The Tennessee Titans lost to the Steelers on Sunday night in a pretty ugly performance to close out Week 3 of the preseason. That figures to be the last time we see any of the team’s starters, as Week 4 is usually reserved for roster-bubble players, later-round rookies, and other guys who will likely be released on final cut day.
A lot of fans, based off of their social media activity, seem to be at least somewhat concerned by the dismal performance. At face value, it’s hard to fault them.
The Titans were, indeed, objectively awful on Sunday night. Starting quarterback Marcus Mariota and backup Ryan Tannehill took some pretty brutal hits during the first half due to a lack of pass protection. Offensive linemen Aaron Stinnie, Rodger Saffold and Dennis Kelly looked dismal when each of them played.
Additionally, the secondary fell victim to downfield passing multiple times during the first half. Steelers receiver Juju Smith-Schuster caught a 17-yard touchdown against cornerback LeShaun Sims, and James Washington scored from 41 yards out against CB Kenneth Durden.
However, any disappointments from Sunday’s game, or either of the Titans’ first two preseason games, need to be taken with a grain of salt. Here are three major reasons as to why that is the case.
1. The starters didn’t play for long.
Mike Vrabel on why Mariota’s playing time was limited tonight. pic.twitter.com/Rt5gKh6k29
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) August 26, 2019
Titans starting QB Marcus Mariota played just two drives during the team’s third preseason game. In those two drives, he attempted just three passes with all three falling incomplete. To close drive #2, he was sacked in the end zone for a safety.
Head coach Mike Vrabel probably intended to play Mariota a little longer than that, but the Titans’ pass protection issues seemed to force an early exit from the QB.
“We want to make sure that we can protect our quarterback, and that’s important,” Vrabel said when asked about Mariota’s removal from the game. “That’s imperative that we do that as a staff and as an offensive group. No, I think I wanted to see how the game was going and at that point, I thought it was in the team’s best interest, and everybody’s best interest, that we get him out of the game at that point in time.”
In the Titans’ first preseason game two weeks ago, Mariota played just one series. Last week, he played three.
When the first-team only plays such a limited amount of snaps, it’s hard to get a read on how good they actually are. That’s why most “takeaways” from preseason games, particularly when it comes to offenses, tend toward being overreactions.
No sort of rhythm is established as an offense when your starting quarterback throws three passes and then leaves the game, and that isn’t what preseason games are designed for.
The Titans offense figures to look a lot better once their starters are on the field for the entire game and they’re able to develop things over the course of four quarters. Preseason games are too sporadic with substitutions for that to happen.
2. The concepts were vanilla.
Update: This is the worst. https://t.co/zUArNVNs0o
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) August 26, 2019
It seems highly unlikely that, in an actual regular-season game, new Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith would run a draw play on a standard third and 10 situation. Yet, that’s exactly what he did on Thursday night.
That’s because there is zero incentive for the Titans to waste a third down play that they believe in during the preseason when results are meaningless. This principle carries over to plenty of other situations, as well.
Defenses are not going to do anything “exotic” in the preseason. Offenses are not going to waste good designs by putting them on tape prior to the start of the regular season.
Why? Because preseason games don’t count for anything.
The primary reason that the Titans offense has looked fairly basic and remedial over the last few weeks is that the coaches simply aren’t calling their best stuff, which is completely understandable.
“Quite frankly for us, we are focused on just trying to get better every day,” Mariota said on Sunday. “No matter what, it’s a constant improvement. Mistakes are going to happen, we understand that. Let’s not continue to make the same mistakes. Let’s just learn from them and grow. I think that’s what we’ve done in a month.”
Preseason football is less about quantifiable observations as it is about qualifiable ones. However, qualifiable observations about an entire unit, especially one that is intentionally avoiding deploying its best strategies, is dangerous.
3. They weren’t trying to win.
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) August 26, 2019
It is an objective truth that the Titans were not trying to win last Sunday’s game.
Sure, every player tried their best and executed to the best of their ability. But in terms of actual strategy, the Titans were not concerned with which team would have more points at the end of the game.
The evidence for that? Mike Vrabel’s handling of a late-game situation.
Vrabel, who constantly preaches the importance of aggressiveness and often practices that belief, opted to give Ryan Succop an opportunity to kick a field goal just over halfway through the fourth quarter when his team was down two scores.
In a regular-season game, Vrabel, or really any coach for that matter, would have left the offense out on the field to go for it. But with it being a preseason game, Vrabel made the right choice.
Succop missed the entirety of Training Camp with an injury, and he was just moved off of the “physically unable to perform” list last week. The Titans needed to prioritize getting him opportunities to get into a rhythm during the preseason, which they did.
“We’ve got a kicker that’s coming off of PUP,” Vrabel said after Sunday’s game. “We’re running out of opportunities before the regular season. Probably would of had to go for it down there on the second one. The way it’s come out with Ryan, where he’s at now in the third preseason game, we just needed to get him kicking.
“There was a plan, we would have liked to have had him kicking a few more times and some extra points, but that obviously didn’t happen. I needed to make a decision to give him some work in a game, and again, being able to snap and hold in a game with wet footballs, those were all part of the process.”
When practicing situations is more important to a football team than actually winning the game—which, again, was clearly the correct choice for Vrabel to make—you can’t evaluate general performance.
The Titans will play their first regular-season game a week from this Sunday. That’s when we will actually start to learn about the makeup of this team.
Cover image: Steve Roberts/USA Today