NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Coaches love to remind media and fans that football is a three phase game: offense, defense and special teams. On Thursday night a struggling Titans’ special teams took center stage in a second half meltdown against the rival Colts that shifted power in the AFC South north to Indianapolis.
Trying a second punter in five days with Pro Bowler Brett Kern sidelined with a wrist injury, the Titans watched Trevor Daniel shank a 17-yarder off the side of his foot in the third quarter to set the Colts up with possession at the Tennessee 27. Just four plays later Nyheim Hines dove into the end zone to give Indianapolis its first lead.
After a Titans three and out on the next possession, the Colts smelled blood. That brought pressure against and an unblocked E.J. Speed lunged to block Daniel’s punt which was then scooped up and returned for a touchdown by T.J. Carrie to give the Colts a 27-17 lead late in the third quarter.
The Titans tried to get back in the game, quickly driving from their own 22 into the Colts’ red zone. But a holding penalty stalled the drive and then Stephen Gostkowski missed his eighth field goal of the year.
Indianapolis then drove 64 yards to cap a run of 24 unanswered points with a Jacoby Brissett quarterback sneak from the two. The 34-17 loss is the Titans’ worst defeat since a 34-17 loss at Houston in week 12 of the 2018 season.
“We missed the field goal. It didn't go in. We didn't punt it well enough the one time and then didn't block well enough on the other,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said after the game. “Certainly things that we'll have to improve quickly.”
This game highlighted the issues the Titans have on a national television stage. Beyond the special teams failures, the Titans defense continues to leave opposing quarterbacks licking their chops.
The ever-talkative Phillip Rivers had a lot to yap about Thursday, completing 29 of 39 passes for 308 yards and a touchdown to improve to 8-2 against Tennessee during his NFL career. He spread the ball around to eight different receivers as Indy racked up 430 yards to overcome two field goals and a turnover on downs in the red zone.
The defense held the Colts to just four conversions on 12 third downs, but then allowed three fourth down successes to extend drives.
The Titans offense also deserves some blame. After averaging 32 points per game through a 5-0 start, they’ve slumped to just 21 points per game as they have now dropped three of four.
Yes, their margin for error is small, but as Ryan Tannehill said earlier this week the plays are there to be made.
Tannehill was harassed by Indianapolis pressures much of the night, but hung in there to throw a third and 11 dime down the left sideline on the team’s second possession only to watch A.J. Brown drop what would have been a sure touchdown for a 14-0 lead.
Instead the game remained tight into the second half. Rashaan Evans’ fourth down stop of Jordan Wilkins capped an impressive goalline stand by the Titans’ D, and Derrick Henry busted off consecutive runs of five, five and nine yards to move the offense off the one-yard line. D’Onta Foreman got about a half yard on second and one, but on third and inches with Henry on the sideline the Titans decided to try a playaction rollout. Denico Autry was ready for it and sacked Tannehill back at the 10.
All of a sudden a potential statement drive for the Titans became demoralizing for themselves with Daniel’s shanked punt and the ensuing Indianapolis score.
Then on the next possession, knowing the Titans needed a response, Arthur Smith dialed up a gem on the first play of the series. Smith isolated speedy tight end Jonnu Smith against a linebacker on an open side of the field. Smith got two steps into the open, but Tannehill overshot him. That started the only three and out of the night which led to the blocked punt which, for all intents and purposes, ended the game.
When the plays are there you’ve got to make them, especially if you’re the Titans offense saddled with a sub-par defense and a special teams that is at times embarrassing.
The good news is the Titans are 6-3 and still ahead of where they were a year ago. The bad news is they’ve now squandered a two game lead in the division and the next two games come at 6-2 Baltimore, in a playoff rematch, and at Indianapolis just 17 days from now.
As Mike Vrabel said on Monday it’s on the Titans to continue to improve, in all three phases, just like they did a year ago. That didn’t happen Thursday night, but it needs to happen quickly or this season could go south.
“Look, everybody look at their selves in the mirror and try to figure out exactly what's going on because if you play like that in this league, you're not going to win very many games and we understand that,” safety Kenny Vacarro said. “We’ve got to get it figured out quick. We got two great teams these next two weeks.”
The extra time off will give the Titans a chance to get healthy and regroup. They need it.
All the issues that have plagued the Titans reared their ugly head Thursday night. It’s time to get them fixed. Or the Colts will run away with the AFC South race just like they did this game in the second half.