NASHVILLE – Few teams had higher hopes coming into the 2021 NFL season than the Tennessee Titans.
Fresh off a division title and with an influx of big-name talent via free agency, a trade and the draft, the Super Bowl talk was difficult to ignore. Wide receiver Julio Jones was bound to make an already potent offense even better. Bud Dupree and rookies Caleb Farley and Elijah Molden would do much to fix a defense that had almost nowhere to go but up.
Or so a lot of folks thought.
What virtually no one imagined is what took place Sunday in the opener at Nissan Stadium. The Titans looked nothing like the 2020 version of themselves, or the 2019 version – the one that got on a run late and reached the AFC Championship – for that matter in a 38-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in front of an announced crowd of 67,216, a large portion of which left before the final whistle.
After such a promising offseason and preseason, this was the first game that counted in the standings. And these are the moments that mattered.
Right from the start: The first play of the game was a handoff to running back Derrick Henry going to his left. The two-time NFL rushing champion and one of eight players ever to rush for 2,000 yards in the NFL was stopped for a three-yard loss.
It is not unusual for Henry to get thwarted for little or no gain. It happens. In this case, though, it was a sign of what to come. His first 10 carries gained a total of nine yards. Things got a little better in the second half, but he finished with 58 yards on 17 carries and never really was a factor in the contest. As a team, Tennessee rushed for 86 yards on 22 carries after having topped 120 yards in each of its first five games (13 of 16 overall) in 2020.
From the blind side: Tennessee’s second offensive possession ended after just two plays. On the second, Arizona defensive end Chandler Jones sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill before Tannehill could even set his feet following a play-action fake. The ball came out, the Cardinals recovered and not long after turned that takeaway into their first touchdown.
Much like Henry’s first carry, this was a sign of what was to come. Tannehill eventually was sacked six times, which equaled the most in a game since he became the Titans’ starter. Five of those sacks were by Jones. At the end of the first quarter, in fact, Tannehill had completed three passes for 15 yards and had been sacked three times for a loss of 28 yards (plus the turnover). The sack-fumble combo was repeated late in the third quarter and the Cardinals also turned that takeaway into a touchdown.
Catch him if you can: With 6:39 to play in the second quarter, Tennessee, fresh off its first touchdown, had a chance to get the ball back – and to make things interesting – when the Cardinals faced a third-and-10 at their own 25. The defense pressured Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray, who managed to stay alive as five potential tacklers failed to get within an arm’s reach before he completed a pass to rookie wide receiver Rondale Moore for 18 yards.
It is no secret that the first overall pick in the 2019 draft is athletic and elusive and does things others cannot. This was next level, and it effectively started what was his team’s longest scoring drive in terms of plays (12) and time off the clock (5:06). That possession, which deepened the Titans’ deficit to 18 points, ended with Murray’s 2-yard touchdown run that made it 24-6, but it was his ability to run around on a pass play that really set him apart on a day when he threw a career-high four touchdown passes and had a hand in all five of his team’s touchdowns.
Kicking it: Michael Badgley, pressed into action one day after he was added to the active roster and two days after he was signed to the practice squad, missed his first kick for the Titans. His PAT attempt sailed to the left with 6:50 to play in the second quarter and took a little air out of the building moments after Tennessee finally got on the board with a 1-yard Tannehill touchdown run.
As with seemingly everything else that went wrong, this was not a one-off. Badgley doubled down on the next possession when he missed his first field goal attempt for Tennessee. His 46-yard attempt also went left and cost his team a chance to make it a two-score game (15 points) at halftime. He finally made a PAT early in the third quarter, but that was it for him in what could be his only game for the Titans. The kicking situation looked to be solved when Sam Ficken won the job in the preseason, and now the uncertainty that was so prevalent throughout 2019 and – to a lesser extent – 2020 is back.
Going for it: With 3:10 to play in the first quarter, the Titans executed a fake punt from their own 26 when Matthias Farley took the snap and completed a pass to Amani Hooker for six yards. They needed four yards for a first down.
It did not lead to points (Brett Kern actually did punt four plays later) but it was a clear signal that Vrabel intends to remain aggressive in his fourth season. In fact, the longest play of the game for either team was a 39-yard completion from Tannehill to Chester Rogers off a flea-flicker early in the second quarter. That one eventually led to a touchdown.
There is a fearlessness and creativity to this coaching staff that should make this team fun to watch this season. It just has to be much, much better at all of the ordinary stuff than it was against the Cardinals.