The Tennessee Titans‘ 27-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers could prove to be a good thing in the long run.
When you’re winning games in the NFL despite poor performances, it can be easy to turn a blind eye to the poor performances.
“When you’re winning, sometimes you sweep a lot of stuff under the rug,” Titans WR A.J. Brown said.
After suffering their first loss of the season, the Titans can no longer turn a blind eye to some of the problems that have been plaguing them, particularly on defense.
That’s not to say that the Titans haven’t made improvement efforts throughout the 2020 season so far, because they certainly have. Losing, though, will intensify those efforts, something that the team probably needs.
“Moving forward, I think this loss kind of helped us, to be honest,” Brown said. “Getting a loss kind of magnifies what we didn’t do well.”
Don’t know that we really learned anything about the #Titans in this one. Right now, they’re a gritty team with a talented offense and a defense that’s a liability.
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) October 25, 2020
Most of what the Titans haven’t done well in 2020 has been on the defense, where they remain the NFL’s worst third-down defense in the league.
Following yet another week during which players and coaches alike repeatedly declared the Titans’ need to improve on third down, there was no improvement.
Against the Steelers, the Titans defense turned in another clunker, allowing Pittsburgh to covert 13 of the 18 third downs they faced.
“It hasn’t gotten any better,” head coach Mike Vrabel said of the Titans’ third-down defense on Sunday.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
#Titans safety Kevin Byard on the third down defense: It comes down to pride
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) October 25, 2020
The reason behind the Titans’ third-down struggles remains mysterious, as players have offered multiple different explanations.
One potential explanation, offered by safety Kevin Byard after the loss to Pittsburgh, is that the defense isn’t playing with enough “pride” on third downs.
“It’s a pride thing, honestly,” Byard said. “We’ve got to take pride in third downs, particularly third-and-longs when we have a good percentage chance of getting off the field.
“If I could turn that switch and be able to be great on third downs every week, I would do it. It takes all of us, from top to bottom. It takes every single one of us doing everything we can possibly do to get better at it.”
Another potential explanation, offered by linebacker and defensive signal-caller Rashaan Evans, is that the defense isn’t yet on the same page with first-year play-caller Shane Bowen.
“When you have a new defensive coordinator that just came in, he has some plays and things that he wants to do,” Evans said. “You have to be able to execute those things and bring them into your own. That’s something that has to gradually happen over time.
“Eventually, the turnovers, the big plays, they’re going to come.”
A WAKE-UP CALL
Regardless of why the defense has been so bad on third downs in 2020, the bottom line is that is things have to get a lot better for the Titans to have even a prayer of beating other top teams in the AFC like Kansas City and Baltimore, who the Titans will play on Nov. 22.
And that’s precisely why, on balance, Sunday’s loss could end up benefiting the Titans.
Pittsburgh, now 6-0, is far from being a slouch. Losing to them isn’t something any team should be embarrassed about, and the Titans were close to beating them despite falling behind by 24-7 in the first half.
If kicker Stephen Gostkowski had converted a 46-yard attempt with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the game would’ve gone to overtime.
Instead, though, the Titans took their first loss of the season, and it should serve as a wake-up call, of sorts.
They’re a talented team with high levels of grit and mental toughness that scores a lot of points, but they have flaws, too.
“We have guys who want to get better and take a real look at what we did wrong,” QB Ryan Tannehill said. “I think we have a lot more on this tape than some of our other tapes that we can do better. There’s definitely going to be a critical eye on this game.”
That may be just what the Titans need to get things fixed, particularly on defense.
Cover image: Steve Roberts / USA Today