NASHVILLE — Tennessee Titans (5-1) saw their undefeated streak end on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) visited Nissan Stadium. The NFL’s worst third-down defense and the ever-tenuous field goal kicking finally caught up to Mike Vrabel’s team in the 27-24 loss.

Trailing by 20, at one point, to the AFC’s best team was one fourth-quarter comeback Tennessee just could not mount. Damned if they didn’t try, though.

“You certainly can’t fall behind,” Vrabel said via Zoom. “I appreciate the way we fight but, you know, I expected that. We’ve gotta coach and play better.”

How The Hole Was Dug

Several factors contributed to Sunday’s losing outcome for the Titans. Third-down defense continues to be an atrocity.

Tennessee allowed Pittsburgh to jump out to a 24-7 lead in the first half of the game due largely to their inability to stop quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from feasting on their secondary without any rush to slow him. The Steelers converted 6-of-8 third downs and finished 13-of-18 (72.2%) on the day. The Titans offense, meanwhile, could not stay on the field against the hyper aggressive Pittsburgh defense. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was 6-of-11 for 50 yards and the one score while running back Derrick Henry averaged 3.4 yards a carry with 27 yards on eight attempts. Tennessee’s offense was on the field for just over 10 minutes in the entire first half.

The Titans defense was allowing an NFL-worst 57.8% conversion rate on third downs coming into the Steelers game.

The (Almost) Comeback

After halftime, the story was a much different and it looked like salvation might be possible. Tennessee shut Roethlisberger and Co. out for the final two frames, A.J. Brown turned a quick Tannehill pass into a 73-yard touchdown and Henry scored in the fourth quarter to bring them within 3 points. With just over two minutes left, the Titans started on their 20-yard line after an interception by Amani Hooker in the end zone resulting in a touchback.

Tannehill drove the offense to the 28-yard line to set up a 45-yard field goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski that was off the mark with 19 seconds left in the game. The veteran kicker has made 10 of his 16 attempts this season for an underwhelming 62.5%.

“As a defense, I loved the resiliency in the second half,” said safety Kevin Byard. “We didn’t give up any points but, at the end of the day, our third-down defense and red zone defense has to be better for us to continue to win games.”

What Now?

Oct 25, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) is hit by Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams (98) during the first half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

These are not new issues for Tennessee, outside of Tannehill being under greater duress without left tackle Taylor Lewan.

Rookie play-caller Shane Bowen must find a way to create better communication amongst his defensive players. Two pass rushers (Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley) making a collective $22.5 million must contribute more than the occasional batted pass and forced fumble that does not get recovered. Line-up changes were even made today with Tye Smith starting at outside corner as opposed to Johnathan Joseph but Roethlisberger targeted Smith time and time again to the point where he had to be yanked from that role on the very next defensive series. Life will get better when Adoree’ Jackson returns the team for the first time this season.

As for the field goals, who knows?

“I had an opportunity to tie the game up,” Gostkowski said. “I felt pretty good all game, and came out there and it went right down the middle and faded to the right. I’ll have to look at it. Just very disappointed to let the team down like that. I was confident going out there but didn’t get it done. Just not very good right now.”

The rollercoaster at kicker is not a new ride based on how Tennessee’s 2019 situation bore out. 2020’s defensive efforts, the same.

The Titans have been this exact same team through seven weeks of the NFL season. It took the AFC’s lone undefeated team exploiting both of Tennessee’s known Achilles’ Heels to finally make them fold.

Featured Image: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports.
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