NASHVILLE – Want to know the story of the Tennessee Titans’ season to date?
Look at the punts. That’s right, the punts.
First of all, in a statistical oddity the likes of which seems unimaginable after six contests, the Titans have punted 18 times for 893 yards, an average of 49.6 yards per punt. Their opponents have punted 18 times for 893 yards, the exact same average of 49.6 yards per punt.
Intriguing as it is, that’s not what is important.
What matters is those numbers put the Titans on pace to finish with 48 punts for and against, which would be 96 in all. That is a remarkably low number. Consider that not long ago, Tennessee’s Brett Kern punted 88 times on his own – and in consecutive seasons (2014 and 2015).
In other words, Mike Vrabel’s team is scoring points at a promising rate but also is allowing the other teams to move up and down the field with frightening ease.
“That's the story of the Titans right now,” safety Kevin Byard said Sunday. “We're not starting fast enough on defense. It's kind of like we're anticipating or expecting the offense to always pull [or] dig us out of a hole, and that can't be the mentality. That definitely can't be the mentality going forward.”
Take Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh scored on its first five offensive drives (three touchdowns, two field goals), not counting a one-play, desperation possession right before halftime. The Steelers’ two punts matched the fewest by a Titans’ opponent this season (Jacksonville and Buffalo).
Conversely, Kern matched his season-high with four punts (it would have been five if not for a botched attempt due to a low snap just before halftime). In 2019, five was the fewest he had in any of the first six games, after which Ryan Tannehill was named the starting quarterback.
“Just got to do better tackling and covering and getting a better rush on the quarterback and making plays on third down,” inside linebacker Jayon Brown said. “It’s pretty detrimental to our team when we can’t get off the field on third downs, and the Steelers did a really good job with taking advantage of that.”
Yes, offense is up all across the NFL.
Through the first six weeks of this season, teams combined for an average 50.8 points, the most in league history at that point in the schedule. A record six franchises, Tennessee included, averaged better than 30 points per game. All 32 had combined for 530 touchdowns, the most ever through Week 6.
As a result, the dearth of punts in Titans games is not exactly unique at present. Three teams – Las Vegas, New England and Jacksonville – actually have fewer combined punts. Two others – Carolina and Minnesota – each have the same number as Tennessee.
However, none of those other franchises has a winning record, and among them only Carolina has forced more punts than the Titans. That inability to stop opposing defenses has kept those clubs from winning many contests and illustrates how thin Tennessee’s margin for success has been.
“We got to come out and stop whatever they give,” defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons said. “… Everybody has to help each other out.”
A look at the NFL teams with the fewest combined punts for and against in 2020 (through Sunday):
The franchise record for fewest punts in a season is 34, set in 1990 when the then-Houston Oilers produced at least 50 more first downs than any other offense and finished second in the league with an average of 25.3 points per game.
Even this season, that mark seems safe.
However, the fewest punts the Titans/Oilers have forced in a single season is 56. That was in 1989, and if the defense does not make more stops over the next 10 weeks members of that unit will be kicking themselves for allowing that record to be broken.
“Obviously if I can turn that switch and be able to be great on third downs every week, I would do it,” Byard said. “But it takes all of us. It takes, from top to bottom, it takes every single one of us doing everything that we possibly can do to be better at it.”