Special Teams Come Up Short in Loss to Texans

David Boclair

NASHVILLE – Special teams have been a difference-maker for the Tennessee Titans this season.

Sunday’s AFC South first-place showdown with the Houston Texans was no different, except that this time the Titans paid for miscues in the kicking game rather than reap any rewards.

A blocked field goal in the first quarter cost them three points, which happened to be the final margin in their 24-21 defeat Sunday at Nissan Stadium. A fake punt failed and allowed the Texans to take a 14-point lead into halftime. An onside kick – always a longshot at best – came nowhere near producing the desirable result. And a questionable decision on a punt return in the final minute turned an already desperate situation a little more bleak.

Had any one of those plays worked in Tennessee’s favor the result might have been different and it could have been the Titans sitting on top of the division with a one-game lead. The Titans play the final game of the season in Houston on Dec. 29. Houston is 9-5 and Tennessee is 8-6.

“Tennessee does a great job with their special teams,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said. “They have a lot of things you have to be ready for.”

Blocked kicks either preserved or contributed to earlier victories over Kansas City and Indianapolis. This time it was the opposite.

The Titans offense drove 67 yards in six plays on its opening possession before it was forced to settle for a 45-yard field goal attempt. Ryan Succop’s kick got as far as the line of scrimmage before Houston’s Angelo Blackson, a Tennessee draft pick in 2015, got a hand on it and knocked it to the ground.

“We will have to go look at the protection,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “… I don’t know what happened on the block. Was it low? Did we get penetration push back?”

The impact was obvious – on the scoreboard, at least – particularly when the Titans scored their final points with 2:04 to play yet still trailed by three.

It is not clear whether that miss (Succop is now 1-for-6 on field goal attempts this season since coming off injured reserve) was a factor in the decision to attempt the fake punt. Rather than try a 55-yard kick with 11:14 to play in the first half, Tennessee sent out the punt team on fourth-and-10. Punter Brett Kern threw a pass to safety Dane Cruickshank who was well covered down the right sideline and the play was incomplete.

Kern’s only other pass this season went for 11 yards and a first down. But that was not even necessarily the goal in this case.

“Tried to get (Cruikshank) out there and create some contact, which would have been defensive pass interference,” Vrabel said. “I thought that was about as much chance as converting fourth-and-10. At that point in time, where we were (losing) 14-0, [we were] trying to get something there late in the half.”

Late in the game, Houston easily recovered Ryan Santoso’s onside kick and ran the clock down to 28 seconds before the Texans punted.

Tennessee started with 11 men on the line but dropped LeShaun Sims at the last moment, left an outside man uncovered and dared Houston’s punt team to risk the incompletion. It did not.

The ball landed inside the 10 and bounced toward the goal line, where Sims gathered it in and attempted a return, which got as far as the 12 and took five seconds off the clock.

“I think we all felt, at that point in time (Sims) felt like, ‘I’m trying to get this thing so it doesn’t just sit there on the three, four, five or 10-yard line and bleed the clock,’” Vrabel said. “Because in those punt situations, believe it or not, you can get 12 or 13 seconds run off the clock. … It wouldn’t have mattered what plays we called on the (12) or the 20. We were still going to be in a desperation mode with no timeouts, forcing to get the ball.”

Because special teams gaffes earlier in the contest helped put them in that situation.

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