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Winners and Losers from Texans 34, Titans 17

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Titans drop two straight road division games, now in need of a miracle run to make the playoffs.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans came out red hot and then completely fell apart on Monday Night Football, dropping to 5-6 overall and 2-2 in the AFC South. Since starting the season 3-1, the Titans have dropped 5 of their last 7 and look like a team headed nowhere fast despite the brief run of inspired play coming out of their bye week. Here are the winners and losers from the game.

Winners

Marcus Mariota

OK, let’s start with the crazy stats that Mariota put up. He finished the game 22 of 23 for 303 yards and 2 touchdowns. His 95.7% completion percentage was the second highest single game mark in NFL history behind Philip Rivers’ 96.6% that he posted just a day before.

Mariota could have finished with a perfect 100%, but he just missed Derrick Henry in the flat during the final desperation drive of the game. He was pinpoint accurate as he continues to seemingly thrive under the bright lights of Monday Night Football, but it wasn’t enough as sacks, penalties, and a non-existent rushing attack short-circuited drives far too often.

Corey Davis

I think I could make a pretty strong case that Corey Davis is the Titans best player on offense right now. He certainly showed what he can do in this game as he generated 168 yards (including the 33 yard pass interference call he drew on the opening drive) on just 6 total targets/carries. That’s a whopping 28 yards per play that Davis was involved in which leaves the question: why wasn’t he involved more? (We’ll get to that).

His 96 receiving yards take him over 700 yards total for the season and he has a chance to become the franchise’s first 1,000 yard wide receiver since Kendall Wright in 2013. Davis needs to be featured in this offense even more moving forward. Good things tend to happen when the Titans get him involved.

Jonnu Smith the Receiver

After being a total non-factor early in the season, Smith has had a bit of a resurgence since the bye week, contributing 185 yards and 3 touchdowns in 4 games. That’s still not Delanie Walker production, but it’s progress. This week, he took a short throw in the middle of the field to the house from 61 yards out. The route and the catch weren’t anything special, but the run after catch was pretty outstanding as Smith turned on the burners and then fought off a couple would-be tacklers inside the 5 to get the score.

Harold Landry, Jayon Brown, and Rashaan Evans

The defense was bad for a second straight week, but if you want to look on the bright side, I think you can see progress from these three young guys that should form a big part of the core of this Titans defense moving forward.

Landry tied for second on the team in tackles with 8 and added a half sack and another QB hit during an active game for him. I still think Landry has a chance to be a star as a pass rusher if the Titans can get him some help.

Brown also had a half sack and a QB hit along with 6 tackles with Evans adding 5 tackles and a pressure or two. Evans made a big stop in the hole on a 3rd and 1 play as the Titans tried to mount a second half comeback. I know the Titans aren’t going to be in “play for the future” mode just yet — and rightfully so as they still have a remote chance at making the playoffs on paper — but I’d sure like to see more from this group as the season heads towards the finish line. They’re a big part of the future and this is a good time to start getting them valuable reps.

Everyone who likes draft articles

While the Titans shouldn’t be mailing in the season just yet, it is time for us to start realistically looking at the 2019 season. I’ll probably start mixing in some offseason free agency/draft articles over the next few weeks. If you guys have any topics you’d particularly like to read about, feel free to hit me up in the comments or on Twitter.

Losers

The Offensive Line

This once great group is in shambles at this point. Taylor Lewan keeps getting banged up — this time because of his own linemate, Josh Kline, getting beat so bad he fell into Lewan’s legs — and picked up his semi-annual drive killing facemask penalty in this game. Ben Jones and Josh Kline continue to be a total liability at center and right guard. Jack Conklin is struggling at right tackle as well, though I’m inclined to give him a bit of a pass considering he’s still just 10 months removed from ACL surgery. I would suspect he will be much better in 2019 after an offseason of football training instead of surgery and rehab.

The Titans offensive line allowed 6 sacks, was called for 5 penalties, and cleared room for just 38 rushing yards on 16 carries from running backs during the game. When you add up the sacks and penalties that’s a 78 yard hole the offensive line created for the team on Monday. Sure, you could argue that some of those sacks were on Mariota or the coverage (and a couple of them probably were), but this was a very bad performance from a group that is trending in a very bad direction.

I don’t know what the Titans are going to do with Kline. I thought the transition to more of a zone blocking focused offense would help him, but he’s pretty much the same guy we saw struggling last year right now. He can’t generate a push in the run game and has no anchor against powerful interior pass rushers. The Titans could get out of his contract without blowing up their cap space this offseason, but then you still have to find a quality replacement — easier said than done in the OL starved NFL landscape of 2018 — and possibly look at replacing Quinton Spain (on an expiring contract) or Ben Jones (who isn’t good) as well. What is clear now though is that they cannot sit back and run it back with this group.

I also don’t know if I’d invite offensive line coach Keith Carter back for a second year. His unit has been bad and getting worse all season. Now, in his defense, Jones and Kline were headed this way in 2017 before he got here, but he also isn’t elevating their play by any means. Coaching can go a long way at some positions and I think offensive line is one of them. We all saw what Mike Munchak was able to coax out of mid-round and late-round picks here for years and years. He’s done the same in Pittsburgh since arriving there. Look at the transformation that the Seahawks offensive line has seen since moving from Tom Cable to Mike Solari this past offseason. Of all the coaches on staff, his is the seat that should be the hottest.

Dion Lewis

The offensive line was awful, but Dion Lewis didn’t help much either. He seemingly ran into tackles a few times, including a play where he juked Zach Cunningham to the ground only to then allow him to make the tackle somehow. After being handed the role of lead back after the bye week, Lewis hasn’t looked as sharp. Maybe he’s not used to the heavy workload or maybe it’s because defenses are preparing for him specifically more now than they were before, but it’s now four weeks in a row that Derrick Henry has looked like the more effective rusher (not that he’s exactly lighting the world on fire either).

Tajae Sharpe

Another guy who has completely disappeared since the bye week, Sharpe has just 6 catches for 37 yards TOTAL over the last four weeks despite Taywan Taylor missing most of that time with a foot injury. Sharpe is theoretically the Titans number two receiver right now, but Cameron Batson has more than doubled his yardage since the bye week. Maybe the ankle is still bothering him to some degree, but if you’re well enough to play, you need to be able to produce. Otherwise, they might as well put Darius Jennings out there and see what he can do.

Brian Orakpo

Boy has Rak started to look old this season all of a sudden. He still has flashes every now and then — he had a nice edge rush against the Colts last week and a great tackle for loss against the Patriots the week before — but it’s becoming more and more apparent that he just doesn’t have the burst that he used to. When the Texans got the ground game rolling early on, they did it mostly by running right at Orakpo.

There is so much to love about this guy. He is — by all accounts — a great leader in the locker room. He’s a selfless player who welcomed Harold Landry with open arms even though he had to know that Landry was there to take his job. He’s a guy that’s done all the right things both on and off the field throughout his career. For all those reasons, it sucks for me to have to say this, but he’s probably done at the end of this year. His contract is up and it’s hard to see the Titans (or anyone else) ponying up money for a 33 year old pass rusher who has lost his fastball. It’s hard to watch him try to chase Deshaun Watson around the edge — a player that even just 3 years ago he probably could’ve hung with — and not even get close enough to lay a finger on him.

The Run Defense

Just when I thought the run defense woes were behind the Titans, they reared their ugly head as Tennessee allowed a ghastly 281 yards on the ground. Even if you remove Lamar Miller’s 97-yard touchdown run — that really was the door slamming shut on the Titans 2018 AFC South hopes — that’s still a terrible performance from this group. I’ll need to take a closer look at the tape to see what exactly was going on, but the Titans clearly had no answer for it.

Matt LaFleur

I want to like Matt LaFleur. I really do. I love his offensive system in theory. I think he’s a smart, thoughtful guy and every time I hear him speak I always think he sounds like a guy who gets it. But then games like this one happen and I wind up screaming at my TV in agony over some of his calls.

The worst of the bunch in this game was obviously the ill-fated fullback dive with Luke Stocker on 4th and 1 inside the Texans 5 yard line. I don’t mind the decision to go for it there. The Texans offense had just carved up the Titans defense for two straight series and it looked like one of those nights where field goals would get you beat (it was). However, I’ll never understand how they arrived at the decision to give their blocking tight end his first career carry in that situation. There’s the element of surprise of course, but then again, there’s the fact that YOU ARE GIVING YOUR BLOCKING TIGHT END HIS FIRST CAREER CARRY ON 4TH DOWN IN THE BIGGEST GAME OF THE SEASON AND ASKING HIM TO RUN BEHIND YOUR WORST OFFENSIVE LINEMAN. Completely inexcusable and, frankly, it’s inexcusable that Vrabel didn’t veto it.

That’s just one call though. What bothers me even more than that (if that’s possible) is insisting on continuing to call run plays on 2nd and long. The Titans called a Lewis handoff on a 2nd and 13 during this game and I nearly flipped the coffee table. What’s the best realistic result there? 3rd and 6 or 7? That’s not a desirable outcome and that’s your best case scenario. In this case the Titans gained 4 on the play, bringing up a 3rd and 9 which yielded a Mariota sack and a subsequent punt. They may as well have punted on 2nd down.

I don’t think the Titans had to completely abandon the run, but when it’s not working to the point that your backs are averaging just 2.4 yards per carry while your quarterback is literally perfect through the air, maybe adjust the gameplan to take advantage of what’s effective? Is that too much to ask? What about getting the ball to Corey Davis more than 5 times in a game where he’s turning in huge plays every single time he touches it? How about finding a way to get Cameron Batson involved more as well? He’s a guy that seems to have some juice every time he touches it, but he finished this game with just one target which he caught and turned into a 13 yard gain. I understand the Titans want to be some tough, physical running team, but that ship sailed weeks ago. It’s time to go with what works for the rest of 2018.

I don’t think the Titans should (or can afford to) fire LaFleur after the season. Mariota and the rest of this offense doesn’t need to undergo yet another offensive system reboot. However, I would hope that LaFleur and Vrabel will spend some time self-scouting and realize that some of these decisions are completely indefensible. We also don’t know how much Vrabel is meddling in LaFleur’s calls in critical situations or gameplans week to week. Is he telling LaFleur that he has to call a minimum of 30 runs per week or pushing for specific calls in big situations like 4th and 1? Maybe. We have no reason to believe he is to a large degree, but I don’t think it’s impossible either.

Playoff Hopes

Statistically, 5-6 teams make the playoffs 13% of the time (compared with 46% of the time for 6-5 teams) so this was a massive blow. It’s even worse when you consider the additional fallout. This largely puts a wrap on any hope the Titans may have had about winning the division. They’re in 3rd place, 3 full games behind Houston with just 5 games left. They’re also a full game behind the Colts. A comeback would require both the Titans winning out and a total collapse from the Texans. Both seem unlikely at best.

The second wildcard spot could theoretically still be within reach with the Colts and Ravens sitting a game ahead at 6-5 and the Bengals, Dolphins, and Broncos all tied with the Titans at 5-6 and the Browns lurking behind at 4-6-1. The schedule down the stretch certainly gets easier with three straight 3-8 teams coming up and then a walking wounded Washington team. However, the Titans currently lose the tiebreaker with all five of the other wildcard contenders. It will almost certainly require a five game winning streak to sneak in to the playoffs, including beating Andrew Luck for the first time ever. Could it happen? Sure. Anything’s possible. However, it’s extremely unlikely, especially given how the team has struggled in all phases the last two weeks.