Rio Grande De-Fence Briefing: Lack of penalties shows Titans' pass defense positioned to make plays

The Tennessee Titans’ pass defense is an enigma.

In terms of passing yards allowed per game, the Titans rank sixth in the NFL (194.7). In terms of yards allowed per pass play, though, they are 25th (7.49) and only three teams have allowed more pass plays of 40 yards or more than Tennessee, which has given up four.

Perhaps nothing explains the disparity in those numbers better than this: The Titans are one of five NFL teams that has not been called for defensive pass interference this season and the only team in the league that has not been flagged for defensive pass interference or defensive holding.

The other four teams that have not been called for pass interference are Carolina, Cincinnati, Detroit and Green Bay. All have been called for defensive holding multiple times. Similarly, New England, Atlanta and Chicago have not been called for defensive holding but have been flagged for pass interference (five times in the Bears’ case).

So either the Titans’ pass defense is not close enough to, or physical enough with, opposing receivers to commit penalties. Or their positioning and coverage have been sound enough that officials have not ben compelled to throw flags.

Evidence suggests it is the latter.

“There are always points of emphasis that the league goes through every year,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “I remember last year at this time, we were talking about pass interference, illegal contact and those penalties. It just seems to kind of even itself out as the season goes on.”

There is no better example of the good and bad of the Titans’ pass defense than its last game, against Indianapolis.

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck set up his team’s first touchdown with a 48-yard completion on third-and-20 and threw his second touchdown pass of the day on third-and-20 from the Titans’ 35. In both cases, defensive backs were in position but failed to make a play.

The rest of the game, Luck had 16 completions for 157 yards and threw two interceptions.

“The thing is, we’re in position. We just have to make the play,” cornerback Jason McCourty, who missed the first three games with a hamstring injury said. “There’s a ton of players in this league that can be in this position and that’s what we get paid to do. Part of it is just having the confidence to look back for the ball or whatever it might be in that particular moment.

“At the end of the day, you get paid, you get promoted, you get whatever accolades if you can make the play.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 9, 2015 11:38 AM

Reasons to believe: Titans vs. Bills

Since the franchise was rebranded in 1999, there have been just three seasons in which the Tennessee Titans won in Week 1 and then lost (at least) their next three games.

Never has it happened in consecutive seasons, but that could change Sunday when the Titans (1-2) host the Buffalo Bills (2-2).

Tennessee answered the 2014 season-opening victory at Kansas City with four straight defeats and followed up this season’s win at Tampa Bay with a pair of losses. Similar things happened in 2002 and 2004.

Now they get Buffalo, which has alternated wins and losses through the first four weeks and — based on that — is due for a victory.

Three reasons to believe the Titans will win Sunday

It’s the Bills: The Titans have won the last five meetings with Buffalo, which is their longest active win streak against any team — and it does not even include the Music City Miracle. The current run of success dates back to 2003 and features a pair of one-point victories and another by two points. There also was a 24-point rout the last time Buffalo came to Nissan Stadium (Nov. 15, 2009). In short: Tennessee just seems to find a way in this series.

Pass defense: The Titans have given up some big plays in the passing game but they have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 53.8 percent of their throws. Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor is one of eight QBs with a completion rate of 70 or better (71.7) but he is 22nd in average yards per catch, which means he gets it there but not in the perfect spot. If the defense can limit his completion percentage, his chances to hit on a big play will decrease significantly.

Halftime adjustments: The Titans’ best quarter this season has been the third, when they have outscored opponents 31-0. Buffalo’s worst quarter has been the third, when it has been outscored 29-7. If Tennessee wins the coin toss, therefore, expect coach Ken Whisenhunt to defer and take the ball to start the second half. As long as nothing disastrous happens in the first two quarters, that will be the opportunity to take control.

Three reasons to believe the Titans won’t win Sunday

Coaching connections: Without question, of the three defenses they have faced thus far none gave the Titans more trouble than Cleveland’s. The Browns coach is Mike Pettine, who spent several years on Buffalo coach Rex Ryan’s defensive staffs in Baltimore and New York. Those two think alike and they probably share information and insight. So Ryan (pictured) and the Bills ought to come into this game with a pretty good idea of what they want to do on defense.

Running out of backs: Buffalo has the league’s sixth-best rushing offense with an average of 128.3 yards per game and only four teams have scored more rushing touchdowns than their five. However, veteran LeSean McCoy and rookie Karlos Williams, who have combined for 372 of their team’s 513 rushing yards, might not play because of injury issues. That would make Boobie Dixon, who has 261 rushes in five-plus NFL seasons, the man.

Tough stuff: Only three teams have more takeaways than Buffalo, which has nine (six interceptions, three fumble recoveries) through its first four games. One of those teams is the New York Jets, which Ryan coached last season. Tough, physical defense is his calling card and the Titans have lost four fumbles (they have committed six), which are more than all but two other teams. It’s going to be difficult to hang on to the ball. If Tennessee can’t do it, this will be a long day.

The bottom line

This is the best team the Titans have faced thus far. Buffalo’s offensive personnel doesn’t necessarily scare anybody but the coaching staff has made it easier for Taylor by taking advantage of the individual talents of the other skill position players such as the running backs or wide receiver Percy Harvin or tight end Charles Clay.

Tennessee simply does not have as many options to give quarterback Marcus Mariota against a stout defense. And unless everybody got an attitude adjustment during the bye week, the Titans have looked physical enough to stand up to a team like Buffalo’s.

It’s going to take some big plays on offense and defense for Tennessee to win this one. Absent any such dramatic moments, the losing streak will reach three games.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 9, 2015 10:38 AM

Numbers game: Titans vs. Bills

It won’t be a sprint to the finish for the Tennessee Titans.

With their bye week now behind them they have 13 straight weeks with a game, beginning with Sunday’s contest against the Buffalo Bills at Nissan Stadium (noon, CBS).

The last time they had an open date this early was 2007. Then, they went 2-1 before the opening in the schedule and 8-5, with four wins in the last five weeks, after that.

Their hope is that they can show similar – or even better – staying power this time.

A look at some other notable numbers going into this contest:

3 – rushing touchdowns for Buffalo rookie running back Karlos Williams (pictured). No other rookie currently has more than two. His 41-yard touchdown run against Miami (Week 3) is the longest scoring run by a rookie. Buffalo has allowed one rushing touchdown in its four games.

7 – receptions of 20 yards or more by Buffalo’s Charles Clay, which is tied with New England’s Rob Gronkowski for the most by a tight end. No one else has more than five. Clay is tied for the AFC lead for receptions by a tight end with 21, which means one-third of his catches have gone for gains of 20 yards or more.

8 – different Tennessee players who have at least one reception of 20 yards or more through the first three games, which matches the number for all of last season. That group consists of three wide receivers (Kendall Wright, Harry Douglas and Justin Hunter), three tight ends (Delanie Walker, Anthony Fasano and Craig Stevens) and two running backs (Bishop Sankey and Dexter McCluster).

30 – passes defensed by Buffalo’s defense, which leads the league. That’s an average of 7 ½ per game. By comparison, the Titans have 11 total, albeit in one fewer game. The Bills also have six interceptions, tied for third in the league.

99 – consecutive games played for Titans kicker Ryan Succop (the last 19 with Tennessee). That’s the third longest active streak in the league but Pittsburgh just released Josh Scobee, second at 123. Given that kickers missed a combined 18 kicks (14 field goals, four PATs) last Sunday, the kind of consistency and reliability Succop provides is invaluable.

110.3 – Marcus Mariota’s current passer rating, which is fifth in the league. The top four include three quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls (New England’s Tom Brady, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers). The other is Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, who has led his team to the playoffs in all four years of his NFL career.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 8, 2015 1:36 PM

Rio Grande De-Fence Briefing: Titans have no fumble recoveries but have had opportunities

If any team is going to take control of the AFC South, it might want to start with takeaways.

It is the only division in the NFL that currently has three teams with losing records. The Tennessee Titans are 1-2. The Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars are 1-3.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the same division accounts for nearly half of the teams that have yet to recover an opponent’s fumble. Tennessee, Houston and Indianapolis are among the seven teams with zero fumble recoveries. The Texans (minus-6) and Colts (minus-9) are currently the two worst teams in terms of takeaway ratio.

The Titans’ failure to get a fumble recovery is not for lack of opportunity. Only Indianapolis has forced more without a recovery.

They have forced at least one in all three games yet have come up empty. At Tampa Bay and Cleveland they had two opportunities each to come up with a loose ball and could not do it.

A look at the NFL teams that currently have not recovered a fumble:

Indianapolis (6 forced fumbles)
Tennessee (5 forced fumbles)
Arizona (5 forced fumbles)
New England (4 forced fumbles)
Houston (3 forced fumbles)
San Francisco (2 forced fumbles)
Miami (1 forced fumbles)

A year ago Tennessee forced only one fumble in its first five games (the defense recovered it) and never more than one in any contest.

The last time the Titans forced at least five fumbles in their first three games was 2010, Jeff Fisher’s last season as coach. Then, they forced nine (they recovered three) through three games.

So the fact that the opportunities exit this season probably should be considered a good sign. Now it’s just a matter of falling on those fumbles.

Oct 5, 2015 10:33 AM

Locker's baseball background lands him spot in hall of fame

Less than a year after his NFL career ended, Jake Locker is headed to a hall of fame. For baseball.

The former Tennessee Titans quarterback, who retired unexpectedly in March, will be inducted into the Washington State American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame next month. He is part of a 10-person class that includes former Major League Baseball players Mike Blowers and Grady Sizemore.

Virtually all of the information regarding Locker’s nomination on the Hall’s website focuses on his football career.


Locker was pitcher and outfielder and was the state’s Class 3A high school baseball player of the year as a senior.

The induction ceremony will take place Nov. 14.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 5, 2015 6:05 AM

Rookie of the Month award affirms Mariota's NFL readiness

Remember when most people thought it would take some time for Marcus Mariota to successfully make the transition to the NFL?

Well ‘some time’ turned out to be a short time. Maybe even no time.

No rookie is off to a better start than the Tennessee Titans’ rookie quarterback, who was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month on Thursday.

Through three games he leads all rookies in passing yards (833), touchdown passes (eight) and passer rating (109.2). He has thrown at least two touchdown passes in all three contests and has tied a league record for most touchdown passes by a rookie through his first three games.

Only three quarterbacks of any experience level – Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Carson Palmer – have more touchdown passes.

“Some of this, he’s experiencing for the first time,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said following Sunday’s 35-33 loss to Indianapolis. “… As much as you want to try to do it, you can’t simulate the speed, nor can you simulate what (teams are) going to do because a lot of the things that they’re defense did (Sunday), they hadn’t done before or they do differently.

“So part of it is adjusting and adapting and anticipating and all of those things he’s going to be good at as he gets more experience.”

At this point, he’s much better than most expected.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 1, 2015 11:14 PM

Next step for youthful Titans is to learn to play with the lead

The Tennessee Titans had a 13-point lead going in to the fourth quarter against the defending AFC South champion Indianapolis Colts Sunday at Nissan Stadium. 

What happened from that point was not a matter of conjecture. Everyone from tight end Delanie Walker to head coach Ken Whisenhunt acknowledged the team did not do the things necessary to turn a lead into a win.

“Its just at the end of the games you’ve got to be able to finish,” Walker said. “We were down 14-0 then came back and had a 13-point lead on them we just didn’t finish the game when we needed to.

“I don’t think some of the young guys understand how the NFL works. Now they’re getting a taste of it.”

In terms of their personnel, the Titans are a talented team. They did storm back and scored 27 straight points.

However, at 1-2 entering their bye week the weaknesses – in experience among them – have outweighed the strengths. Thus far in 2015 the Titans have used 19 players, including all seven draft picks, who were not a part of last season’s 2-14 debacle.

“The thing was you could see it on the sidelines, a couple of players were getting too comfortable on the sidelines,” cornerback Perrish Cox said. “There was a lot of laughter, there was a lot of dancing around. You know we have to stop doing that and finish the game.”

It was clear that such behavior did not sit well with Cox (pictured), who is one of this season’s newcomers but also is an established veteran. Because of the latter, he feels it’s his responsibility to address these issues.

“It’s not really inexperience,” he said. “Even if it is inexperience we’ve got a lot of captains on this team and a lot of veterans on this squad that can handle the sideline. Like I said we just got too comfortable and let it slip away.

“The veterans on this team are going to get together. We’ve got a meeting Tuesday, so we’re going to get together Tuesday and we’re going to address it then.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 29, 2015 1:58 PM

Titans don't need, want featured back to be good rushing offense

As far as Ken Whisenhunt is concerned, it’s not broke. So he’s not about to fix it.

Prior to Monday’s game the Titans were ninth in the NFL in rushing offense at an average of 126 yards per game.

Among the top 10, though, they were an outlier in that they don’t have an obvious featured back. Bishop Sankey leads the team with 29 carries and 126 rushing yards. The second-year back accounts for 32.6 percent of the team’s carries.

Every other team in the top 10 had at least one back that had gotten the ball on more than 40 percent of his team’s rushes.

Six of them had a player who had run it on 50 percent or more of their attempts. That group of backs includes six of the league’s top 10 individual rushers. Among them is Tennessee’s last featured back, Chris Johnson, whose 52 carries through three games represent 57.8 percent of Arizona’s total rushes.

“What’s wrong with what we’ve been doing in the first three weeks running the football?” Whisenhunt said Monday. “We’ve been effective. Every week we have different packages and I can’t tell you which package is going to have success.”

The closest team to the Titans, in terms of division of labor, is Cincinnati, which ranks eighth with an average of 129.3 yards per game. The Bengals have two backs, Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard, who each have 41 carries – a combined 83.6 percent of that team’s total or 41.8 percent apiece.

A look at the top 10 NFL’s top 10 rushing offenses and their leader in carries (percentage of his team’s total rushing attempts in parentheses):

1. Buffalo – LeSean McCoy – 43 rushes (44.3 percent)
2. San Francisco – Carlos Hyde – 54 rushes (54.5 percent)
3. Minnesota – Adrian Peterson – 59 rushes (65.6 percent)
4. Washington – Alfred Morris – 49 rushes (52.1 percent)
5. Seattle – Marshawn Lynch – 38 rushes (44.1 percent)
T6. Carolina – James Stewart – 49 rushes (50.0 percent)
T6. Chicago – Matt Forte – 59 rushes (62.0 percent)
8. Cincinnati – Giovanni Bernard/Jeremy Hill – 41 rushes each (41.8 percent each)
9. Tennessee – Bishop Sankey – 29 rushes (32.6 percent)
10. Arizona – Chris Johnson – 52 rushes (57.8 percent)

Sankey (pictured) ran it 12 times in each of the first two games and those 24 carries were 38.7 percent of the Titans’ rushes in the first two weeks.

In Sunday’s loss to Indianapolis, Antonio Andrews, who had never carried in a regular season game, got a team-high 12 carries. Sankey ran it just five times.

“We didn’t have a good matchup, we felt, in the packages that (Sankey) was in there for, especially running the football,” Whisenhunt said. “But it was a little bit more that way with (Andrews) in there, so he took advantage of it.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be next week or the next week that we play. That’s going to go from week to week.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 29, 2015 7:13 AM

Commentary: Two-point try should have been Mariota's moment

Give the kid a chance.

No. Not that one.

I’m talking about the one with the single digit on his jersey. The guy who had just completed five passes to three different receivers and got you 80 yards down the field, into the end zone and in position to tie it – all in two minutes and four seconds.

The Tennessee Titans undeniably have made Marcus Mariota the face of their franchise. At the moment of truth in Sunday’s 35-33 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Nissan Stadium, though, they were unwilling to make him ‘the man.’

Given a second chance at a game-tying two-point conversion, this one from the 1-yard line (the Colts committed a penalty on the first try) coach Ken Whisenhunt called turned to a different rookie, running back Jalston Fowler, on a running play.

In so doing, they deprived their premier rookie, Mariota, the opportunity to further establish himself as the cornerstone of the franchise. Not only did Fowler not score, he retreated, circled away, give more ground and was tackled – 17 yards from the goal line. And he hurt his knee on the play.

“It’s a play where we are trying to establish our identity there – that we are a physical team and we know that we can get it in,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “… In that situation we wanted to push it in. We felt confident in the play. We felt confident in the guy running it. That’s why we ran.”

Whisenhunt makes a fair point. No matter what schematic wrinkles coaches develop on offense or on defense, physical play still makes a difference much more often than not. He should want his team to have that type of an identity.

For right now, though, the most notable aspects of this franchise are Mariota, Mariota and Mariota.

The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner is the reason fans turned out in larger numbers for the home opener than they had for any other game in recent seasons. He’s the reason no one lost hope when the Titans fell behind 14-0. And he’s the one who had his teammates, fans in the stands et. al. believing when he deftly moved the offense down the field on that last drive with a mix of precision execution and improvisational genius.

It’s just tough not to think the best thing to do was not to give him some sort of run-pass option and let him use whichever of his bountiful physical gifts were necessary to tie that game and force overtime.

Yes, the Titans proved a point on the touchdown that set up the conversion attempt. Yes, Fowler scored easily from the 1-yard line and ended a streak of 21 straight Indianapolis points.

A little more than a quarter earlier, though, Whisenhunt’s team had to settle for a field goal after it had a first-and-goal from the 1. The last two attempts at that time were runs, each of which lost a yard.

“That call had been successful previously,” Mariota said. “We thought we could kind of quick-count them and get it in. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work.”

No it didn’t. Not even close.

Whisenhunt correctly noted that such a failure creates second-guessing.

So here we go. Pretty much no one questions whether the Titans made the correct choice with the second overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. So the only decision on that two-point conversion was to give Mariota the chance to make a play.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 28, 2015 7:29 AM

No lead was safe for Titans, Colts — except the last one

The Tennessee Titans learned Sunday that no lead is safe in the NFL.

They proved it to themselves after they fell behind 14-0 early Sunday at Nissan Stadium. They scored the next 27 points and took a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter.

That’s when things started to fall apart and the lesson was reinforced. Indianapolis rallied with three fourth-quarter touchdowns and Tennessee lost 35-33.

“At this point, I don’t want to say that we don’t know how to win. It’s just at the end of the games, you’ve got to be able to finish,” tight end Delanie Walker said. “We were down 14-0 then came back and had a 13-point lead on them. We just didn’t finish the game when we needed to.”

With just under seven minutes left, Andrew Luck drove the Colts down the field for the first of three touchdowns in a span of three minutes and 58 seconds.

“We blew plenty of opportunities (Sunday),” center Brian Schwenke said. “We had every chance to win that game. Even with our slow start, we still came back and put ourselves in a position to win and we just didn’t seize those opportunities. We should’ve won the game, we didn’t.”

Eight points away from a tie, Marcus Mariota led a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Needing a two-point conversion to tie, they put the ball in the hands of rookie fullback Jalston Fowler. Fowler was initially stopped at the line of scrimmage but bounced back outside and tried to turn the corner but was stopped by a convoy of Colts.

The failed two-point attempt left many wondering if a run up the middle was the best call in that situation.

“You want to play hard on every play and win on every play,” Schwenke said. “So it doesn’t matter what plays you take off it’s about winning on every play.

“It’s a good play. It’s a play that we know if we line up and play harder than they do, we should score.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 28, 2015 7:17 AM