NASHVILLE – Athletes and coaches like to say there is more to be learned from defeat than from victory.
For the Tennessee Titans, Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers delivered some hard lessons.
Most importantly, coach Mike Vrabel and his team learned that keeping it close and having a chance to win at the end does not mean that they actually will win. In this case, the defense got the ball back for the offense with 2:35 to play, and the offense drove 52 yards before kicker Stephen Gostkowski attempted – and missed – a game-tying field goal with 19 seconds remaining.
“I think that we’ve got guys that want to get better and take a real look at what we did wrong,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “I think we have a lot more on this tape than some of our other tape that we can do better. So, there's definitely going to be a critical eye on this game.”
Here are some things we learned about the Titans (5-1) in their first defeat of the season:
• Kicking Concerns: With Gostkowski, things might be better than they were last season, but the Titans should not feel comfortable things when it comes to placekicking.
His wayward 45-yard, game-tying attempt in the final minute was his third miss in his last four tries. To be fair, the one that was blocked against Houston was not his fault, but he did miss another one in that contest and helped the Texans capture the momentum for a time in that one.
Until now the Titans have been able to overcome Gostkowski’s struggles. But through six games, he is 10-16 on field goals. The six misses match the most he has had in a season. He also missed six as a rookie in 2006 (20-26) and again in 2012 (29-35).
“It's unfortunate,” Vrabel said of Gostkowski’s latest miss. “I fully expected him to make it. He expected to make it, and it didn't turn out that way.”
Yes, he has made three game-winners this season, but with 10 games remaining it seems certain he will miss again – possibly even with another game on the line.
• No fluke: A.J. Brown is the type of big-play wide receiver for which this franchise has waited so long. Any thought that his performance as a rookie was a one-time thing, or that his recent knee injury could be a problem vanished in the third quarter, when he took a short pass and raced through the Pittsburgh defense for a 73-yard touchdown. It was the longest pass play of the season for Tennessee’s offense.
“I think we were just needing a big play,” Brown said. “I think that fast track, that score kind of gave us some boost. You know, that’s what we needed.”
Brown (pictured) led all players on both sides with 153 yards on six receptions (by comparison, teammate Corey Davis caught six passes for 35 yards). That tied his career-high for receiving yards in a game and gave him six 100-yard games in 20 appearances.
Even having missed two games because of the knee injury, he leads the Titans with 23 receptions and 332 yards. His four touchdown catches trail tight end Jonnu Smith’s five for the team lead.
• No rush: At this point, it is fair to wonder if the offseason efforts to improve the pass rush ever will come to fruition. Pittsburgh is the second team this season not to allow a sack to Tennessee’s defense, and no opponent has given up more than two.
Free agents Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley were signed with the idea that they would get to the quarterback or, at the very least, attract attention that would free up Harold Landry to do even better than last season, when he had a team-high nine. Clowney and Beasley have yet to get their first. Landry has just one. If not for defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, the Titans might not have any pass rush at all.
The absence of consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks is tied to the defense’s struggles to get stops on third down.
• One man short: The Titans used five different cornerbacks against the Steelers, but did not have one guy they really need. Journeyman Tye Smith and rookie Kristian Fulton officially were the starters, although Malcolm Butler and Johnathan Joseph were the primary guys at those spots. Rookie Chris Jackson also got some playing time.
There was hope during the week that Adoreé Jackson, who has been sidelined all regular season by a knee injury, would be available. Jackson practiced Wednesday, Thursday and Friday but ultimately was deemed unfit to go.
Without him, the coaches tried to match up with the Steelers based on personnel groups and down-and-distance. The result? Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger attempted a season-high 49 passes and completed 32. The cornerback group combined for one pass defensed, and that was by Joseph, while linebackers combined for six.
“A lot of guys caught passes (Sunday),” Roethlisberger said. “That's what we specialize in. That's what this team is about, is everyone being involved. … Everyone made plays and that's what's fun is that we got a lot of guys that contribute to us winning.”
Once Jackson is healthy and reclaims his starting spot opposite Butler, the Titans can settle on a regular rotation for their cornerbacks. Until then, they’re running around in circles trying to find something that works.
• No quit: Playing their third game in 12 days, the Titans could have been forgiven had they packed it when their deficit grew to 20 points (27-7) fewer than five minutes into the second half. After all, they had proven plenty with their previous two triumphs and the way things had gone through the first two-plus quarters of this one it seemed it just wasn’t their day.
Instead, they were the better team the rest of the way. The offense scored two touchdowns and a field goal in a span of four possessions. The defense picked off two passes (one in the end zone) and things got really interesting for much of the fourth quarter.
“Honestly, guys were playing hard and fighting,” safety Amani Hooker said. “We could have gave up and didn’t care, but guys were still flying around and still trying to make plays and played until the end.”
Give Tennessee an ‘A’ for effort over the final 25 minutes even the execution was lacking for much of the contest.