Titans offense craters in Cleveland, but don’t let this defense off the hook

CLEVELAND — The Tennessee Titans’ hopes of winning the AFC South and having a chance to do anything in the playoffs was always about having a great defense.

Dominating defense, improved and respectable offense that can at least get you into the 20s on most Sundays. That had to be the formula. And you know what? I’m not sure which of those I like the least as a possibility after Sunday’s embarrassing 27-3 loss at Cleveland Browns Stadium. It’s close. For as bad as the Titans were offensively in this game — historically bad, and incapable of keeping Myles Garrett from going all wrecking ball on it — that should not gloss over how disappointing the defense has been.

Let’s review. Teams still don’t run on the Titans. But most teams don’t care. The Saints were overwhelmed by this much-hyped Titans pass rush early in the opener, then kept it at bay and hit several huge passing plays to prevail. There’s no shame in giving up 24 points to Justin Herbert and the Chargers, and the Titans got the Harold Landry sack late in regulation and three-and-out in overtime to prevail. But he had too much comfort in the pocket for too much of the day. And enjoyed some wide-open receivers courtesy of Titans communication gaffes.

So now this debacle in Cleveland. Yes, if you’re divvying up a “debacle” pie of blame, the offense gets most of it. This was a truly inept afternoon, the most overwhelmed a Titans offense has been since a 16-0 loss at Denver in 2019 that lost Marcus Mariota the starting quarterback job in favor of Ryan Tannehill. The Titans managed 94 yards of total offense, the first time this franchise has been under 100 since 2006.

This offense was that of an FCS team playing at Georgia on Sunday. It badly needs left guard Peter Skoronski (appendix) back. The Titans might need to do something about Andre Dillard at left tackle, though he immediately improved as a player Sunday evening by boarding a plane and getting hundreds of miles away from Garrett.

Most of the talk after the game was about the offense. The offense was atrocious. The offense gets credit for an “ebacle.” But as this team moves forward in what has so far been a wild and wacky AFC South, I’m wondering where this hallowed “D” is.

You want to know what a great defense looks like? Check out the Cleveland Browns. They have guys who can’t be blocked and defensive backs who don’t get beat all over the field and don’t commit devastating penalties because they keep getting beat.

The Browns also thought they had a great quarterback when they gave Deshaun Watson a ridiculous $230 million guaranteed contract, but he has not been that so far, not at all. He’s been uncertain, ponderous, prone to turnovers and largely ineffective. He’s been pretty bad. On Sunday, the Titans helped make him look like the guy who used to play in Houston and do things like this to the Titans.

“You play like that in this league, you coach like this in this league, you get your ass beat,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said after a sour homecoming for him, watching Watson pass for 289 yards and two touchdowns, both to absurdly wide-open receivers. “Plain and simple. We’ll be back. We’re gonna get back to work, I know that.”

There’s no doubt that will happen, and there’s no doubt Vrabel is right that the Titans will get “written off” after this performance. And safety Kevin Byard is right that people “are gonna say we suck.” And the Titans will talk about it and use it and work hard next week and probably play a lot better at home against Cincinnati. Draw conclusions at your own risk in this league and division, which just saw the Colts win at Baltimore to reach 2-1 and grab sole possession of first place, while the mighty Jacksonville Jaguars lost 37-17 at home to the lowly Houston Texans.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel watches during the fourth quarter as his team trails 20-3 against the Browns in Cleveland. (Andrew Nelles / USA Today)

Perspective is good. But what about this Titans defense? It can’t just be good. It has to be great. It has not been that. Not at all. I asked Vrabel after the game if he’s concerned, with the Titans offense struggling like this, that the Titans defense will be affected adversely.

“I think the defense needs to focus on the defense,” he said. “We need to feed off each other. Certainly, we need to play better on offense and coach better, but our job on defense is to go out and play defense wherever they have the ball. We had a lot of opportunities to get off the field on third down and weren’t able to. So you can maybe try to start that narrative. I don’t think that Jeffery Simmons or Kevin Byard or Denico Autry or Amani Hooker … I think they’re gonna just play defense whenever they have to go out there. That’s their job.”

For the record, that was not an attempt to “start a narrative,” I think it’s a legitimate concern because this defense has been carrying this offense for quite a while now. A whole bunch of the folks in that Titans locker room who have lost nine of 10 games dating to last November also experienced the weekly understanding in 2022 that this defense probably needed to keep the opponent under 17 points to have a chance to win. Which is a totally fair thing to ask an NFL defense, in 1974.

And right now this defense is paired up with an offense averaging 15.0 points per game. I would think that would wear on these guys at some point.

“We understand, the way we’re built, the way we’re wired, our defense has got to play better than (the other team’s) defense,” said Byard, who has experienced a wide range of things since he arrived in 2016. “And at the end of the day, their defense played lights out, we didn’t even have 100 yards of total offense. It’s tough to win in the league when you’re not playing great defense. I feel like I’ve been a part of this for a while, as far as the defense having to play better. And then usually a lot of times our offense will put a couple drives together. So I don’t want to get too down on it.”

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Titans safety Kevin Byard tackles Browns wide receiver Elijah Moore (8) during the third quarter. (Andrew Nelles / USA Today)

Maybe trying to blame terrible offensive play for middling defensive play is excuse making. Certainly, putting Sunday’s result on officiating in any way is excuse making. And yet …

Simmons was asked about the pass rush not having its usual impact in this game and said: “We were back there. We didn’t get him down. It wasn’t that. I mean they were doing a lot of … the flags here and there, I don’t know. We all have a job and I guess we all need to do better than that. I just don’t agree with a lot of the stuff they (were) calling.”

He was asked what needs to get better on his side of the ball and said: “I mean, we gave up a couple big plays when we were about to get off the field, but like I said, there was a lot of flags they threw that I don’t agree with.”

He said the Titans didn’t get their “tails beat up and down the field” and was asked what the 27-3 score suggests, and he responded: “Of course you’re gonna say that. I mean, that’s the score. Like I said, we got how many flags? Whatever it may be, miscommunication on the back end. I mean, how many times did they just drive the ball? How many rushing yards did they have? That’s what I’m saying (when I say) they didn’t beat our tail up and down the field.”

To be clear, Simmons wasn’t just spitting out excuses. His first words were: “We got our ass kicked. Simple as that.”

But to even mention officiating in this game without being asked is wild to me. There were a couple of 50/50 calls downfield that were key that went against the Titans. It happens. Amari Cooper wasn’t called for an obvious push-off — but officials also blew the whistle on the play and cost him a touchdown.

And the Kristian Fulton interference on Cooper that sparked the Browns, turning a second-and-26 at the Cleveland 33 into a first down at the Tennessee 30, was the right call. And a terrible play by Fulton. That’s not the first of the season. The Titans got Fulton and Amani Hooker back from injuries Sunday and should have benefited, but instead kept making familiar mistakes. Quarterbacks with time to throw seem to like throwing on this secondary.

The Titans need a great defense this season to win. The Titans need an overpowering pass rush — one that looks like Cleveland’s — to have a great defense. These things aren’t happening right now, and the Titans aren’t happy. As long as they’re just getting testy at media and officials and fans, and not each other, they’ve still got a chance.

(Top photo of Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson throwing a pass as he is taken down by the Titans’ Denico Autry: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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