What to Believe After Loss to Cardinals

The Titans looked nothing like the team most expected to see in their opener. So what was real and what was not?
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NASHVILLE – If you hadn’t seen it, you probably would not have believed it.

The Tennessee Titans offense filled with big names looked ordinary, or less than ordinary almost from start to finish. The revamped defense, flush with confidence based on its performance in training camp and the preseason, looked as if almost nothing had changed. A slow start with little meaningful response. New woes in the kicking game.

On and on it went in a season-opening 38-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals at Nissan Stadium. It was hardly what anyone expected from a team favored to win the AFC South and considered by some to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Typically, players and coaches wrote it off as just one game out of 17, which it was. They vowed to get things fixed as quickly as possible and prove by the end of the schedule that this performance was a fluke.

For now, though, Sunday’s clunker is all anyone truly knows about the 2021 Titans. So, what are we to believe and what are we to write off as simply a bad day at the office? Here is a rundown.

Derrick Henry’s days of terrorizing NFL defenses are finished.

Don’t believe it. There is ample evidence that the two-time rushing champion is due for a steep drop in production based on his workload and his output over the past two seasons. Some might be convinced of that after Henry rushed for 58 yards on 17 carries, a performance that started with consecutive losses and included back-to-back plays on which he failed to score from the 1-yard line.

One thing that always has been true about Henry is that if defenses get to him at or behind the line of scrimmage, they can contain him. Many pre-draft scouting reports said that exact thing about him in 2016 and he has done nothing to change that way of thinking over his five NFL seasons.

That is exactly what happened in this game. The Cardinals defense dominated the line of scrimmage from start to finish and kept Henry from getting to full speed on virtually every attempt. Until defensive backs start taking him on and taking him down or linebackers run him down from behind, there is no reason to think that Henry is done.

Offensive coordinator Todd Downing is no Arthur Smith.

Believe it. After a performance that featured 248 total yards, three turnovers and remarkable consistency with an average of 3.9 yards per pass play and 3.9 yards per run, it is easy to point fingers at the guy calling the plays. The question is not whether Downing is a good offensive coordinator – that remains to be seen. The question is whether he can be as effective as Smith was over the previous two seasons.

Simply put: It is likely no one was going to make anyone forget about Smith, now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. It’s not just that he displayed a tremendous feel for the game and had a knack for finding ways to allow players to do what they do best, it’s that he and quarterback Ryan Tannehill had an uncommon chemistry and connection. Smith was nothing special in his first six games as a coordinator, but everything changed when Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota.

Just because Downing has the same playbook does not mean he will think the same or make the same calls. And it does not mean he will find a way for Tannehill and the rest of the offense to get in rhythm as they did so often last season. Smith was the right man at the right time, and Downing’s biggest issue is that he is someone different.

The defense is no better than it was last year.

Don’t believe it. There is no way it can be as bad – or worse – than it was in 2020. For now, that is about all anyone has on which to hang their hats. Not only did the Cardinals convert 54 percent of their third-down opportunities, they scored touchdowns three times when the defense had a chance to force them to kick. There were times when Arizona receivers got free in the secondary and quarterback Kyler Murray was a problem the players could not solve.

The good news is that two of the three hits the Titans did get on Murray were from defensive linemen (Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry), which means they got the type of pressure up front that will allow Bud Dupree and the other edge rushers to do more against less mobile quarterbacks. Two of the three passes defensed were from Kristian Fulton, a second-year player who is a first-time starter. And Kevin Byard already has as many interceptions as he did all of last season.

Any hope that this will be a dominant defense officially is out the window. But it will get better as it goes and the personnel changes have more time to congeal, and it will show improvement over last season.

The situation at kicker will never be settled as long as Mike Vrabel is the head coach.

Believe it. What else is there to think at this point? The addition of Sam Ficken early in training camp via a waiver claim looked to be move that finally calmed the waters after two years of trepidation every time the Titans kicker – there were six of them – took the field and tried to put points on the board. Yet it was Michael Badgley who had the job against the Cardinals and who missed two of the three kicks he attempted, one field goal and one PAT.

Sure, it is bad luck that Ficken got hurt two days before the regular-season opener, which would have been his Tennessee debut. There is no way that sort of thing happens often – but it happened to the Titans. Just like Stephen Gostkowski, one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, missed as many field goals in Week 1 last season as he had in entire seasons previously. Just like none of four kickers in 2019 did enough to hang on to the job for more than a couple weeks at a time.

Vrabel has now coached 49 games in the regular season and 14 of them (29 percent) have been decided by three points or fewer. Not surprising given how many points his teams have missed out on thanks to errant kicks. What is amazing is that Tennessee won nine of them.