The Tennessee Titans have had a very bad three weeks.
After a very promising start to the day, the train came off the tracks for Mike Vrabel’s squad in a big way. A tsunami of turnovers paired with clear and obvious personnel issues (or lack thereof, to be specific) led to 29 unanswered points in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarters. despite a late-game spark of life, the Jaguars and their own shortcomings were far too much to overcome.
This is Mike Vrabel’s first three-game losing streak since his rookie coaching season in 2018. Now at 7-6, the Titans still very much control their own destiny to win the AFC South and host a playoff game. But in losing today, they made their final four games much more important than they needed to be.
Before we get into what you came here for, a quick survey of the AFC South landscape. Through 14 weeks, here are your standings:
- Titans, 7-6 (Next week: @ LAC)
- Jaguars 5-8 (vs DAL)
- Colts 4-8-1 (@ MIN)
- Texans 1-11-1 (vs KC)
Tennessee’s magic number with the Colts is two, meaning any combination of two Titans wins or Colts losses will eliminate Indianapolis from contention in the division. The Titans’ magic number with Jacksonville would have been zero if they’d won today, but with a loss, that number now sits at three. Of course, Tennessee has direct control over knocking that number down to one if they beat the Jaguars in Week 18. That would be a double-whammy, counting as both a Titans win and a Jaguars loss all in one game.
An interesting way to look at it is this: as long as the Colts don’t go undefeated in their final four games, the worst possible outcome for the Titans would be a division championship game in Jacksonville in the season finale.
Now that we’ve gotten the standing scorekeeping out of the way, let’s focus back in on what was an ugly game that produced plenty of Winners and Losers:
Anybody that points to anything besides turnovers from the offense and personnel issues on the defense as the reason the Titans lost this game is mistaken. Let’s begin by tackling the former.
There are some elements of the game of football that you just cannot overcome. One of those things is a massive turnover differential. Tennessee finished this game losing the turnover differential 4-0, giving the ball away once through the air and thrice on the ground.
The Titans began the game strong, not punting once on their opening four possessions. unfortunately, two of those drives resulted in touchdowns and two ended prematurely with turnovers. First came a brutal blindside strip-sack fumble when the Tennessee pass protection couldn’t hold up (we’ll address this further down, but I’ll let you guess who was responsible…).
The second giveaway was a bad Ryan Tannehill interception that was intended for Nick Westbrook-Ikhine due to a matter of miscommunication. Both of these early turnovers resulted in Jacksonville points, their first 10 of the game in fact.
The third turnover of the game came on a rare Derrick Henry fumble in the red zone after a big catch-and-run that ended with him being twisted sideways by one defender and crushed from behind by another. The surprise contact was enough to jar the ball free near the sideline, and Jacksonville was seemingly divinely blessed with a defender standing in the exact perfect position to catch it on its way out. This turnover, with the Titans leading 14-13 inside of two minutes remaining in the first half, led to a 20-14 Jaguars lead before the break thanks to a 6-play, 78-yard touchdown drive.
Jacksonville never trailed again.
The final turnover of the game was a fumbled snap on what was supposed to be, ironically, a fake-fumble trick play. Derrick Henry couldn’t handle the low snap from Ben Jones and the Titans once again gave Trevor Lawrence the ball with great field position. Jacksonville turned this opportunity into a field goal.
When we crunch the numbers, that’s 20 of the Jaguars’ 36 total points that were direct results of Tennessee turnovers.
Remind me how many points the Titans lost by again?…
Winner: Derrick Henry and the run game
Congratulations to the Titans run game, which returned from its weeks-long hiatus and joined the program against Jacksonville.
Tennessee managed to rush for 137 yards on 20 attempts, which is good for a blistering 6.9 yards per carry. Derrick Henry had a return-to-form day with 121 yards on 17 attempts and a season-high 7.1 YPC.
The Titans offensive line, to their credit, was able to take advantage of a weak Jacksonville run front and actually block up some nice rushing lanes.
The asterisk that belongs on this category, however, is that it only applies to the first half. Henry only had 3 carries for 2 yards in the second half, which after his first half performance, is rather unforgivable.
Loser: Personnel woes
Now to break down the latter of the two reasons Tennessee lost.
Tennessee came into this game with five and a half defensive starters from the beginning of the season out of commission: Landry (IR), Long (IR), Molden (IR), Autry (Out), Fulton (Out), and Simmons on an injured ankle. That is a very bad place to have to begin.
They were also missing Tre Avery, the rookie CB who was looking in recent weeks like a real starting-caliber player for this team. So all-told, the Titans were missing 3 of their 4 best corners.
This proved highly problematic, as the Jaguars have a handful of sneaky talented weapons and, more importantly, a budding superstar at QB. Lawrence tore the Tennessee secondary up all day long, completing 30 of 42 for 368 yards, with 3 passing touchdowns to boot. His pass catchers of choice were Zay Jones who caught 8 of 12 for 77 yards and a TD, and Evan Engram who caught 11 of 15 for 162 yards and 2 touchdowns.
I’m going to run that by you one more time.
Evan Engram, yes the tight end Evan Engram, caught 11 of 15 for 162 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Missing David Long Jr. for the first week also proved costly, as his replacements played… not the best.
I asked coach Vrabel after the game about if his available players were hamstringing their coaching efforts or gameplan in any way, and he gave me a long, thought out answer that effectively amounted to “not really”.
Unless and until the Titans get some of their guys back on defense, this team may just be kinda shot on that side of the ball.
Winner: Red zone efficiency
The Titans remembered how to score when they get near the goal line.
Tennessee had come into this game on an 0-for-5 skid in the red zone. Against Jacksonville, they got their first red zone touchdown since Week 11 in Green Bay. In the end, they returned to form with a perfect 3-for-3 record in short enemy territory.
The Titans’ efficiency in the red zone has been a hallmark of their success in recent years, and it remains one of the vital elements of their play style. Avoiding another inefficient slump will be necessary for them to accomplish anything in the playoffs.
Loser: In the trenches… again
Add another tick to the “Titans lost the battle up front” counter. We are now at three in a row.
While the run game did come back from the dead, nothing else did. On the offensive side of the ball, things were relatively ugly all game long. Allowing 4 sacks for 27 yards lost and 9 QB hits, Tennessee’s offensive line was a turnstyle most of the day. One element of the pass protection stood out in particular.
I’ll let you guess who it was.
That’s right: in a stunning turn of events, Dennis Daley did not magically become a good football player. Ryan Tannehill managed to complete 25 of 38 for 254 yards and 2 touchdowns, which frankly is tremendously impressive considering his circumstances.
On the defensive front, things remain ghastly.
A team-wide effort of 0 sacks and 1 QB hit is all this skeleton crew of pass rushers managed today. That is, um, not gonna cut it. The concerns in this department will continue to persist until key players return from injury.
Jeffrey Simmons claimed after the game that his ankle injury hasn’t been hampering him in the past month.
That was an obvious fib, but a completely understandable one. Simmons is an elite talent and the ultimate team player. He’s above blaming his play even a little bit on an injury. I can respect that, even when the tape is clear. This team needs him to keep trending in the right direction, which he did today.
Bud Dupree brought up the fair point that opposing quarterbacks are getting the ball out much quicker against the Titans, and thats not a coincidence. It’s their game plan. What good does even a Hall of Fame pass rush do you if the ball is out in 1.5 seconds? The secondary has to pull their weight, which is hard to do with the bodies they have healthy and available.
So what now? As Dupree told me after the game: “Once Denico [Autry] gets back…”
Winner: Chig Okonkwo and Austin Hooper
The Titans may be seriously limited at wide receiver right now, but they’ve got a really nice pair of tight ends at their disposal. And without Treylon Burks or Kyle Philips in the lineup, they’re keeping this passing game on life support.
Hooper and Okonkwo finished as the top-2 pass catchers for Tennessee on the day. Hooper caught all 5 of his targets for 68 yards, and Okonkwo caught all 6 of his targets for 45 yards and a touchdown, and a 2-point conversion.
Hooper has become Ryan Tannehill’s safety blanket. The duo has clearly developed a nice chemistry, and it’s beginning to really show in key situations. There is no weapon at Tannehill’s disposal that he is more willing to force the ball into tight windows for than Hooper. He has quickly gone from a free agent bust to an invaluable option in the passing game.
Meanwhile, Chig’s star remains to shine brighter and brighter. Without Burks available, he is the most explosive pass catcher this team has. Tennessee needs to continue to increase his role as he develops into a bonafide TE1.