The Tennessee Titans were in a favorable position -- one that seemed unlikely at halftime, when they trailed the Pittsburgh Steelers by 17 points.
A second-half rally cut the deficit to three. Then, after an Amani Hooker interception with just more than two minutes to play, the Titans drove down the field and as far as the Pittsburgh 28-yard-line, well within kicker Stephen Gostkowksi’s field goal range.
With 14 seconds to play and the Steelers clinging to a three-point advantage, 27-24, overtime suddenly seemed likely. Entering Sunday, Gostkowski had made 24 of his 25 game-tying or game-winning field goal attempts.
This time the ball had different plans. It slid past the uprights to the right.
“I had an opportunity to tie the game up. I felt pretty good all game and came out there and it went right down the middle and faded to the right,” Gostkowski said postgame. “I’ll have to look at it. Just very disappointed to let the team down like that. I was confident going out there but didn’t get it done. Just not very good right now.”
While Gostkowski will replay the kick over and over again in his mind, and fans will try to pin the Titans’ first loss of the season on him, the miss was only the final blow in what was a rough day for the Titans’ special teams.
A series of mistakes at the end of the second quarter in particular looms particularly large given the slim margin of Tennessee’s first defeat.
With the Steelers off and running to a clinical 17-7 lead, the Titans were in search of something, anything, to get moving in the right direction. Kalif Raymond, who has been reliable as a kick returner and wide receiver, muffed a kickoff from Steelers kicker Chris Boswell at the Titans’ 13 yard line to set the offense up with an undesirable field position at the 10 yard line.
The Titans gained just five yards on the possession and punted the ball away to the Steelers with less than two minutes to play in the quarter. Ray-Ray McCloud returned the kick 57 yards to the Titans’ 17. Three plays later, the Steelers found the endzone for a third time in the half, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with wide receiver Dionte Johnson on a nine-yard pass.
While the Steelers did not take advantage of the field position the Titans gifted them after punter Brett Kern fumbled a snap from Beau Brinkley at the 18-yard-line with time running low in the second quarter, it was the damage done previously that proved to be a big difference.
“You can't fall behind against a good football team,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said. “Give Pittsburgh a lot of credit, this was clearly the best team we've played to this point, and if we didn't play our best, we were going to lose.”
Despite the blunders in the first half, though, the Titans did enough to have a chance.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill connected with AJ Brown for a 73-yard touchdown in the third quarter. On the very next possession, Gostkowski drilled a 51-yard field goal. In the fourth quarter, Derrick Henry’s one-yard touchdown capped off a 12-play drive that took more than five minutes off the game clock to shrink the Steelers’ lead to three. In between all of it, the Titans’ defense struggled but made timely plays, including two interceptions in the second half, to stay afloat.
All of that put Gostkowski in a situation he had been successful in three times prior to Sunday.
While he missed four total kicks in the Titans’ Week 1 game against the Denver Broncos, he walked away the hero after making the game-winning field goal. In the Titans’ narrow Week 2 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Gostkowski made a 41-yard field goal with just over a minute remaining in the game to put the Titans ahead. The veteran kicker became the first kicker in Oilers/Titans history to make three consecutive game-winning field goals with his 55-yard field goal against the Minnesota Vikings in the final minutes of the Week 3 matchup.
“It was a gut punch to see that kick go wide right. I had a ton of confidence going out there that he was going to nail that kick. Unfortunately, obviously it was a little bit wide. But it doesn't come down to him,” Tannehill said. “It's a lot that I can do better and we can do better as an offense throughout the games so we're not in that situation at the end.”
After a dreadful Week 1 performance, Gostkowski made nine consecutive field goal attempts. However, the four-time Pro Bowler appears to be back in a rut. In the last two games, Gostkowski has gone 1-4 on field goal attempts.
For the Titans, though, it’s on to the next opportunity. Vrabel has always been confident in Gostkowski. Gostkowski has always been confident in himself.
Surely, Vrabel expects the 36-year-old’s recent struggles to vanish, just as they did before.
“Confident that he'll make the next one. It's unfortunate. I fully expected him to make it, he expected to make it, and it didn't turn out that way. We all have a lot to improve on, starting with me, and then going all the way down to the coaching staff and the players.”