Tennessee Titans punter Trevor Daniel’s 17-yard shank in the third quarter was emblematic of the entire team’s performance in Thursday night’s loss to the Colts. They blew it.
In the second half of what was a crucial divisional matchup, the Titans collapsed in all three phases and allowed Indianapolis to score 24 unanswered points.
“I just feel like everything that we did, we just really hurt ourselves,” LB Rashaan Evans said. “I really don’t think it was too much of what Indianapolis did, but I think it’s what we did to our own selves. Playing in this league, when you make mistakes like that, you will get beat.”
While just about every Titans player who suited up on Thursday shares some of the blame for the loss, most of it should fall squarely on the shoulders of head coach Mike Vrabel.
One of Vrabel’s favorite coachspeak phrases is, “when a team wins, it’s because of the players, and, when a team loses, it’s the coaches’ fault.” That typically dry, empty adage held plenty of meaning on Thursday night.
DEATH BY PAPERCUT
Can the #Titans get their defensive problems fixed?
Kenny Vaccaro: “We will. I know we will.”
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) November 13, 2020
For whatever reason, Vrabel and his defensive staff thought it would be wise to have members of the secondary play a mind-numbing amount of off-coverage against QB Philip Rivers and crew, a group known for its quick-fire approach.
It looked, at times, as though, perhaps, the Titans had not watched any film on the Colts offense.
As a result, the Titans’ defense suffered a slow, agonizing death by a million papercuts. Rivers completed a whopping 29 passes for an average of just 7.9 yards per completion, a stat that indicates just how much space the Titans’ secondary gave up.
Vrabel was asked after the game about the team’s far-too-frequent use of cushion, and he concluded his answer by saying, “We’ll certainly look at playing a lot of press coverage as we move forward.”
That’s an inquiry that should have happened weeks ago, though.
The Titans have been utilizing a soft, cushioned approach in the secondary almost all season, and it’s rarely worked. Though it has prevented explosive plays downfield, the strategy, more often than not, has led to quarterbacks being gifted a litany of easy throws, often for first downs.
It’s a major problem.
“Regardless of what coverage we’re running, we have to do a better job of discouraging those quick throws by changing our alignments, showing press, coming off, being off, getting down and press,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said.
At the end of the day, that falls on the coaches, Vrabel in particular.
THE PUNTER FROM FEDEX
#Titans HC Mike Vrabel on the punter switch from last week to this one: We made the decision we thought was best for the team. That was our decision.
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) November 13, 2020
Another catastrophe from Thursday night that Vrabel had his handprint on was the aforementioned 17-yard shank from Daniel, which allowed the Colts offense to start a drive just 27 yards from the end zone.
Daniel also had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown in the third quarter, though that one wasn’t his fault.
Daniel, a University of Tennessee alumnus who was working for FedEx just last week, per the FOX broadcast of Thursday’s game, should have never been out there.
Just four days ago, veteran punter Ryan Allen played a great game for the Titans in relief of injured three-time Pro Bowler Brett Kern. He averaged over 50 yards-per-punt on eight attempts.
Yet, for Thursday’s game, Vrabel went with the guy from FedEx because he had a good week of practice, whatever that means.
“Those are all the things that we look at during practice, during the week of practice, and the evaluation of those guys kicking,” Vrabel said. “That’s the decision that we made.”
For Vrabel, this was a classic case of overthinking things.
He violated the age-old maxim of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and it led to the Titans’ demise.
What’s most puzzling is that Vrabel was willing to pull the trigger on an unnecessary punter switch, yet he’s left the Titans’ soft approach in the secondary mostly untouched.
And that’s been a problem for Vrabel not just in 2020, but since he became the Titans’ head coach in 2018: he struggles to strike the balance between making needed changes and leaving things alone.
Still, Thursday’s disaster was a mostly uncharacteristic performance for the usually buttoned-up head coach.
It’s important context that the Titans are 6-3 and still very much in the thick of things within both their division and the AFC at large, even though Thursday’s loss felt like a crushing blow.
They’ll need to get better in a hurry, though, as they’ll be facing a really good Baltimore Ravens team on the road in just over a week.
The improvement should start with the head coach who, at least based on Thursday’s game, needs to do a much better job.
Cover image: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today