NASHVILLE — A disastrous first quarter cost the Tennessee Titans (8-4) an opportunity to cement themselves among the NFL’s contending class. The failure seems more glaring in a 41-35 loss to a Cleveland Browns (9-3) franchise that’s supposed to be finding their footing.

Instead, Cleveland stepped on Tennessee early and used the Titans as their toehold.

There will be days when competent teams best others of their ilk in outcomes that seem surprising. What cannot happen is a snow-balling like Sunday where a quarterback with 17 passing touchdowns coming into the day throws for 290 yards and four scores in the first half alone.

So, why the Jekyll and Hyde routine?

Don’t Ask Me No Questions

Mike Vrabel’s team has been largely impressive this year but never beyond questioning.

“Listen guys,” Vrabel started his game recap press conference Zoom after Tennessee drubbed the Colts. “Three weeks ago Arthur (Smith) stunk. We couldn’t gain any yards against Chicago. We couldn’t get any yards against somebody else. It goes up and down. One week we’re going to stink and this guy sucks and then I suck.”

Dec 6, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Rashard Higgins (82) catches a touchdown pass behind coverage from Tennessee Titans cornerback Breon Borders (39) during the first half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

If only there was a sarcasm font.

Vrabel’s point was well taken on Monday that he and his staff largely know what they’re doing and are in a constant pursuit of consistency. His team’s first half performance registered as a special kind of pathetic, though, Sunday against Cleveland. No one in the NFL is beyond second guessing, lest anyone need reminding.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield was under pressure on only one passing attempt according to NextGen Stats. Mayfield diced up the Titans defense easily in the first half and finished with the best Expected Points Added total (+28.8) against No Pressure in the history of NextGen statistics. Tennessee had not given up more 36 points heading into Sunday.

The Browns offense had 38 at the half.

Reoccurring Themes

Running back Derrick Henry exudes the Titans offensive identity. No one disputes this.

With a defense that gives up third down conversions at a historic rate, however, running the ball down 41-21 in the third quarter has its flaws. WildBat (wide receiver Cameron Batson) fumble in the third quarter aside, Vrabel once told us that expectations for Henry to break a 30-yard gain every time he touches the ball could be unrealistic. Why continue an offense predicated on Henry’s ability to do so down double digits in the second half, then? Tennessee’s first drive of the final frame after a ghastly Adam Humphries bobble created their third turnover of the day started with a Henry inside run to the left for a gain of 7.

Tennessee Titans
Sep 8, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs with the ball against Cleveland Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon (54) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

In the first half, those plays are beautiful. Running down 20 at the time of the carry looks more like a waste of time. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s unit clearly has an identity.

How they’re unable to separate themselves from it, when necessary, remains to be seen.

“I do think that we’re gonna fight and I do think that we’re gonna compete,” said Vrabel. “There are no moral victories. The charge is just to try and recreate leaving the locker room and how we played in the second half as opposed how we approached and played the start of that game.”

And Fight They Did…

Wide receiver Corey Davis played spectacularly (11 catches, 182 yards, 1 TD). Vrabel’s team showed effort into the second half and allowed only three points after halftime. The final margin and box score reflect that. Like each of their four losses to date, though, the Titans defense proved to be what cost them.

The 1995 Cleveland Browns are the NFL’s worst third down defense in NFL history (49.6%), ironically enough. Through Sunday, the Titans defense is giving up 54.3% of their third downs played. That percentage anywhere above 50% for the season remains the most consistent flaw in this team all season long. Tennessee will remain nothing more than an also-ran unless it improves.

A gaudy box score and second-half effort can only carry you so far.

Featured Image: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports.
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