NASHVILLE – Months ago, we never thought this question would arise.
It still seemed unimaginable even a few weeks ago.
But here we are, 11 weeks into the season, and suddenly it has become the Tennessee Titans’ most pressing issue: How far can they really go with this offense?
This is not the pick-your-poison group the Titans envisioned in the days following the Julio Jones trade, when it looked like opponents would be left flailing while trying to stop the likes of Jones, Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Ryan Tannehill. Henry is gone until further notice. Jones has played just six games, Brown has been injured and inconsistent, and Tannehill is throwing the ball to the other team almost as often as he’s tossing touchdown passes these days.
The result? Just 13 points scored Sunday in a loss to the Houston Texans, who entered the contest ranked 30th overall in the league in defense (31st against the run and 18th against the pass) and losers of eight straight games.
“As an entire offense, we have to do better,” Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “It was just bad. I am not going to sit here and make it sound like, `Oh, this is good. We did some good things. We ran the ball better.’
“Congratulations, (but) if you don’t score more points than the other team it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Wins and losses are the only things that matter in this league.”
Maybe we should have been paying closer attention to the offensive shortcomings during the last couple of weeks, when the Titans – thanks in large part to an aggressive, harassing defense – posted wins over the Rams and the Saints.
It was easier, though, to focus on what the short-handed Titans continued to accomplish as they overcame a non-stop string of injuries, ran their win streak to six games and beat a couple of 2020 NFC playoff teams in the process.
Still, the signs were there in the two games without Henry, the first time since they drafted him they did not have him in consecutive weeks: an average of just 229 offensive yards against the Rams and Saints, a combined seven-for-24 showing on third downs in those games, a combined three points in the first quarter in the two contests.
The Titans did just enough to survive offensively in those games, but how long could it last?
The answer, as we now know, is not another week longer.
Some of the ugly offensive trends remained against the Texans: There was a slow start, the fourth straight week without a first-quarter touchdown. And they fizzled too often in critical times, going just six-for-15 on third downs and two-for-four on fourth downs.
The latest issue to cripple the offense? Turnovers. Tannehill threw a career-high four interceptions that led to two Texans field goals. Wide receiver Chester Rogers chipped in with a muffed punt return that led to a Houston touchdown.
The giveaways proved the backbreaker for an offense that had at least managed to hold onto the football in its first two weeks without Henry, surrendering just one turnover in the eight quarters against the Rams and Saints.
“Mistakes,” coach Mike Vrabel said of the offense’s lack of rhythm Sunday. “Mistakes. And you know, that's unfortunate because we put some drives together. We gained yards. Just couldn't finish. Just felt like we were our own worst enemy and would get into some drives and not be able to convert or turn the football over.”
Tannehill stepped up as a veteran quarterback should after the contest and took full responsibility for the interceptions. He’s now tossed 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season, after throwing a combined 55 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his first two seasons. It’s not a good trend.
In Tannehill’s defense, though, it looked months ago like his top three receiving targets would be Brown, Jones and Josh Reynolds. At the start of Sunday’s game, it was Brown, Marcus Johnson and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. Brown left the game twice, first with a finger injury and later – for good – with a chest injury. Johnson, who caught five passes for 100 yards in the win over the Saints, left just before halftime with a hamstring injury.
So, by the end of the contest, Tannehill was targeting the only three healthy receivers that remained – Westbrook-Ikhine, Chester Rogers and rookie Dez Fitzpatrick. Two of Tannehill’s four interceptions were passes thrown for Fitzpatrick, who was playing his second NFL game. It’s possible a lack of chemistry between quarterback and receiver played a part in those picks.
“It makes it tough,” Tannehill said of playing with less familiar faces. “Playing in situations where you don’t have a lot of reps with guys causes some issues. Like I said, look forward to getting more reps with those guys, and then hopefully we get some guys back.”
In reality, that’s pretty much where things stand for the Titans’ offense – in both the short and long run: Can this unit, as it stands, tread water long enough to remain atop the AFC over the next six games? Can it play efficiently, even if it’s not producing the kind of big numbers it did in four straight wins over Jacksonville, Buffalo, Kansas City and Indianapolis?
And maybe most importantly, when – if ever – this season will we see the Titans’ offense as it was envisioned over the summer?
When and if Henry returns is anyone’s guess at this point, his foot injury limiting the condition he can stay in during the lengthy rehabilitation. Second-stringer Darrynton Evans is done for the year and Jeremy McNichols has a concussion, leaving the Titans with three backs – Adrian Peterson, D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard – who weren’t even in consideration at the start of the season.
The 32-year-old Jones is having a hard time staying healthy for any length of time. He’ll miss at least one more game while on injured reserve, which means – at that point – Jones will have missed 10 of his last 17 contests dating back to last season.
Brown, slowed by injuries, is having a roller-coaster year. He caught a combined 10 passes for 130 yards in his first four games, hauled in 25 passes for 379 yards over his next three games, and then dipped back down to 11 catches for 106 yards over his last three games.
What’s it all add up to, especially if Tannehill can’t get his turnovers under control?
It means Titans fans better hope the team’s defense continues to bare its fangs for the foreseeable future. Because the offense – at present -- doesn’t appear to have much bite.