AFC South: Tennessee Titans

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As bad as things have been for the Titans offensive line this season, the team could say it was building some continuity.

Four-fifths of the line has started every game this season, with Taylor Lewan taking over at left tackle for the injured Michael Roos after five games.

Now the team will undergo a second lineup change. Brian Schwenke tore the MCL in his left knee Sunday in Philadelphia and has been placed on injured-reserve. Chris Spencer is in line to take over as the starting center.

The Titans signed veteran interior lineman Eric Olsen for depth. Olsen signed with Tennessee during the offseason and he was with the team through camp.

Lewan might also be out. Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean says the sprained ankle that knocked Lewan out against the Eagles is a high ankle sprain. Those usually take a while to recover from. Byron Stingily would fill in if Lewan is sidelined.

The offensive line has remained an issue for the Titans this season, though they spent a second consecutive first-round pick on a lineman (Lewan was the 11th overall pick) and gave a big free-agent deal to right tackle Michael Oher.

Schwenke wasn’t great, but he’s an inexpensive piece with promise who played between a high-pried free agent from 2012 (Andy Levitre) and an underachieving No. 1 pick from 2013 (Chance Warmack).

Levitre’s spot is in jeopardy beyond this season and the team can get out of Oher’s deal for no money beyond the $6 million it will have paid him in 2014.

QB snapshot: Zach Mettenberger

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
A quick observation of quarterback Zach Mettenberger and how he played in the Tennessee Titans' 43-24 loss in Week 12:

When he’s asked about Mettenberger holding the ball too long, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt almost always mentions that on some plays it’s simply what a quarterback has to do.

The Ravens and Eagles both sacked Mettenberger five times, while the Titans managed to prevent a single sack of Mettenberger by the Steelers.

In his first start Oct. 26 against Houston, Mettenberger was taken down twice.

Now, against a defensive line built around J.J. Watt, for the first time Mettenberger will work against a team he already has played.

He needs to get the ball out quicker, and his line needs to protect better.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan has a sprained ankle and center Brian Schwenke has a knee injury. Neither finished the game in Philadelphia.

Watt expects to get past whoever is blocking him, but if the Titans have to turn to Byron Stingily at left tackle, they are going to have to give him a helping tight end all the time. They may need to do that for Lewan.

They're going to have a hard time breaking through for their first win with Mettenberger at quarterback if he gets sacked five times for a third time.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Losing wears on everyone.

The Tennessee Titans just lost their fifth game in a row and ninth in the first 11 games of Ken Whisenhunt’s tenure as head coach.

“I have a sick feeling in my stomach all the time,” Whisenhunt said Monday. “Nothing changes that except when you win.”

The 27-24 "Monday Night Football" loss to Pittsburgh Nov. 17 allowed the Titans to feel they’d made some progress. Sunday’s 43-24 whipping in Philadelphia undid most of that.

In 11 games, in what areas have the Titans improved?

I asked Whisenhunt if he could offer examples.

“It’s probably hard to do that,” he said. “Because you’re seeing one week where you see improvement in an area, like last week where we don’t give up a sack. We go into a game (Sunday) and give up five sacks.

“I see a tremendous amount of improvement in Avery Williamson and what he’s doing for us. I think as far as the communication defensively and what we are doing in those areas, I’ve seen improvement. But then we have a game where we don’t tackle well, we miss some gap fits and it hurts us.

"It’s hard offensively to say we’re doing a lot of things very good other than the fact we’ve had a lot of chunk plays, a lot of big plays. I think yesterday we had eight plays of over 20 yards. That’s small solace when you can’t convert a third down or you can’t run the ball more effectively or you have penalties.

"I see players growing in certain areas, but I don’t see enough consistency as a group.”

I think it’s an honest answer and he didn’t try to sugarcoat it.

But the fact there aren’t a few well-defined areas where this team can say it’s gotten discernibly better over the course of three months is evidence extending well beyond the record of how bad things are.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans receiver Justin Hunter is not yet two seasons into his career. He came into the league raw. He's bound to be still somewhat raw.

But plenty of first-year and second-year receivers are doing great things across the NFL and most seem to be on steady inclines. Hunter has a jagged line tracing his course so far.

Exhibit A is Odell Beckham Jr., the Giants' rookie receiver who made a catch that ranks among the all-time best on Sunday night against Dallas. Beckham was the 12th pick in the draft, so he should out-produce Hunter.

Look in the second and third rounds of the 2013 and 2014 drafts. Given a chance at a do-over, would the Titans prefer Philly's Jordan Matthews, Miami's Jarvis Landry, Buffalo's Robert Woods, Dallas' Terrance Williams, San Diego's Keenan Allen, Pittsburgh's Markus Wheaton or Arizona's John Brown?

It's an exercise I don't often engage in. You can look at virtually any pick in any draft and find better alternatives selected later in that draft or the one after it. But that is quite a few recent second- and third-rounders who seem more appealing than Hunter right now.

Hunter made a nice play in the loss at Philadelphia, catching a tipped ball and taking it 40 yards into the end zone for a touchdowns.

But Hunter's athleticism can be so put so poorly to use on a football field, it can baffle.

"Justin made some plays for us," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "There were some other ones maybe he could have made plays on that he didn't, certainly."

Hunter was targeted a game-high 10 times in Sunday's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but had only four catches for 64 yards.

I re-watched the 10 plays.

The first was an incomplete pass on which Philly defensive back Malcolm Jenkins arrived early and should have been called for pass interference.

The second might have rated as a drop, as Hunter benefited from offensive pass interference called against Kendall Wright.

He moved backward with the ball in his hands after one short catch and he got back to where he started, but he didn't need to backtrack in the first place. Watching Wright is good; mimicking him in that way is not so good.

On another throw that was certainly high, Hunter's jump seemed mistimed. He got separation from cornerback Bradley Fletcher as he came back to the ball. But Hunter seemed to drift inside when he had room to the sideline and couldn't corral it.

Here's the play I wonder most about: Early in the fourth quarter, Mettenberger threw a pass to Hunter up the right side against Fletcher. The defensive back was in a good spot, but Hunter jumped to reach back and got two hands on it. Fletcher had an arm between Hunter's arms, but Fletcher's arm was against Hunter's body and Hunter's arms were extended. Did he need to jump? I think he could have worked back to the ball on his feet. He didn't hold on. It was not a more difficult play to make than the ones we are seeing from other young receivers.

One scout told me unnecessary jumping equates to a lack of faith in one's hands.

Hunter was also the target on Mettenberger's late interception. I didn't think the receiver put up much of a fight for the ball that Brandon Boykin went and got. At worst, Hunter could have worked to break it up.

The light is due to go on for Hunter. He needs to make more of the plays he has a chance to make.

Flickering isn't nearly enough for a guy who cost the Titans a second-round pick in 2012 and a third-rounder in 2013 for the privilege of adding him.
PHILADELPHIA -- Since even before he took over as the team’s starting quarterback, common sense said the Titans needed a thorough look at Zach Mettenberger this season to determine their future course at the position.

He struggled while absorbing five sacks and completing just 51 percent of his passes in Sunday’s 43-24 loss to the Eagles.

But he’s still providing cause for the team to think it may have its guy. His 345 passing yards were a rookie record for the 54-year old franchise. While that verdict isn’t in, let’s throw open another area that needs thorough review the rest of the way:

The run game.

For Mettenberger or anyone else quarterbacking the Titans to have a chance at success, the Titans have to be able to run the ball with more consistency. This year has been another disaster in that department.

I understand that running well is far more a function of winning than winning is a function of running well. Many good running teams post many yards late, while leading.

Still, there are situations when a team can force the issue. And it helps it maintain a balance that serves as an aide to the quarterback and the passing game.

The Titans have no such help from the run game now.

They weren’t doing enough to be balanced before he took over. In Mettenberger's four starts, they’ve run, on average, five fewer times a game.

We don’t know if they’ve found the right quarterback. We have more evidence on the running backs in the committee and their blockers, and it is worse.

The Titans had their choice of running backs in the draft when they chose to take one 54th overall in the second round. They tabbed Bishop Sankey, a hard-working back from Washington they sold as a do-everything guy.

In a game when the Titans gave up plays to two high-quality backs in LeSean McCoy (21 carries for 130 yards and a score) and Darren Sproles (six for 25 and a TD) the Titans showed they don’t have anything close to comparable weaponry.

Sankey got the bulk of the work and didn’t do anything to suggest he has the combination of vision, power and speed the Titans need to run effectively.

He had 10 carries for 37 yards and three catches for 15 yards. With the Titans behind 34-17 in the third quarter, Daimion Stafford pulled in an interception and the Titans were poised to do something from the Eagles' 41-yard line. Sankey took a handoff and fumbled it back on the very next play.

The blocking for Sankey, Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster is a well-documented problem. The Titans spent a great deal of free-agent money and their last two first-round draft picks to rebuild a line that does very little to set and maintain a tone as run blockers or pass protectors.

The Titans have a habit of getting behind, and that makes something that is already difficult for them to do even harder.

“How are you going to run the ball when you’re down 17-0 at the start?” left tackle Taylor Lewan asked. “That’s hard.”

Part of the problem is mission statement and identity.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt wants a team known for its versatility. That’s an admirable end point when you’re the Patriots and you can see a matchup that begs for six offensive linemen and a bruising run game and you have the personnel and gumption to make it work. A team under new leadership lacking people power doesn’t have the luxury to be versatile until after it’s good at something first.

Under Jeff Fisher and Mike Munchak, at least we knew the Titans wanted to run the ball in an old-school way. I appreciate that Whisenhunt wants to be more a part of the modern game and have his quarterback sling it. But to give Mettenberger or anyone a chance to do that, there has to be counterbalance in the run. The Titans don’t have it, and they don’t even talk about being hell bent on getting it.

“We’ve just got to clean that stuff up,” tight end Delanie Walker said, after telling me how he isn’t a coach and just tries to execute what is asked. “I think it’s lot of just missed assignment and not knowing, when we get different looks, who to block. We’ve got to really figure out what we really want to do here and who really wants to play and get to the bottom of that situation.”

Sankey, Greene and McCluster all need to be under review down the stretch. Three of the offensive linemen already are, I believe. Left guard Andy Levitre and right tackle Michael Oher could have only six games left in their time with the Titans.

“Any offensive lineman wants to run the ball, that’s what you take pride in, not that pass pro is any different,” said right guard Chance Warmack, who also is maddeningly inconsistent. “Why not? Why wouldn’t you want to run the ball as an offensive lineman?”

I think they want to.

The linemen, the backs, the Titans, they’ve all done a lot of work showing us they can’t.
PHILADELPHIA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Titans’ 43-24 loss to the Eagles:

Leading with his head: The Titans got a huge game from Delanie Walker as he returned from the concussion he suffered Nov. 9 in Baltimore that kept him out of the Monday night game against Pittsburgh.

Walker had 155 yards, a Titans season high, on just five catches, besting his 142 yards, on 10 catches, against Dallas on Sept. 15.

His 68-yard catch and run showed off his speed, and he did well stiff-arming linebacker Emmanuel Acho to gain more ground.

Later, with the Eagles well aware he’d seek to stiff-arm, safety Malcolm Jenkins tried to avoid it. Walker wasn’t thinking about his concussion, he was thinking about space, and he basically head-butted the defender as he ran.

“They started figuring me out, I was stiff-arming them a lot the whole game and he kind of knocked my arm down and I didn’t have any other defense so I charged at him with my head,” Walker said. “I guess it worked out perfectly ...”

“When I talked to the doctor before he cleared me, he said don’t go out there and play like you had a concussion, play like you never had one. So at that moment, I was playing like I never had one. When I went to the sideline, I thought about it, I was like, ‘I probably shouldn’t have done that.'”

The Titans fully realize just how good Walker is on a team that has not fared well at all.

“You can always count on Delanie to be a bright spot, he’s a heck of a player,” center Brian Schwenke said. “He’s kind of our, I don’t know, little lifeboat. When we can’t get a play we get the ball to him and know he’ll make a play.”

Walker said those of us who talked to him would mention his big game, but no one else would care because of the result.

Opening slap: The Titans have spent a good share of the season playing from behind, and against the Eagles it took just 13 seconds for them to get in familiar position.

Josh Huff sprinted 107 yards with the opening kickoff to a touchdown that started an awful day for Tennessee.

“When you’re on the road in a place like this against a team that can score some points, that’s not the way you want to start the game off, it’s tough,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

“… We had a guy that’s supposed to be outside in coverage that got boxed in and just missed it.”

Michael Griffin is generally a very good special-teamer, but he isn’t called into action much these days.

He said he was put on kick return coverage after the opening kick and helped cover two before he left the game with a dislocated shoulder.

Pictures: Check out my Instagram account for some postgame pictures, including shots of three guys who suffered injuries on Sunday.

Rapid Reaction: Tennessee Titans

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23

PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the Tennessee Titans' 43-24 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field:

What it means: The Titans lost their fifth consecutive game and their ninth of the season, as they simply didn’t have the horses or performance to stick with the Eagles. They gave up a 107-yard touchdown return to Josh Huff on the opening kickoff to make things especially difficult from the beginning. Two takeaways were nice, but they offset them with three giveaways.

Stock watch: Rookie running back Bishop Sankey shows a little promise with some of his runs, but the overall body of work isn’t improving much. If he’s going to get 37 yards on 10 carries and 14 more with two catches, he sure can’t also lose a fumble.

Game ball: As is often the case, tight end Delanie Walker was pretty much the only entry on the list of candidates. He set up a touchdown with a 68-yard catch-and-run during which he delivered a great stiff-arm to Emmanuel Acho. Walker got the Titans all riled up when he dipped his head in his first game back from a concussion and popped safety Malcolm Jenkins with it near the Titans' bench as he ran after another catch. Later, Walker dove with a reception to cover a third-and-15. He finished with five catches for 155 yards.

Big losses: Rookie left tackle Taylor Lewan went down with a left ankle injury in the fourth quarter and left the game, and he was replaced by Byron Stingily. Lewan had a rough game, as did the entire line, but the Titans are far better with him than without him. Missing any time in the remainder of his rookie season would be a big setback for the team’s top pick. Center Brian Schwenke also didn’t finish the game, leaving with a left leg injury.

What’s next: The Titans head to Houston for their first AFC South rematch of the year. Tennessee lost 30-16 to the Texans in Nashville on Oct. 26.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Titans will get their top weapon back Sunday.

Tight end Delanie Walker, who leads the team in receiving yardage, has been cleared to return from the concussion he suffered in Baltimore on Nov. 9.

He’s officially listed as probable for the Titans' game at Lincoln Financial Field against the Eagles.

His return should help everyone.

He’s a reliable target for Zach Mettenberger and has been called on to do additional work as a blocker in the run game with the team’s top blocking tight end, Craig Stevens, out since Week 6.

"It is comforting to know that we get Delanie back," coach Ken Whisenhunt said, per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. "You just never know when they're in the [concussion] protocol, how that's going to come out, what the time is going to be. So it is good that he has passed."

Among the other injured Titans, top special-teamer and defensive back Marqueston Huff is the one player most likely to sit out. He’s doubtful with a hamstring injury.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- On a bad, struggling team with a young, inexperienced quarterback, that quarterback is going to draw a great deal of attention.

If he shows good signs, he provides the one positive thing that team can have: Hope for the future.

Through his first three starts, Zach Mettenberger is offering some of that for the Tennessee Titans.

I’ve written about how he’s willing to shoulder blame, how he felt ready for the Steelers' complicated looks, how the team is focused on him and not some future alternative, how quickly he was getting rid of the ball, how a strength became a weakness in Baltimore, how he reacted to criticism from J.J. Watt about social media use, and how the Titans will assess him.

To name a few. (Feel free to click on all of those and catch up and hit me with a little traffic boost.)

Obviously, the key element to all of this is production. Can he play well enough to lead the Titans to wins? He hasn’t yet. But as he works to get that first one, it’s fair to look at a lot of the elements that make for a successful quarterback.

Today’s subject: Body language.

The way a player carries himself can say a lot about him. I think that is certainly more the case with a quarterback.

Mettenberger agrees.

“Being a quarterback, you’re always going to be more self-conscious about your body language,” he said. “It can be perceived that you’re down. If the defense sees that, it’s like a shark with blood in the water. They’ll swarm. You’ve definitely got to be conscious about it…

“You’ve got to walk around with your chest poked out even though it [might be] false security. You can’t let that defense see any insecurity in you.”

A quarterback’s own team can read a lot into that as well. When they see their guy pop up from a big hit and stand assuredly in the huddle, it has a contagious effect.

I like the early handle Mettenberger has on things such as blame and body language.

They are important things for a young quarterback to grasp, and he’s got a feel for them. Pair them with the big arm and the willingness to stand in the pocket, and it all factors into the reason for hope at the position for the Titans.
Reading the coverage of the Tennessee Titans…

Five questions the Titans need to answer the rest of the way, including whether the underwhelming run game can show promise. From Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Outside linebacker Derrick Morgan was limited Thursday with knee swelling but said he’d practice Friday, writes John Glennon of The Tennessean.

Increased blitzing is producing pressure, but it could also be hampering the Titans ability to stop the run, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

The Titans will wear white for the remainder of the season, which will make for 15 of their 16 games, says Wyatt.

To which I say: President and CEO Tommy Smith said in a recent radio interview the light blue was being phased out, and since that was the team’s primary dark jersey they steered away from it. Look for navy as their primary home jersey when it’s not hot next year.

Running back Bishop Sankey’s size isn’t a concern for voice of the Titans Mike Keith in this week’s mailbag at the team’s web site.
Zach Mettenberger AP Photo/Wade PayneTitans tight end Delanie Walker says quarterback Zach Mettenberger is a "leader in the making."
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Coaches, players, media and fans all love a quarterback who will stand up and take more than his share of the blame, just so long as "my bad" doesn’t become the inscription on his football card.

It was huge in the career of the best quarterback the Titans have had in Tennessee: Steve McNair.

McNair quickly raised his hand regarding his mistakes. He also worked to publicly take the blame when routes were botched or balls were dropped or blocks were missed; things that were in no way his fault.

Three starts into his career, we have no idea if Zach Mettenberger can be an NFL starter for a long period. We also have very little on which to base his willingness to accept fault as a franchise frontman.

But the very early indications are good.

Mettenberger’s third-and-6 pass in the middle to a crossing Kendall Wright from the Titans' 36-yard line may not have produced a first down Monday night in the loss to Pittsburgh. But it fell incomplete when Wright couldn’t pull in a throw that was behind him but catchable.

Later in the fourth, Mettenberger threw a screen to the left too low for Wright. Wright wouldn’t have gained much if he pulled it in, but he let it fall to the ground despite getting both hands on it.

After the game, the quarterback fielded a question about the drops.

“It was bad throws on me,” he said. “That’s not his fault at all. The one screen was low. ... The drag was behind him. I’ve got to do a better job getting him more catchable balls. Obviously, we’ve seen what he can do with a ball in his hand. I’ve got to make it easier on him.”

That kind of talk scores big in a lot of places, the most significant one being in the locker room. It was notably different than Robert Griffin III’s comments after Washington’s bad loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, when he spoke about how the guys around a quarterback need to play well for a quarterback to play well. (Of course the context is different for Mettenberger, a sixth-round rookie, and RG III, the second overall pick who’s in his third year.)

As for accepting fault:

“That’s part of my job, it’s something Coach Cam [Cameron at LSU] taught me: ‘You have big shoulders, use them,’” Mettenberger said. “... Shouldering the blame, that’s my job, I can take it. I’ve been in a lot of situations in my life where it wasn’t looking good for me. I’d rather take the blame than maybe some guy who mentally can’t handle it and it can put him in the jar.

“So I guess I’m a guy who kind of shoulders the blame.”

Titans tight end Delanie Walker has an appreciation for the approach.

“Quarterbacks, they’ve got to be the quarterback and they’ve got to be the blame guy," Walker said. "It’s good that he understands that as young as he is, not pointing a finger and just taking the blame.

“When you’re the quarterback, any mistake a receiver or tight end will make, [fans and media] are going to blame it on the quarterback. He understands that. For him not to go and point fingers, that’s what you need in the quarterback. He’s a leader in the making.”

With a quarterback who does anything perceived as finger pointing, “The loyalty to him won’t be there,” Walker said. “You can’t trust him, you don’t know what he’s going to say to the media or how he’s going to react to us telling him, ‘You need to throw a better ball.’ How he is now, that’s what you ask for.”

The most recent young quarterbacks the Titans have turned to didn’t score too highly in that department.

Vince Young found fault in a lot of other people and was far more sensitive than self-critical. Jake Locker was opposite of Young in a lot of ways, which is a big part of why he was drafted. But he didn’t rush to acknowledge some of his deficiencies, like his inaccuracy. That was a topic that made him bristle at questions instead of taking on responsibility to an obvious flaw of which his teammates were well aware.

Ultimately, as each of those guys struggled, the criticism and willingness to find fault with themselves faded and they became increasingly defensive about their performances. In that circumstance, they were hardly willing to take on additional blame for problems that might not have actually belonged to them.

Human nature pushes guys in that direction. That’s part of what makes the arc of the QB growth curve so important. A young quarterback has to show signs that he can be productive and handle all facets of the job before the criticism that comes with early struggles can wear him down.

It’s like a race.

The winners all end up in the same place, according to Titans reserve quarterback Charlie Whitehurst.

“Everybody that’s successful for a long time in the league at that position talks like that, is accountable,” he said. “Everybody. I mean like 100 percent. I think everybody has noticed that about him. That’s how you need to be.

“A lot of the information that comes from the team, it’s the head coach and the quarterback. Not just the fans read that, but the team reads that, too. That’s the way it should be for the betterment of the team.”

“I think you assume everybody’s like that at the position. I think the surprise is when a guy’s not like that.”

A look at Ken Whisenhunt's challenges

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt has tossed his red challenge flag four times this season.

Four times the referee has come out from behind the curtain that shields the replay monitor and announced the call stood.

During his six years in Arizona, Whisenhunt had a solid record with reviews, winning 31 of 60 challenges, 51.7 percent. In four of his six seasons he was 50 percent or better.

But Monday night’s failed challenge was not unlike the three before it. It seemed overly hopeful from the start.

With 6 minutes, 16 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers facing a second-and-4 from their 25-yard-line, Ben Roethlisberger threw for Le’Veon Bell short and to the right, as he released the pass, outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley leveled the quarterback with a big hit that appeared to hurt him.

He juggled it, got hit and lost the ball. After a long scramble, inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard recovered it. But the pass had ben ruled incomplete.

The Steelers took a timeout to let Roethlisberger gather himself, and during the stoppage Whisenhunt got input from three coaches in the booth: Offensive coordinator Jason Michael, defensive coordinator Ray Horton and assistant tight ends coach Arthur Smith.

Then before the next snap, he threw his flag.

“I sat right there and talked to the officials about it,” Whisenhunt said. “The two points of emphasis on that were clear recovery by us and two feet down [for Bell] with control of the ball. I think all of those criteria were satisfied. It came down to a judgment of if he possessed it long enough.

“At that particular point in time, it could have gone either way, I felt like we needed to take that shot. If we got that ball there at the 30, then we had a chance to win it or at least tie it. Which is worthy of that challenge, I thought.”

The review may have been record-fast, and referee Brad Allen didn’t only say it was upheld, but that it was confirmed.

Bell had the ball pinned against him, but never really got control of it.

It cost the Titans their second timeout of the second half. Ultimately that chance to stop the clock wouldn’t have helped them. But it could have been crucial.

Whisenhunt said he doesn’t really pay attention to his challenge record.

“I think a lot of it is situational and what you’re looking at,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with the ones that we haven’t ben successful on this year, but that really doesn’t matter. I don’t even know what my record is. I think I’ve been pretty decent before, the same system in place we’re using now.

“We don’t just make challenges just to make challenges. We put thought and preparation into it.”

The Film Don't Lie: Titans

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
A weekly look at what the Tennessee Titans must fix:

Only three teams in the NFL have run fewer play-action passes than the Titans’ 45. If they want to set up quarterback Zach Mettenberger for success in Philadelphia on Sunday, they should do it more.

Monday night against the Steelers, Mettenberger was 4-for-6 for 87 yards on play-action passes, for a 109.7 passer rating and a 98.4 QBR. In his previous two starts and two series in a mop-up role, Mettenberger was 5-for-10 for 68 yards and an interception on play-action.

“When you run the ball effectively, that makes it easy to get the play-action going. ... That’s something that we need to get going and keep going,” Mettenberger said.

But the Titans actually didn’t run it very well against Pittsburgh, with only 49 ground yards and 3.3 yards per carry. And the play-action passes still worked.

Back when I covered the Peyton Manning Colts, I often marveled at why defenses would bite on play-action even as Indianapolis wasn’t running well and a Manning pass was a far bigger threat.

Even with an unproven rookie quarterback and an ineffective run game, play-action with Mettenberger can cause a small hesitation from a defense that can be beneficial for the Titans.

Against the Steelers, I thought when Mettenberger faked a handoff and found time to throw he looked exceptionally comfortable. It showed the Titans don’t need to be running well to effectively utilize play-action.

The Eagles have run a league-high 131 snaps of play-action this season. They will do it more in this matchup for sure. But the Titans should also look to build on a good element of their offense in their loss to the Steelers.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The result was the same, and for a good share of observers that is all that will matter.

The Tennessee Titans don’t deserve any sort of parade for what they did in Monday night's 27-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But for the first time in a long time, they looked like a team that was having fun -- and that’s typically a necessary ingredient for better results. They certainly were more fun to watch, and that should count for something.

Ultimately, a young, struggling team found a way to blow an 11-point lead and lose again. Still, it felt different to me. Tennessee played with more life and presented one significant reason for hope.

After throwing a pick-six on his first pass of the game, quarterback Zach Mettenberger rebounded and threw for 263 yards, a record for a rookie in a "Monday Night Football" game. With 15 completions on 24 attempts and two touchdowns, he posted a passer rating of 110.2 and a QBR of 81.2.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesRookie QB Zach Mettenberger shrugged off an early pick-six to play the best game of his young career.
“The ability to respond to negative plays really kind of shows a guy’s character,” Mettenberger said. “I think I responded well, made some plays to put us in the game. But you’ve got to make one or two more to get the win.”

Overall, the Titans (2-8) could point to good developments in a loss and not have it sound as if they were applying positive-colored paint to something in need of a cover-up.

A team that constantly had been bogged down by penalties was flagged only once. A team lacking sufficient edge pass rush swarmed and surrounded Ben Roethlisberger, sacking him five times. A team in search of big plays got an end zone interception from Jason McCourty and an 80-yard Mettenberger-to-Nate Washington touchdown connection. A team that has been on the wrong end of numerous blowouts helped provide a compelling prime-time game, something rare this season.

In the end, those things didn’t offset an equally long list of negatives:

  • An inability to stop Le'Veon Bell, who carried that ball 33 times for 204 yards, the most by a running back in the NFL this season.
  • The resulting time of possession deficit -- 39:49 to 20:11.
  • The third-down struggles of the defense, which allowed seven conversions in 13 chances.
  • Four offensive possessions that collectively produced just one first down.
  • A run game that managed only 3.3 yards a carry and 49 yards total.
“Maybe this is the process to become a better team,” McCourty said. “You hate to say it, but we’re getting better. We’re doing some things better than we’ve done in the past, but we’re not finishing.

“I don’t know if it’s a growth process and we need to go though these pains to get to that point, but we’ve got to keep going. No one is going to feel sorry for us on the rest of the schedule because we haven’t won. We’ve got to continue to work. Just to show up and play well doesn’t mean enough.”

Guys were ready to celebrate a breakthrough game and feel the collective sense of relief that said, “We can find a way to win.”

They had to hit the pause button on that. It’s a baby-step franchise right now, and the team played well longer than had been the case in other games. Eventually, perhaps the Titans will sustain the good effort and productive play long enough to find that third win.

On this night, I didn’t judge it a bad thing that guys allowed themselves to talk of having had more fun or that they were discussing growth. It wasn’t acceptance of the loss, it was acknowledgement from a team still low on the ladder that perhaps it moved up a rung.

“It was a lot more fun tonight,” Washington said. “We were able to make some plays, guys were a lot more enthusiastic about what was going on. ... With a younger team like this, the coaches want to see the progress. Although we didn’t get the win, to see these guys play better, have a little more fun, I think that was definitely beneficial for us.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Tennessee Titans' 27-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Hat tip: Mike Munchak, who spent 31 years in the Oilers/Titans organization as a player, assistant coach and head coach was back as a visitor, working as the Steelers offensive line coach.

The Titans put a quick acknowledgement of Munchak on the scoreboard early in the first quarter.

But it was the Steelers who paid the real tribute to Munchak. While the protection for Ben Roethlisberger was poor and allowed five sacks, the run blocking was excellent. Le'Veon Bell carried 33 times for 204 yards and a touchdown on the night.

Pittsburgh took possession with 6:58 left in the game and after a first down at 5:31 the Steelers handed the ball to Bell seven consecutive times, getting four first downs and putting Roethlisberger in position to twice take a knee.

The Titans never got the ball back.

"Munchak, he must have felt good today," Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey said. "He did a good job with those guy this week. They did a good job blocking up front, executing the plays they needed to execute."

Terrible Towels: As per usual, LP Field had a high-percentage of Steelers fans for a game against the Titans in Nashville.

"I kind of told the guys all week that that was going to happen, to be truthful, and that's no disrespect to the Tennessee fans," said Nate Washington, who played for the Steelers and caught an 80-yard touchdown before halftime.

"…It didn't piss me off, it made me more motivated to go out there and prove everybody that was in that blue right, to give them something to cheer about, to tell the people who showed up in that black and gold that this was their house."

On his way to the end zone on his score Washington pointed to a section of LP Field filled with fans in blue.

Injuries: Blidi Wreh-Wilson left the game late in the third quarter with a back issue and didn't return. Rookie cornerback Marqueston Huff has a hamstring injury.

Pictures: Check out my Instagram account for some postgame video and pictures, including the scoreboard reference to Munchak.