They say one play cannot lose a team a game.
While that is certain, a handful of plays can define a game. A clear example is what happened to the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night.
In a 34-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Nissan Stadium, one after another, the special teams mistakes came. A shanked punt, a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown and another missed field goal -- Stephen Gostkowski’s eighth of the season -- sent the Titans into an uncontrollable tailspin and the Colts into a 21-point second half surge, all of which went unanswered.
“We missed the field goal. It didn't go in,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said. “We didn't punt it well enough the one time and then didn't block well enough on the other.
“… I think it pretty much spoke for itself there [the momentum shift]. Being able to get the ball where they did, and I guess they got it in the 30-yard line maybe the one time and then they got it in the end zone the other.”
In a curious decision shortly before kickoff, the Titans opted to start recently signed punter Trevor Daniel in favor of Ryan Allen, who did the job on short notice in the Titans’ victory against the Chicago Bears in replacement of the injured three-time Pro Bowler Brett Kern. On Sunday, Allen punted eight times in the game for a total of 404 yards. He averaged 50.4 yards per kick. Three of his putns were 55 yards or longer, including a 65-yard kick late in the second quarter from the Titans end zone.
Vrabel didn’t elaborate much on the decision to start Daniel over the seasoned veteran Allen, but he alluded to what happened in the few practices the Titans had this week.
“The process is always what it looks like in practice and what we felt like was best for the team and those are all the things that we look at during practice, during the week of practice, and the evaluation of those guys kicking,” he said. “That's the decision that we made.”
Daniel’s first mishap of the game came when momentum seemed to be teetering toward the Titans. Leading 17-13 early in the third quarter, the Titans stuffed the Colts at the goal line twice to get a turnover on downs after an Indianapolis touchdown was reversed upon replay review.
The Titans’ ensuing offensive possession stalled out, and Daniel took the field for his second punt of the contest.
The third-year veteran, who played 18 games for the Houston Texans over the last two seasons, shanked miserably. From the Titans 10 yard line, he kicked the ball 17 yards to the 27 yard line. Four plays later, Colts running back Nyheim Hynes found the end zone for the second time of the game to give his team a 20-17 advantage.
In an instant, things went from bad to worse.
Following another three-and-out for the Titans offense, Daniel again took the field. This time, the Colts brought a furious rush and linebacker E.J. Speed blocked it. The ball bounced to the Tennessee 6-yard line, where cornerback T.J. Carrie scooped it and waltzed his way into the end zone for the Colts’ second score in under a minute to put them up 27-17.
“We had a blitz-screen lined up to where I could knife inside the seam and it came open,” Speed said. “Once it came open, it was time to make a play, I made the play, we scored, and it changed the game.”
In need of at least three points to keep the game in reach early in the fourth quarter, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry led the Titans to Colts’ 26-yard line, where the drive ultimately stalled out. Gostkowski, who was good from 50 yards earlier in the game, missed a 44-yard field goal. In just under three minutes, the Colts swiftly drove 66 yards on four plays for another touchdown to finish the Titans off.
A four-time Pro Bowler and one of the most successful kickers in NFL history, Gostkowski's eight misses this season (11-20) are a career high. In 14 full seasons, the former New England Patriot never missed more than six in a single season (2012).
Vrabel has been quick to stand by the veteran kicker through his struggles this season. This time, he said the Titans will need to “evaluate everything that we do.”
“... We'll look at what we're doing and try to do what's best for the team like we always do,” he said, “but we all have jobs to do and we have to try to do them better.”
Gostkowski has had to work with three different holders and snappers over the last three weeks. However, Vrabel suggested that roster changes have had little impact on performance.
“You're going to have to play with different people,” he said. “So that's nothing new to the National Football League or any football, that you're going to have different guys in different spots just for different reasons.”
The Titans (6-3) have now dropped three of their last four contests after a 5-0 start. Now tied with the Colts (6-3) atop the AFC South with seven games to play, the margin for more costly errors becomes slimer.
“It's just going to be tough to win not creating any turnovers and then obviously having those types of things happen that, again, are uncharacteristic and need to change,” Vrabel said. “Those are like turnovers, and obviously when you give up scores on special teams that's not going to be easy to overcome.”