CINCINNATI, Ohio (WTVF) — The Titans looked to bounce back from their first loss of the season Sunday against a Bengals team that entered just 1-5-1. But in its first game away from Nashville since Sept. 27, Tennessee suffered a major letdown in a 31-20 defeat.
Even after turning back their clocks, the Titans appeared to oversleep kickoff Sunday, falling behind 10-0 and 17-7 in the first half.
Ryan Tannehill threw an ill-advised pass late and across his body that was intercepted in the end zone by Jessie Bates. Stephen Gostkowski missed his NFL-high seventh field goal on a 53-yard attempt. And a pass interference penalty on Jonathan Joseph in the end zone set up a Bengals score.
Cincinnati’s offense started four new linemen and a backup running back, but still picked the Titans apart thanks to quarterback Joe Burrow and a group of receivers that consistently took advantage of a secondary that played a seventh straight game without Adoree’ Jackson. The Bengals converted 10-15 third downs and became the fourth opponent this year to score 30 or more points against the Titans.
Burrow completed 26-37 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns, finding comfort in the pocket against a Titans pass rush that once again failed to bother an opposing QB. Jadeveon Clowney, Harold Landry and multiple blitzers all came close, but the Titans couldn’t get to the rookie signal caller, who then grew in confidence as he picked apart a shaky secondary.
There was the jump ball on the game’s opening drive to Tee Higgins, who skillfully went up over Joseph and got two feet down along the sideline, for 24 yards on third and five to set up a field goal. There was the pass interference in the end zone, albeit fairly weak, that set up a one yard touchdown by Semaje Perine. And a 22-yard pass to Higgins on a fourth and five that set up Giovanni Bernard’s 12-yard touchdown that made it 17-7 Cincinnati at the half.
The Titans showed some signs of life coming out of the locker room. Tannehill connected on big completions to Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith, but a holding penalty stalled out the drive and Mike Vrabel elected not to attempt a 53-yard field goal given Gostkowski’s issues.
The team’s second drive was of the half again looked promising with Derrick Henry and D’Onta Foreman each busting loose for gains of 21 yards and 15 yards, respectively. But a Logan Wilson sack on third down forced another Brett Kern punt as the Titans squandered their chances to get back into the game with the wind at their backs.
Henry finished with 112 yards on 18 carries, marking the first time the Titans have lost in the 17 games he’s rushed for more than 100 yards in his career. But Arthur Smith and the Titans should regret not using him more as the offense failed to finish drives through the first three quarters.
Davis had a big day with eight catches for 128 yards and a touchdown, and A.J. Brown caught a fourth quarter score as well, but Tannehill was uncharacteristically off his game with the early interception and some other errant throws.
But there is no great concern about this offense which has helped the Titans overcome their atrocious defense multiple times this year. They will have much better days.
This was the Sunday Tennessee desperately needed the defense to make a play. And it looked for a brief second that might have happened with 4:30 to play when Jayon Brown stepped in front of a Burrow pass for an interception that he returned inside the Cincinnati 20. But a late flag flew, apparently for a pass interference penalty on Malcolm Butler, though Vrabel said he got “no clarification whatsoever” on the penalty from officials. That call gave the Bengals and automatic first down and they were able to run out the clock.
It was a bad call, but it in no way was the reason the Titans lost. They didn’t deserve to win. And the struggles of the defense are becoming increasingly difficult to overcome.
With the Titans heading into the most difficult stretch of their schedule, changes seem to be in order. But it’s not going to come in the way defensive plays are called. Vrabel has been criticized for not hiring a defensive coordinator in the offseason and sharing defensive responsibilities with outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen, but said Sunday that he is “positive that (defensive coordinator) is not a factor” to the team’s defensive struggles.
So that leaves a shake up in personnel, in either the pass rush or secondary, as the only ways to inject some life into a defense severely lacking in confidence right now. Otherwise, the Titans are going to have to continue to rely on their offense to bail them out week in and week out.
On Sunday that offense came out flat, and the Titans flatlined on the banks of the Ohio River. That 5-0 start to the season and their two game lead in the AFC South are now both ancient memories for a team that suddenly has more questions than answers.