Tennessee Titans Roundup: Defensive Struggles Cause for Concern
The Tennessee Titans (5-1) faced off against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) at home in Week 7 of the NFL season, with the Steelers winning the game 27-24.
The story of the day is how the Pittsburgh offense got off to a hot start in the first half of the game and separated themselves from Tennessee early on. Through the first 5 games of the season, the Titans offense was able to overcome any deficit, winning 4 of 5 games with 4th quarter drives. This game, the Steelers defense was too good to allow that to happen.
Tannehill ended the game with 2 touchdowns and over 200 yards, with Derrick Henry scoring in the 4th quarter, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Pittsburgh offense. The Steelers were able to convert 70% of 3rd and 4th downs for 1st downs, rolling over the Tennessee defense throughout the first half.
Tennessee’s defense tightened up in the second half, allowing only 3 points and securing 2 more interceptions. Unfortunately, for them, the offense was unable to capitalize. Tennessee kicked a field goal after the 2nd interception, and missed a field goal following the 3rd. In a game where the defense was seemingly unable to produce a stop in the first half, this team needed the offense to keep it close. Instead, the offense secured 1 yard of total offense in the first quarter, when the Steelers dominated the time of possession.
Tannehill himself played well enough, though several passes were slightly off target and the passing attack looked out of sync to an extent. He still produced a positive EPA/play, higher than Ben Roethlisberger, but ultimately it wasn’t enough, as the game-tying kick went wide right at the last second.
Head Scratchers and Big Oops
The biggest head scratchers came on 2 plays, both 2nd & 17 where they ran Derrick Henry for a total of 2 yards on both of those downs. On another 2nd down, with 14 yards needed for the first, the Titans chose to run again, and gained 9 yards. All 3 drives ended in punts. Derrick Henry is arguably the best back in the league, but the offense’s reliance on him in ridiculously long situations is not a recipe for success, instead wishing for a miracle. I’m not sure what they were seeing.
Staying on the offensive side of the ball, Dennis Kelly was abused all game by TJ Watt. Watt, an excellent defender, consistently applied pressure and tipped passes that prevented Tannehill from having any time to make something happen, never escaping from the pocket. Credit Pittsburgh for containing the athletic QB who was unable to buy extra time throughout the game.
The primary reason the Tennessee defense was unable to get off the field was their inability to take good pursuit angles and make tackles when they needed it. On the first 3rd down of the game, Malcolm Butler took an awful angle at Diontae Johnson who caught the ball just a yard beyond the stick. He chooses to play the ball but was too slow to make the play, allowing a few extra easy yards after the catch.
On the second 3rd down of the game, this time 3rd & 11, Roethlisberger threw a quick slant to Johnson again, who cut back to the outside causing Tye Smith to slip and fall as he over pursued the angle. Johnson easily converted the 3rd down.
The 3rd down struggles continued the rest of the half.
If the Titans want to win against quality opponents, they need their offense to score more points in the first half. The team has typically found ways to score when it mattered, but if they want to return to the AFC Championship, then they need to make some adjustments on the defensive side of the ball.
Adoree Jackson, the team’s top cornerback, remains on injured reserve. His return will boost a Titans secondary struggling without their defensive backs, coach Kerry Coombs, and coordinator Dean Pees. Kristian Fulton, a rookie CB out of LSU, should also continue to improve as the season goes on.
Malcolm Butler has had painfully inconsistent play, while Tye Smith and veteran Jonathan Joseph are picked on by opposing QBs. With the trouble coming mostly on the 3rd downs, the obvious blame goes to the coaching staff for their inability to create schemes that play to their team’s strengths, but also to the team’s lack of talent in pass coverage.
If I’m the Titans, I’m calling other general managers and inquiring about their available corners. Some have speculated that Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore might be available and the Titans could use a proven talent to quickly improve their playoff odds.
Other trade rumors include Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who could help improve an already solid Tennessee defensive line, freeing up the edge rushers to do what they do best. This might be the most realistic trade, but it is not as impactful as the Gilmore option.
By my own speculation, Tennessee should ask around about any and all secondary help around the league, even players who have not necessarily voiced being disgruntled with their team. CB Brian Poole of the Jets, Darqueze Dennard in Atlanta, or Darius Slay of the Eagles. All 3 teams are in the midst of losing seasons with very little or no hope of making the playoffs. The Jets have implied they’re in fire sale mode. Atlanta has fired their head coach, indicating a reset to a certain extent. Slay, meanwhile, remains the best player on the Eagles defense, which would require a little more persuasion on Tennessee’s end.
Tennessee is a 5-1 team capable of beating any team in the league, and they certainly believe they are in contention for a Super Bowl. If that hope is to remain alive, they need to either make some coaching adjustments or a mid-season trade to improve their defense. The offense remains one of the best in the league and will most likely keep putting up high numbers against every team, even teams with great defenses like the Steelers. Playing for the number 1 seed is still an option, but there is now a stronger sense of urgency to compete for that spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Kansas City Chiefs.