For the second straight week, that sucked.
The Texans crushed the Titans 34-17 in a game where the Titans took a 10-0 lead to start things. But Houston outscored Tennessee 34-7 the rest of the way in what was easily the worst coaching job the Titans had all season.
The ESPN Monday Night Football crew put some blame on Marcus Mariota for what they considered to be “empty stats,” which was not well received by Titans fans at all. I do think they had a point: While Mariota was 22/23 for 303 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, we rarely saw the Titans rip the ball downfield—it was a largely conservative affair—and raw stats can look good even in blowout losses.
ESPN’s Total QBR ranking seemed to agree, as Mariota had a 43.2 QBR compared to Watson’s 90.1. It didn’t help that he took six sacks or that there were failed third down conversions, and those are a huge part of how the QBR metric is charted.
Personally, I don’t think Mariota deserved a lot of blame in this one. The majority of the blame falls on offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and the roster construction. Corey Davis is the only wide receiver Tennessee can trust to stretch the field vertically, and injuries to Taywan Taylor (who wasn’t playing all that well but certainly had experience) and Delanie Walker have killed this team. Taylor Lewan might be the only good starting lineman on this team, and that’s a problem.
Perhaps that’s why LaFleur stuck to a highly conservative game plan, but even then, running the ball down multiple possessions when you’re trying to keep your playoff hopes alive is not something to be proud of either.
The Titans ran the ball up the middle eight times against a powerful Texans defensive line and got gains of: 2, 1, 0, 0, -5, 5, 1, 7. That’s 8 carries up the middle for 11 yards. What was baffling was as the Titans got the ball in the 4th quarter down 17, they still decided to start the drive off with (what else) a run.
Then, after that drive went 3 and out, the Titans punted down 17 with 6:54 left in the game. With your season on line, that’s pretty bold, but I guess Mike Vrabel wanted to save face and protect Mariota.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, Vrabel used a timeout with 1:52 left down 17 points—in other words three possessions—after punting down 17 previously.
Hear me out guys, but....what if we didn’t do that?
I could go on about giving a tight end a handoff on 4th and 1 up the middle, failing to stop Lamar Miller and putting a tight end on J.J. Watt, but that would be tiresome. The point is that Mariota was once again the scapegoat in this situation. He did the best he could have in that situation and it wasn’t nearly enough.
With that said, let’s look at some highlights and lowlights in this week’s version of Keeping Up With Marcus Mariota.
There’s nothing really spectacular about this throw, although it does showcase good timing and trajectory from Mariota. But the reason I’m showing this play is to constitute that Corey Davis is the only good receiver on this Titans team. He had four catches for 96 yards and a touchdown while also putting 39 yards on the ground on a reverse.
Davis’ development is a relief for a RB-WR group that only has one other consistently good weapon (Dion Lewis).
Just after ESPN mentioned that they wanted Tennessee to play more aggressive, the Titans actually comply and do it. This pass drops right into the bucket of Davis who makes a nice move after the catch to set himself up in the open field for an easy touchdown.
The Titans forced a punt on the following drive. Now, what was the first play they ran, you ask? Let’s take a look:
Are you kidding me....
At what point does being down two scores in the fourth quarter warrant establishing the run against a dominant run defense that has shut your run game down completely? Might I suggest passing the ball to start out a drive? What I’m trying to say is that if you call a run play down two or three scores in the fourth quarter, I’d rather see you punt it on first down. That way there’s no euphemism for “We’re giving up” being presented when your message is direct and honest.
Now let’s get to one of the two fatal flaws for the Titans offense (the other being receivers), and that is the offensive line. The interior and right side of the unit is atrocious, and Josh Kline and Jack Conklin are anchors at this point.
First of all, Angelo Blackson schools Kline, and Chris Covington pushes Conklin down to the ground. Conklin’s balance is nowhere to be seen, and Kline transforms into the human turnstile and allows pressure up the interior.
The coaching staff doesn’t deserve nearly as much blame for that as they do for getting Mariota sacked by J.J. Watt on a play where Jonnu Smith, a tight end, single blocked Watt.
I mean, what are we doing here? If we are to believe LaFleur’s conservative game plan was put in place to protect Maritota (he got sacked six times and hit nine times anyway), what’s this play about? I mean this is J.J. Watt, one of the best defensive players of our generation and a guy who’s having an incredible season, and you’re putting a tight end (in his second year, no less) on him.
Granted, Mariota could step up and evade the strip sack, but there’s no way you leave Smith alone guarding Watt. Unless your lineman is capable enough, you should not have him single block him; Grab a second blocker and double block that beast. Hell, the Texans (in theory) have worse talent on offensive line and yet they are better coached.
This was not a game that you could blame Marcus Mariota for. He played well in spite of awful support from his offensive line, receivers, coaching, and the secondary. I want to believe Matt LaFleur will open up if/when the Titans upgrade the offensive line and receiving corps, but the roller coaster consistency of his game plan is infuriating.
Mariota’s rookie contract as a whole is being wasted. Some of that is not on the Titans. They did acquire Dion Lewis in the offseason, and Corey Davis is becoming a quality receiver. Delanie Walker’s injury was beyond their control, as was Richard Matthews wanting out, and Taywan Taylor’s injury.
And yet, I feel like they should’ve done more in the offseason. I’m not saying this as hindsight bias, I really felt they should have signed either one of Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins. The receiving corps was limited and inexperienced in 2017, and outside of Davis, who would have guessed with no major changes we’d say the exact same thing? This receiving corps is limited and inexperienced.
Guard play was also a major problem coming into the season, and it still is. I was completely in favor of using the first two picks on Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry, and I think those will pay off in the future, but this season looks like it’s over, so building the offensive line and receiving corps is a must when free agency and the draft come by in 2019.
This is not to say the Titans haven’t been making moves, but when you look at the roster construction of teams on rookie quarterback contracts like the Rams, Bears, Chiefs and Browns in comparison to the construction of the Titans roster four years into Mariota’s rookie contract, it’s not even close. Even the Cowboys have more all around talent than the Titans, with the trade for Amari Cooper paying dividends and the pass rush becoming one of the better units in the league. The Texans roster isn’t great, but the defense is good and at least they’ve addressed Will Fuller’s season ending injury by going after Demaryius Thomas.
It only figures that when Marcus Mariota has a record day where he completed his first 19 passes it wouldn’t matter in the end because of how bad the rest of the roster is. At 5-6 and momentum gradually pointing down, the Titans playoff hopes are hanging on a thread—if at all—without a game plan on offense and a defense that got slaughtered by a division rival in a key game.
The window to compete is closing. At some point Tennessee has to realize that and address it.