This was almost too predictable. The Titans, coming off a rousing road win over Atlanta the previous week and with their star left tackle coming back off suspension, laid an egg at home against a tough Bills team. The rollercoaster of inconsistency continues.
The Titans had chances to win this game — the defense made sure of that — and it looked like the Titans might win at several moments. First Derrick Henry plunged in for the go-ahead score on a great run that was called back for holding on Jack Conklin. Then, a few plays later, Marcus Mariota found A.J. Brown open in the end zone, but the quarterback was ruled to be past the line of scrimmage when the ball was released.
The NFL rule for an illegal forward pass says that “it is a forward pass from beyond the line of scrimmage if the passer’s entire body and the ball are beyond the line of scrimmage when the ball is released, whether the passer is airborne or touching the ground. The penalty for a forward pass thrown from beyond the line is enforced from the spot where the ball is released.” The words “entire body” and “beyond the line of scrimmage” are key here and it’s what makes this an extremely close call. The still shot below shows Mariota just after release of the ball and it’s pretty impossible to tell whether that right heel is clear of the 11-yard line. I can’t blame the video official for not overturning this call based on the evidence available.
It’s just too bad that a $9 billion business can’t afford to have cameras parallel with the line of scrimmage, first down marker, and both goal lines on every snap.
That wasn’t the only sequence that hurt this team, but it was the sequence that hurt the most. Obviously, this is a far different ball game if Henry or Brown end up with a score here, but they didn’t, so now I get to present winners and losers from Bills 14, Titans 7.
Cairo Santos: Loser
Obviously. Anytime you go 0 for 4 on field goal attempts, including a 32-yard try that you leave short somehow (I didn’t even think that was possible at the NFL level), you belong as the top entry in this list. If Santos just makes one of these four it might have significantly altered the game and forced the Bills to chase a little bit.
This was a completely horrific performance and it sure looked like Santos allowed that first miss — which was the closest of the four to going through — to get in his head.
Mike Vrabel: Loser
Another week, another head scratching in-game coaching decision from the Titans head coach. Last week it was foolishly going for it on 4th and 1 while up 14 in the 4th quarter. This week he went the other way, trying a 53-yard field goal with a kicker that had already missed three attempts with increasing levels of ineptitude, instead of going for it on 4th and 4 with the Titans down 7 late. It would have been one thing if that kick would have put the team within a field goal, but the Titans were still going to need a touchdown even if they hit this kick.
Vrabel’s in game decision making feels entirely too off-the-cuff to me. The Titans have a game day analytics advisor on staff in John “Stretch” Streicher who’s job it is to help Vrabel in these situations, but it’s unclear whether the head coach is getting bad advice or simply ignoring good advice in favor of “trusting his gut”. Whatever that process looks like right now, it’s not working and the Titans have to get that fixed in a hurry. This team isn’t good enough to give away opportunities in close games.
Ultimately, the rollercoaster personality of this team rests with the head coach too. Inconsistent performance is a reflection of leadership.
Kevin Byard: Winner
Byard and the Titans defense deserved better from their teammates today. The superstar safety picked up the 14th interception of his young NFL career today and he continues to lead the league in picks since the start of the 2017 season. That turnover set up the only Titans scoring drive of the day. Byard also added a beauty of a pass breakup on rookie tight end Dawson Knox on a 3rd down play to force a punt. He continues to show up week after week.
NFL Refs: Loser
Look, I’m not here to blame the refs for this loss — the Titans did more than their fair share to lose this game without any help — BUT... there were a few particularly egregious calls that went against the Titans in huge spots. It started right out of the gates as a 20-plus yard completion to Delanie Walker on the first play of the game was wiped off due to a very soft holding penalty on Taylor Lewan. Then there was the obvious missed facemask on Marcus Mariota on a play that resulted in a 3rd down sack followed by Santos’ first miss of the game. Instead of having a 1st and 10 deep in the red zone, the Titans were left with a 50-yard field goal attempt.
Then you have the stretch at the end of the game. I can certainly understand what the ref saw in Conklin’s holding penalty on the Henry touchdown that got called back, but it didn’t really have an impact on the play. The illegal forward pass looked illegal in real time to me, but the replay review made it clear it was very close. Neither of those calls were clearly incorrect, but it’s tough to have two borderline judgement calls go the other way consecutively in a big spot like that.
Then there is the Jurrell Casey unnecessary roughness call. After a Reggie Gilbert sack on first down, the Titans corral a scramble from Josh Allen for a short gain to bring up 3rd and 8, but a flag comes in late. Casey gets called for a late hit, but replay shows that he’s clearly stumbling and trying to avoid the quarterback, but his knee brushes Allen’s back while he’s down and the yellow laundry comes out. I don’t really know what Casey is supposed to do there. Instead of 3rd and 8 with a chance to get their offense the ball back at 7-7 again, the Bills get an automatic first down and pick up a chunk play on misdirection the very next snap, setting up their go ahead touchdown just a few plays later.
If there was a call to be made in a big spot in this game, it went against the Titans.
Harold Landry: Winner
Landry picked up his 4th sack of the season on a beautiful speed rush around the edge in this game and seemed to be all over the field at times. He also added a QB hit and had pressure in Allen’s face to help force the interception for Byard and came up with a pair of tackles for loss in the run game.
Landry isn’t quite taking over games yet, but he’s making his presence felt with some regularity now and 4 sacks in five games is a really nice start to his 2019.
The Entire Offensive Line: Losers
None of these guys played very well against a talented Bills front. Rodger Saffold’s pass protection issues continue, Nate Davis had some very bad rookie moments in his first career start, Jack Conklin struggled to handle speed to power again, and Taylor Lewan drew multiple penalties and looked rusty after his four game absence. The only guy that I really don’t remember seeing getting abused is center Ben Jones.
The Titans gave up 5 sacks, bringing their season total to 22 on the season. I’ve been critical of Mariota holding the ball for too long and walking into too many sacks previously this season, but most of the sacks today looked like plays where the quarterback had little chance to make a play. That’s not to say that all 5 were on the line, but it was pretty clear that they were failing to do their job far too often in this game.
I’m honestly at a loss to explain the offensive line woes at this point. Taylor Lewan is a three time Pro Bowler. Even if you don’t believe all of those are 100% deserved, we know he’s a good player. Rodger Saffold was second team All-Pro in LA two years ago and had the third highest pass block win rate among guards last year according to ESPN. Jack Conklin was first team All-Pro as a rookie — again, we can debate the merits of that, but we know he was very good that year and in 2017 for that matter — and was reportedly finally back to full health this year. I can understand Nate Davis having some rookie hiccups, but those other three have performed like — at the very least — above average NFL starters in the very recent past.
So what’s happening here? Did all these guys forget how to play? Is Keith Carter failing to properly prepare them as an offensive line coach? Is the scheme and/or protection calls asking them to make plays they simply can’t make?
I wish I had the answers because everything that is going on with that group right now is baffling.
Logan Ryan, Rashaan Evans, and Jayon Brown: Winners
I'm lumping these guys together because they’ve become players that we can depend on week in and week out. Logan Ryan picked up another sack in this game, bringing his season total to 2.5. He’s currently on pace to finish with 8 sacks and 6 interceptions, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by a single player since the league started tracking sacks as a stat in 1982.
Evans and Brown continue to make plays all over the field. Evans, in particular, was largely responsible for bottling up the Bills running game for most of the contest and Brown came up huge on the 4th and 1 stuff of a Josh Allen sneak attempt early in the game.
Marcus Mariota: Meh
I wasn’t going to include Mariota because I didn’t think he was either a winner or a loser in this game, but I feel like we have to talk about him at this point. He was mostly pretty decent today, going 13 of 22 for 183 yards with no touchdowns and no turnovers. He was victimized by drops to some extent. Delanie Walker, Adam Humphries, and Dion Lewis all dropped catchable passes on 3rd downs. The offensive line did him no favors either, getting beat quickly by the Bills front far too often.
The turnover-free streak continues, which is great, but he didn’t get a ton done on the day either against a great Bills defense. Nobody was expecting him to come in and carve up the Buffalo secondary, but at the end of the day, 7 points is 7 points, and that’s not going to get it done offensively most weeks. The Titans continue to be extremely poor at converting 3rd downs and struggled in the red zone today. And while we can debate whether or not Mariota was actually still at the line of scrimmage on the pass to A.J. Brown that got called back, the most frustrating part of that play was the fact that Mariota had plenty of time to get rid of that ball before he crossed the line. Maybe he just picked up Brown too late, but a lack of spatial awareness came back to bite him here.
So Mariota lands somewhere in the nebulous middle between good and bad today in my opinion.