The Tennessee Titans (11-5) reached two major milestones in their 41-38 win over the Texans on Sunday. The win secured the Titans’ first division title since 2008, and RB Derrick Henry became just the eighth player in NFL history to run for over 2,000 yards.
Yet, those accomplishments shouldn’t be met with too much exuberance.
That’s not, at all, a knock on the accomplishments themselves. Henry has been sensational this season, and head coach Mike Vrabel has, clearly, done a tremendous job of building a winning culture. Fans should celebrate all of that with glee.
But, the reality of the Titans’ current situation is that they nearly lost to a four-win team in a must-win game thanks to one of the worst defenses the NFL has seen over the last 20 years.
That’s why, despite the excitement that comes with breaking a 12-year streak of not winning the division and watching Henry’s individual performance, many Titans fans are, understandably, feeling a sense of dread as their team enters the playoffs. Those who aren’t should be.
#Titans HC Mike Vrabel: We are not going to apologize for winning 11 games in the National Football League
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) January 4, 2021
Vrabel told you everything you need to know about the Titans’ defense early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game.
With a three-point lead, the Titans faced a fourth-and-11 at Houston’s 37-yard-line. Instead of punting or attempting a 54-yard field goal, Vrabel opted to send the offense back out to go for it from behind the sticks.
QB Ryan Tannehill was sacked and the Titans gave the ball back to QB Deshaun Watson and the Texans’ offense at their 48.
Why did Vrabel risk giving Watson a short field? He claimed it was because of wind and replacement kicker Sam Sloman’s limited range.
“The roof being open was noticeably different with the wind,” Vrabel said. “Didn’t think that was in our kicker’s range.”
He still could’ve punted, though, something he had no problem doing a week ago from his opponent’s 32-yard line.
The real reason that Vrabel kept the offense out on 4th and 11, there, isn’t difficult to uncover. It would seem that Vrabel, rightfully, doesn’t trust his defense.
ANOTHER TERRIBLE PERFORMANCE
Henry’s accomplishments deserve to be lauded…but this game has enforced the fact that the #Titans’ offense must play to near perfection for the team to beat even a 4-win team.
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) January 3, 2021
And why would he? Playing against the offense of a 4-12 team, albeit one with a Pro Bowl QB in Watson, the Titans’ defense had already given up 28 points by that point of the game, 19 of which came in the third quarter alone.
“We just didn’t make enough plays defensively in the second half,” Vrabel said.
Watson immediately took advantage of the short field after the Titans’ turnover on downs, mounting a three-minute TD drive to put Houston ahead 35-31.
But, when facing the Titans’ defense, it doesn’t matter whether an offense has to go one yard or 99. They’re likely to score either way.
Sunday’s game was the latest in a seemingly endless series of examples of the Titans’ defense, which finished the regular season setting franchise lows for both sacks and third-down percentage, proving its ineptitude.
Watson faced little resistance, throwing for 365 yards and three touchdowns. WR Brandin Cooks terrorized the Titans’ secondary, catching 11 passes for 166 yards and two scores. WR Keke Coutee got in on the fun, too, with 90 receiving yards.
It bears repeating that the Texans finished the season with just four wins. They are a deeply flawed team that fired its head coach a month into the season. Even the offense has, at times, been subpar.
Yet, the best the Titans’ defense could muster was holding them to 38 points.
“We gave up too many big plays,” safety Kevin Byard said. “I felt like, at times, we were stopping the run pretty well, and then, in the second half, we started giving up chunk plays. I think, as a defense, when we give up chunk plays, that’s how we look.”
THE COMPETITION IS HEATING UP
It’s a scary situation for the Titans because, as they enter the postseason, they’re no longer going to be playing teams like the 4-12 Texans. Up first, they have a date with the 11-5 Ravens, and the competition will only become more difficult the further the Titans advance.
The Titans have repeatedly proven that Tannehill and the offense must play to near perfection in order for the team to win games, and that will be a tall order in the playoffs.
Though the Titans have shown in 2020 that successfully using that formula is possible against good teams, they’ve also shown that they’re fully vulnerable to absolutely getting their teeth kicked in, which happened just last week when the Titans traveled to Green Bay and lost a 40-14 clunker to the Packers.
While Titans fans have every right to cheer the achievements of their team and its superstar runningback, acting as though Sunday’s game was all sunshine and rainbows because of Henry would be to ignore the smoking gun that is the defense.
It’s probably going to take some divine intervention for that defense and, in turn, the Titans to not get steamrolled by QB Lamar Jackson and the high-flying Ravens on Sunday.
Cover image: Troy Taormina / USA Today