INDIANAPOLIS – One of the Titans’ two best players in Sunday’s 23-16 loss to the Colts was dressing on one side of the visiting locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Titans’ worst player Sunday was dressing on the other side.
They were right around the same point — everything on but a shirt, very slowly getting to the shirt — which made for a media dilemma. Ryan Tannehill would leave and hold a press conference when he was ready, as always after games, meaning reporters would have to depart for the interview room down the hall if they wanted to speak with him. He’s the quarterback, he threw for 264 yards on an otherwise mostly dismal day for this 2-3 team, and his word is always important.
But the crowd was gathered around cornerback Kristian Fulton, and they weren’t leaving. No way. Not on this day. Not after the way he played against the Colts. Not after the way he has played this season. Not after coach Mike Vrabel confirmed he both considered pulling Fulton from the game and gave him some individual coaching at halftime on ways to avoid some costly mistakes — mistakes that are exacerbating the issues of an underachieving defense and potentially costing Fulton money as he heads toward offseason free agency.
Fulton sensed the group behind him and laughed a bit as he turned and said: “Are y’all ready?”
Then he did what a pro is supposed to do. He took all the questions and answered them calmly and patiently. The fourth-year corner, a 2020 second-round pick out of LSU, is far from the Titans’ only problem right now. But he effectively symbolizes this defense as it prepares to head to London next week to face Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens — talented, inconsistent, frustrating, a bit unrealistic about what has actually gone on through five games, and possibly headed for big changes.
“I feel like I was very sound today,” Fulton said. “Besides one play. The one with (Michael Pittman), when he caught the out or whatever, that was on me I guess. Bad eyes. But for the most part technically sound. They made some plays or whatever. But it’s hard when you have to play against the refs and the receivers. But that’s life as a DB. I’m gonna keep stepping every time. So I’ll be back next week.”
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He has to be back next week, in the starting lineup, because he’s the most capable cornerback on the team and there’s no adequate replacement for what he brings when he’s right. He won’t be back next season. That was probably clinched when Vrabel called him a “repeat offender” after last season for frequent soft-tissue injuries, and the combination of too many injuries and too many critical mistakes means another team is going to give him his second contract.
He’s absolutely good enough to get one, and the Titans are going to be very needy at corner after he’s gone. But Fulton’s father’s tweeting Sunday about changes of scenery sheds a bit of light on the way that camp is thinking.
Then there’s Vrabel saying things like this about Fulton, in reference to the Pittman double move against too much Fulton aggression that turned into a key 27-yard catch on Fulton late in the third quarter: “We’re not gonna intercept the football in man coverage. Your job in man is to not let the guy catch the ball.”
— Titans Radio (@TitansRadio) October 8, 2023
If Fulton is out hunting picks instead of playing within the structure of the defense — which that quote and that play don’t confirm but do bring to mind as a question — then that obviously needs to change. He was also overly aggressive in zone coverage Sunday, biting up on a dig route and letting Josh Downs race past him for a 38-yard catch in the first quarter.
And he played terrible defense on Pittman on another play, resulting in pass interference. And with the Colts trying to salt the game away in the fourth, the Titans had a chance to get off the field on third-and-12, down 20-16, and give it back to Tannehill and an offense that was moving the ball through the air. Fulton got caught flat-footed, Alec Pierce ran through him and another pass interference was called.
Fulton said afterward that he was square and that it was a “bad call,” but that’s not what the replay shows. It shows him in bad position, turning, getting trucked and getting called for impeding Pierce’s path.
It was a terrible day for Fulton, in what so far has been a terrible season, but these are the words from him that demonstrate accountability and the need to flush all that has happened and return to playing like he can, within this defense: “It just seems like I keep giving up those one or two plays a week, and I’ve just got to be better. … I’m gonna keep challenging every week. I’m gonna keep showing up.”
And then there are a whole bunch of other things this defense needs to figure out. It’s the problem right now. Well beyond Fulton. Last week’s 27-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals was very good, but also very aided by Joe Burrow’s inability to run or push the ball downfield.
The Titans are woefully short of what they are supposed to be, and they just got manhandled by a team they usually manhandle. Colts owner Jim Irsay has been outwardly frustrated during the Titans’ five-game winning streak in this series, but his team ended it in the most satisfying of ways — rushing for 193 yards while holding Derrick Henry to 43.
Irsay just signed Jonathan Taylor to a three-year, $42 million deal, ending that bitter dispute, and then watched Zack Moss carve up the Titans for 165 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. The Titans were comparing him to Le’Veon Bell in his prime afterward. Colts rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson went out in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, but no matter — backup Gardner Minshew came in and carved up the Titans in his own special way.
It was satisfying for the Colts and embarrassing for the Titans. Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair said he heard too much “My bad” from too many Titans, including himself, after mistakes leading to big Colts plays.
“‘My bads’ get you beat in this league,” said Jeffery Simmons, who stuck it out after an upper-body injury in the first half that he refused to specify after the game.
And Vrabel, who talked all week about the Titans validating the way they need to play to win, watched his team validate those who say it won’t be doing a ton of that this season.
Thing is, the offensive line protected Tannehill. The offense did some good things and has some hope — though Henry getting stuffed on a fourth-and-1 at the Indy 5-yard line, on a shotgun draw, was a hope killer in this game.
Especially after Fulton and the defense followed that up by letting the Colts keep the ball for more than seven minutes, go 78 yards and add to an 8-for-13 day on third down. In the aftermath, those scribes thinking they had to choose speaking to Fulton or Tannehill were wrong. Tannehill took so much time dressing. His presser didn’t start until after Fulton was done.
But as he spoke, the Titans’ best player on Sunday was in the locker room giving perhaps the most effective words for this team to carry forward.
“You can’t get frustrated,” said DeAndre Hopkins after an eight-catch, 140-yard day. “I’ve played 11 years, man. Frustration doesn’t help, especially when it’s early in the season and nobody has won the Super Bowl yet. Got to go back to work, man. This division is still up for grabs. We’ll see these guys again.”
(Top photo of Colts receiver Josh Downs making a catch between Kristian Fulton (26) and Elijah Molden (24): Hali Tauxe / USA Today)