What Went Wrong in the Titans’ “Disaster Before Christmas”
By Luke Worsham
The time has come to review Titans-Jaguars. But first, a bit of poetry:
‘Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the South, not a Titan was stirring; only Wesley Woodyard’s mouth. The Jaguars new coach made a game-plan with care, and Titans fans wondered if their team was even there. Fans were perplexed, their faces turned red, as visions of a playoff game quickly left their heads.
The Titans were disastrous in all facets Sunday. In fact, they were so awful that it’s hard to pick just a few things to highlight. Here are the four main criticisms and observations I have to offer.
1. Invisible Smashmouth
The Titans have the third most productive running-back in football (props to Ezekiel Elliot and David Johnson…man are they good) and a top 3 offensive line. Yet, they came out of the gate running plays from the shotgun and pistol. Of the four plays run by the Titans’ offense on their opening drive, three were passes.
Mike Mularkey offered a defense of this strategy during his Monday press conference, saying that the team has been effective using those plays multiple times this year. But here’s the bottom line: this team has been centered around the philosophy of imposing their will. They come out with physicality at the point of attack and run the ball down their opponent’s throats.
That physical approach led to victories over five perennial teams with winning records: Detroit, Miami, Green Bay, Denver, and Kansas City. Against a team that had only won two games all season, the Titans used a different approach, and it backfired. They didn’t overlook the Jaguars, but they overthought them.
2. Why, Wesley!?!
Wesley Woodyard did not cost the Titans this game. He also did not cost his quarterback a broken leg. What he did do is cost his team three points.
After Blake Bortles threw an incompletion on third down, Woodyard got into a scrap and shoved his hand in the direction of a Jacksonville player’s helmet, grabbing his facemask. That, my friends, is what you call an easy decision for the officials. Flag. Fifteen yards. First down.
The Titans still would have probably lost this game even without Woodyard’s boneheaded penalty, however they probably would have had a better chance. It goes without saying that football is a game of momentum, but the Titans arguably had none at that point anyway. It’s also not likely that Mariota and the offense would have magically improved following a Jaguars three and out.
Do not mistake this as a defense of Woodyard; it was one of the dumbest penalties I’ve ever seen a player commit. We must, though, stop acting like it cost the Titans the game. Again, they were horrible at everything. Allow me to say this in contrast: Wesley Woodyard is a captain of this football team, and he is counted upon to constantly display the character traits that the Titans want their players to exhibit. That penalty was about as far away from smart and team-first as you can get.
3. Defenseless Backs
It’s no secret that the Titans’ group of cornerbacks is subpar at best. That became very clear when Perrish Cox, a starter, was released following a loss to the Colts. After longtime starter Jason McCourty was declared out prior to Saturday’s game, the Titans’ best options at corner became LeShaun Sims, a rookie fifth round pick who’s been very inconsistent; Brice McCain, a speedy but small corner who really is only suited to play in the slot; and Valentino Blake, the guy who made ESPN’s “C’mon Man!” segment two weeks in a row.
The Titans were torched continually on Saturday by Allen Robinson, a receiver who always gives the Titans major fits. They gave up several contested catches and allowed big play after big play. After two solid performances against receivers like Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jeremy Maclin, there was no solidarity to be found in the Titans’ secondary against the Jaguars, and the dam finally busted wide open.
I’m not going to spend a ton of time talking about how horrible these guys were on Sunday, but I do want to point out one thing that irks me to a level you can only begin to imagine. Why have the Titans corners been giving up over ten yards of cushion to receivers on the line of scrimmage? It’s understandable that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau doesn’t want to expose his underperforming players by making them press at the line of scrimmage, but surely there is a better solution to that issue than lining up eleven yards away from them.
While giving receivers that much cushion helps with not giving up a deep bomb (which, oddly enough, the Titans’ still couldn’t stop), it allows receivers to have a free release and beat you with intermediate routes all day long. I’m continually perplexed as to why that strategy is employed.
4. Their Quarterback Broke His Leg
Perhaps a bit obvious and blunt, but it really was kill-shot in an incredibly bad day for the Titans. Marcus Mariota fractured his fibula late in the third quarter, and is expected to be out for 4-5 months. Unfortunately for the Titans on Saturday, this meant that their quarterback, who at times this year has been a star, missed the fourth quarter.
Backup QB Matt Cassel entered the game and threw a touchdown pass to Delanie Walker to bring the Jaguars’ lead down to only eight. On his next drive, though, he threw a pick-six to rookie Jalen Ramsey, ending the game for all intents and purposes.
No one can say whether or not Mariota would have been able to bring his team back from the deficit they faced in the fourth quarter, but the odds certainly would have been better with him under center as opposed to Matt Cassel. Luckily, he is expected to make a full recovery and not lose his mobility, per Mike Mularkey in his Monday presser.
Last week I wrote that the Titans have the makeup of a playoff caliber team & contender. I stand by that statement 100%. Think about it: the Packers looked pathetic in blowout losses to the Titans and Redskins. Now, just a few weeks later, everyone is singing their praises.
Every good team has its bad days. Unfortunately for the Titans, theirs came on a day in which they were ultimately eliminated from playoff contention. Let’s not forget, though, that this is a team who won just five games in the last two seasons. If they pull off a win against Tom Savage and the Houston Texans, they will have won nine games this season, nearly doubling the total from the last two years combined.
Though it obviously remains to be seen exactly what Jon Robinson and crew do with the personnel and coaching staff over the offseason, the Titans will enter 2017 in a similar situation as Oakland did this year: a team with a talented quarterback entering his third season and a roster that filled the few gaping holes it had left. Barring a makeover at the quarterback position for the Texans, the Titans will be favorites to win the AFC South next year.
This season was most certainly not a failure for the Titans, and anyone who disagrees has unrealistic expectations. The next step is to build on the success, something they haven’t had an opportunity to do in eight years. We should give them a chance to do just that.