving forward.
Loser: The Titans on the ground
Here is the second of the two primary reasons for the Titans loss: the team most famous for their ability on the ground on both sides of the ball got punked in both departments. Hard to win when you let that happen!
Tennessee has built their reputation under Mike Vrabel on being dominant in the run game on both offense and defense. It is the straw that stirs their drink. Without a capable run game on offense, the passing game can no longer play second fiddle and often turns back into a pumpkin. Without a capable run defense, their secondary is forced to devote bodies to the run-stopping effort and the lack of complimentary football leaves their aerial defenses are significantly weakened.
Ever wondered why the Titans have had a league-high redzone efficiency offense season after season? It’s because their run-based offense paired with an effective passing game was always lethal. That was far from the case against the Bengals, who held the Titans to their worst rushing performance all season. Derrick Henry was made to look thoroughly washed (which he is not) by the run blocking effort of the Titans offensive line. Henry managed a putrid 2.2 YPC on 17 carries for just 38 yards.
Needless to say, Ben Jones is needed back from concussion protocol very badly.
On defense, Cincinnati become the first team in nine weeks to hang 100+ yards rushing on Tennessee. It was reminiscent at times of the Titans home opener, when backup RB Samaje Perine was seemingly getting 4-5 yards every time he wanted it. Who were these Titans? They looked more sluggish and dull than they usually do. Their run fits were regularly poor. They’d gotten Elijah Molden, Bud Dupree, and Amani Hooker all together on the field for the first time all season and this was the result? Did they miss Denico Autry this badly? Was there an element of rust for the newcomers?
The performance left us with far more questions than answers.
Winner: Ryan Tannehill and the passing game
Based on Twitter’s reaction to this game this may not be the most popular thing to say, but it does happen to be true: Ryan Tannehill and the passing game had a second-straight impressive outing.
After a rough start in which Tannehill had a couple of passes batted down at the line (too low) and then a couple sail on him (too high), he really dialed things in (there you go goldilocks!).
His statline of 22 of 34 for 291 yards is a season-high in all three categories outside of last Thursday night, and Tennessee looked to have a proficient passing game once again. That was something people were openly wondering about all week on the heels of their primetime performance: was it a fluke? Did the Titans figure out how to pass the ball or was Green Bay’s defense just that bad?
The elements of this Titans team that have changed are the available receivers and the pass blocking efforts of the offensive line. While the run blocking has gone completely into the tank, the pass protection has improved significantly from the lows of September and October. Tannehill was only sacked once by the Bengals, and was generally given enough time to find an open receiver. Downfield, he’s now had a couple weeks of continuity with available weapons and the desired results have followed.
If Tennessee can continue to develop this passing game (and remember how to run the ball…) in the coming weeks, hopefully adding talented rookie receiver Kyle Philips to the mix very soon, they could be an actual passing threat come the playoffs.
Loser: Special Teams
Craig Aukerman’s units didn’t pull their weight in this one either.
Tennessee’s special teams cost them 3 points when rookie kicker Caleb Shudak couldn’t convert from a measely 35 yards. While it was only his second kick of his career, this shouldn’t have been a problem for him. What made this moment so bad for the young player is how the Titans had gotten him there: a 58 yard 2-minute drill with the opportunity to double dip getting the ball after the half.
I did not thing I’d be saying this, but the Titans really missed Randy Bullock today.
Special teams also cost them a chance to tie things up at the end of the game with a very costly, very foolish penalty.
Ultimately, the inability to conduct a 2-minute drill at the end of the game was far from the reason the Titans lost. As stated above, convert on any one of their four redzone trips and Cincinnatti is kicking this field goal to tie the game. That doesn’t mean it was a wise decision to risk getting called for this penalty and ending the game, however.
In a game repeatedly dictated by the Bengals lack of discipline with penalties, it was the Titans’ special teams lack of discipline that cost them their chance in the end.
Easton Freeze is the Director of Published Content at Broadway Sports Media, covering the Titans and the NFL
Get more Titans coverage from Easton on Twitter @eastonfreeze