Skip to main content

The Tennessee Titans were relentless on offense in Sunday’s 19-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It looked for all the world like a unit hell-bent on finding a way to give the game to the Steelers, refusing to take no for an answer even when Pittsburgh looked hesitant to accept. How else to explain turnovers on three consecutive second-half possessions, in a span of just 10 plays as a matter of fact?

What’s perhaps most troubling about the loss to the Steelers is that those issues have become more the norm than the exception over the last several weeks.

Once again, a surprisingly stout Titans defense shackled its opponent, holding Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to a paltry 168 total yards, 12 first downs, 35 rushing yards, one touchdown and two of 11 third-down conversions. Once again, a surprisingly impotent offense mustered just 13 points – the exact figure Tennessee has totaled in three of its past four games (all losses).

The Titans turned the ball over four times against the Steelers, meaning they’ve handed it to the opponent 13 times in the last four contests – an average of more than three per game.

That’s just not going to cut it.

“Statistically you have that many turnovers, you have a 99 percent chance of losing,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “We shot ourselves in the foot plenty of times. … Hats off to our defense. We have to match them for sure, especially as an offense.”

It was indeed a hats-off performance by the Titans’ defense, which did everything in its power to vault the visitors back atop the AFC playoff picture.

Most impressive was the ability to stifle the Steelers following those three turnovers in 10 plays – which gave Pittsburgh the football on the Tennessee 41, 31 and 35-yard lines, respectively. On those three possessions – combined -- the Titans surrendered just two first downs and registered one red-zone stop. The Steelers kicked field goals each time, but that still was enough to turn a three-point deficit into a six-point lead.

“We just got to have that mentality, have that mindset,” linebacker Bud Dupree, who posted a sack against his former team, said. “We ain’t going to bend. We won’t break. So, we got to keep going. That’s what it is. No matter where (the ball is), we got to have that mentality to go out there and be some dogs.”

Even the Steelers’ lone touchdown drive of the day was more about what Tennessee’s defense did – a couple of borderline penalties against cornerback Kristian Fulton – than Pittsburgh’s performance. One penalty was for unnecessary roughness after what looked like a shoulder-to-shoulder hit on Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth. The second was a pass interference call in the end zone, and three plays later Roethlisberger scored on a sneak to cut the Titans’ lead to 13-10 and bring Heinz Field to life.

“I thought the majority of calls in this game was complete BS,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said.

Read More

Nevertheless, the Titans (9-5) could have overcome all obstacles with anything close to average offensive production.

It wasn’t as if they didn’t have the ball. In fact, Tennessee held it for 39:08, the second-highest figure of the season (the highest in a non-overtime contest). Nor was the running game an issue, as the Titans backs led by D’Onta Foreman (22 carries for 108 yards) combined for more than 200 yards for the second time in three games. Unlike the loss in New England, none of the running backs lost the football.

But the Titans’ offense has two massive issues to correct over the final three weeks of the regular season:

One, as mentioned earlier, is the turnovers. In the season’s first 10 games, the Titans fumbled the ball seven times, losing four. In the last four games, the Titans have fumbled an eye-opening 15 times, losing seven. Tannehill’s latest interception was his 14th, meaning he’s now thrown more this season than he did in his first two Titans seasons combined (13).

“It has to get cleaned up, obviously,” Tannehill said. “You turn the ball over as many times as we did, you’re going to put yourself in a tough position. The defense kept us in the game by the way they played – huge stops after those turnovers, holding them to field goals. But offensively, we’ve got to play cleaner football.”

The other problem is a lack of explosiveness – downfield throws, to be specific. Tannehill’s longest completion of the day went for just 18 yards, and that was actually a short pass that Foreman turned into a bigger gain.

Part of the issue there is protection. On the Titans’ first play from scrimmage, for instance, Tannehill saw Julio Jones running deep behind the Pittsburgh coverage. But before he could throw it, Tannehill was buried by Chris Wormley, the first of four Steelers sacks.

Personnel is another concern. Tannehill – instead of throwing passes to the likes of Jones, A.J. Brown, Josh Reynolds and Marcus Johnson – has to hope for the best from Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Chester Rogers, Racey McMath and Cody Hollister.

Westbrook-Ikhine couldn’t hold onto a deep Tannehill pass in the second quarter, a catch he should have made and one that would have picked up about 50 yards. But those types of opportunities have all but dried up in the passing game for the Titans, meaning they must dink and dunk their way downfield on long drives – and increasing the chances that turnovers and penalties torpedo the possessions.

Speaking of the passing attack, could it hurt to give Golden Tate an opportunity, especially if – as expected – the hamstring injury sidelines Jones for Thursday’s game against San Francisco? Nothing against Hollister or McMath, who I’m sure are both wonderful blockers and special-teams players. But can you really afford to keep suiting up both, when the passing game is gasping for air? Surely Tate has learned enough of the offense in a month’s time on the practice squad to see at least some game action. The Hendersonville, Tenn. native has nearly 700 career catches. Let him do his thing.

The Titans’ hope, of course, is that Brown will be back soon, something that could happen as early as Thursday if his chest injury has healed.

Maybe a big dose of Brown and a sprinkling of Tate will be enough to breathe some life into the Titans’ awful aerial attack, enough to make it, well, passable. Because strange as it might have sounded before the season began, the Titans don’t have to be great offensively to stay competitive – not the way this team’s defense is playing.

Simply holding onto the football would be a big step in the right direction.