Rexrode: Titans specialize in the unexpected, but brutal loss to Giants looks different

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The best thing that can be said about the Tennessee Titans after a 21-20 season-opening loss to the New York Giants in which they blew out a 13-0 halftime lead against a supposedly bad team that’s missing two of its most talented players is that they do this stuff all the time.

It’s basically their mark under coach Mike Vrabel, dating back to the second game of his tenure in 2018, a game they had no chance of winning but won. They specialize in the unexpected. It was just one of those games that they didn’t have to lose but had lost. Now comes the gnashing of teeth. A Monday Night Football game in Buffalo, they have no chance of winning. And you know the rest.

Worst thing you can say about the Titans? Let’s see.

With 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Wilson nowhere to be found at Nissan Stadium on Sunday and 2021 first-round pick Caleb Farley playing sparingly and 2021 second-round pick Dillon Radunz not contributing, and with former star receiver AJ Brown catching 10 balls for 155 yards to help the Eagles win in Detroit, the Titans looked like a team held back by the weight of bad decisions.

The drafting errors piled up and the practice errors also deserve a nod, like second-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing swiping rookie tight end Chig Okonkwo instead of Derrick Henry in the third-and-1 failure that opened the door for the Giants’ winning touchdown.

Then again, Henry, 28, less than a year out from a broken foot, wasn’t particularly explosive on a 21-carry, 82-yard day. He dropped the ball on a wild direct hit on another third-and-one in the second half, and he suffered compared to 25-year-old Giants phenom Saquon Barkley.

Barkley tore up the Titans — and a defense designed to stop the run and paid for by general manager Jon Robinson to stop the run — for 164 yards on 18 carries. His 68-yard run early in the third quarter was a game-changer. He was part of a 238-yard rushing day against a defense that was second in the league with 84.6 allowed per game last season. And the Titans are going to be in real trouble if that persists because their passing game doesn’t seem to scare a lot of people. Imagine if they had to block injured Giants pass throwers Azeez Ojulari and Kayvon Thibodeaux.

So they could really look like a team on the decline today.

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Is it sufficient? These concerns and reasons for pessimism would have less force if Randy Bullock had just scored the 47-yard basket he had attempted at the buzzer to give the victory to the Titans. He hooked it wide to the left. The Titans and their fans, who were part of a reported crowd of 67,805, looked a bit stunned afterward. Verbel too.

It was a match his team controlled for 30 minutes. Then his team strength gave up – Barkley’s blowout, Sterling Shepard torching Kristian Fulton for a 65-yard touchdown from Daniel Jones, the game-winning 73-yard run and two-point conversion. His team’s questionable part proved questionable — seven points in the final 37 minutes of the game, 2 for 11 on third down — although Ryan Tannehill (20 for 33, 266 yards, two touchdowns to Dontrell Hilliard) was decent and put the Titans in position to win.

“Any time you lose, it’s a punch,” said Vrabel, whose last time at the podium at Nissan Stadium came after a much harder shot, a playoff loss to the Bengals. “We put a lot into it. We started as we wanted. I give them a lot of credit. We fell flat and couldn’t do anything in the second half.

“It’s everyone. Execution, third down and (the Giants) hit big plays. We couldn’t convert in the red zone, and defensively we couldn’t stop the run. It was the number one key to the game, and it’s why you lose, not because you missed a basket at the end of the game. That’s a lot of stuff so far.

And it’s not good. Even with the Colts and Texans playing a terrible 20-20 tie on Opening Day and the Jaguars Jaguars in Washington, it was one of those games on the schedule that seemed important in the Titans’ quest to win a third consecutive AFC South. Title. This schedule offers few breaks. The Giants, 22-59 over the past five seasons, on their fourth head coach in this era and missing those two key players, qualified as one.

Week 1 in the NFL is a habitual liar, although that doesn’t invalidate all the information that comes out of his mouth. For example, the Titans were crushed 38-13 at home by the Arizona Cardinals in Game 1 of last season and have proven to be a great, resilient team. This game, however, brought to light the pass protection issues that plagued the Titans for most of the season.

This one showed a defense that always looks salty, a defense that had five sacks in its first game without hurting outside linebacker Harold Landry. Jeffery Simmons and Rashad Weaver had two each, Bud Dupree had one, and Dupree retrieved a strip of Simmons from Jones. Amani Hooker had a Jones pick in the end zone that seemed like the sealer play of the game. Then the Titans offense took the field and failed to finish, like they did during the major. part of the day.

“We have to score, of course,” Simmons said. “It’s not my job, but whatever happens in attack, we have to go out there in defense, a sudden change, a stoppage, whatever. We’ll just stick together, come back here and prepare for Monday evening.

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Sunday saw encouraging starts from rookie receivers Kyle Philips and Treylon Burks, particularly Philips, who missed a punt but also had a 46-yard return and led the Titans with six catches, 66 yards and nine targets. His quick feet are going to help this team. His 21-yard hold on a Tannehill strike set up Bullock’s potential winner. And while Burks was far from a “backup” for Brown, he had three catches for 55 yards and looked quick and physical.

But preseason camp told us starting receivers Robert Woods and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and tight end Austin Hooper would make plays in this offense. Pre-season camp seems sketchy after one game. The two receivers each had a catch for 13 yards, while Hooper had one for 6 yards. Other than Philips and Hilliard — who the Giants seemed to forget were on the court sometimes — the Titans struggled all day to create separation.

This could be a persistent problem. If Henry is anything less than peak Henry going forward? Big problem. The offensive line? Hard to say after this game. But the Titans under Vrabel have won plenty of games like this by wearing down their opponents late.

“Historically, the last five, six years, it hasn’t been us,” left tackle Taylor Lewan, who got hit but was able to come back, said of second-half offensive woes. “Usually we’re a second-half team that really rests and runs the ball and finishes. Finish those long drives, hard drives, 12-play and 15-play drives. You know, for some reason. … He doesn’t there’s no specific game, that’s the thing. It wasn’t like week 1 last year where it was like this and this and this and this. It’s just a lot of unfortunate things that we have to take responsibility, all of us. And see how we can improve because we have a Monday night football game next week.”

Going back to that second game of Vrabel’s first season, a narrow-team win over Deshaun Watson and the still-uncalculated Houston Texans, the Titans had plenty of surprises in store.

They had just about the worst offense in the NFL through six games of 2019 and were close to the top when that team finally succumbed to Kansas City in the AFC title game. The 2020 team had a record offense and poor defense, so of course their offense underperformed in a home loss to Baltimore while their defense nearly stole the game. Last season was the ultimate in opposite days. The Arizona debacle. Losses for the Jets and Texans. Win the Bills, Chiefs and Rams. A No. 1 seed won without Henry and a No. 1 seed Tannehill squandered at home against the Bengals despite collecting nine sacks.

But when the most encouraging thing about a football team’s poor performance is the fact that previous, more talented versions of themselves have bounced back from similar performances, it probably has some real issues.

(Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today)

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