The offseason was all about optimism.
Following a 6-10 record and a fourth straight year as playoff spectators, Tennessee Titans management, coaches and players talked change. Free agent additions, staff adjustments and a draft that largely went as hoped provided all involved license to talk in positive terms.
Halfway through the preseason, a pair of defeats has tempered that mindset. The latest was Saturday’s 27-19 loss at Cincinnati, when the Titans fell behind in the first quarter and never mounted a serious threat to answer with either their starters or reserves.
Problems — some old, some new — have become evident and need to be corrected before Tennessee opens the regular season Sept. 8 at Pittsburgh.
“I think there’s always concern when something happens that normally doesn’t,” coach Mike Munchak said Sunday. “… You’re concerned when guys drop balls. You’re concerned when a kicker misses kicks. We have concern when we allow third-10, third-and-11 five times in a game. So there’s concerns, yes.”
Taking a cue from the third-year coach, here are some of the top areas of concern through the first two preseason games and a measure (on a scale of 1 to 10) of just how troubling these developments are:
• Missed field goals: Veteran kicker Rob Bironas has missed a lot of time, including the opener against Washington, during training camp because of back problems. Then he missed a pair of kicks against Cincinnati — from manageable distances of 38 and 37 yards, respectively, no less.
In 71 career regular season attempts between 30 and 39 yards, Bironas has put three points on the board 66 times. Last season he was a perfect 13-for-13 from that range.
He did miss five of 10 from 40-49 yards in 2012, which suggested his reliable range might have decreased somewhat in his eighth NFL season. Even so, the Titans signed him to a two-year, $6.675 million contract this offseason. That deal that suddenly looks questionable.
“I’m hoping he gets a couple more opportunities next weekend and we put this behind us,” Munchak said.
Concern rating: 7. Bironas is third all-time in field goal accuracy at 85.6 percent, which suggests the issue is more about health than technique. Still, he has to get healthy in the next couple weeks or the issue will become amplified.
• Dropped passes: Wide receivers Kenny Britt and Nate Washington and tight end Jack Doyle all failed to come up with balls that easily could have — and should have — been caught against Cincinnati. Wide receivers Kendall Wright did the same in the opener against the Redskins.
The good news is that it is not one person who has an obvious problem. The bad news is the timing of most of the drops.
Washington’s came on a third-and-3 and after the defense had forced a turnover deep in Cincinnati’s end. Doyle’s was on a third-and-4 at the Bengals’ 19. Wright’s drop was on a third-and-3.
Part of the thinking behind this offseason’s offensive redesign was a desire to get to third-and-short situations. In order for things to work as expected, though, the players have to perform in those moments and too often in this preseason that has not been the case.
“You have to make those plays,” Munchak said. “That’s what the league here’s all about. The receivers know that. They’re as upset as anybody when they put one on the ground that they should have caught. If we’re going to accomplish what we think we’re going to accomplish as an offense, we have to catch those balls.”
Concern rating: 5. Britt always has been prone to the occasional drop, but health remains a much bigger issue with him. Washington and Wright have track records that suggest they deserve the benefit of a doubt — for now.
• Third-down defense: Through Saturday night’s games, only two NFL teams had converted more than 50 percent of their third-down chances: The Washington Redskins (53 percent) and the Cincinnati Bengals (52 percent).
The Bengals were 6-for-13, which was only 46 percent, but their starters converted half of their opportunities against Tennessee’s starting defense. Plus, they converted a third-and-10 on their way to their first touchdown, a third-and-7 en route to a second-quarter field goal, a third-and-11 and a third-and-8 on the same fourth quarter drive, and another third-and-10 later in the final period.
Much attention was paid since the end of last season to attempts to shore up the third-down defense. Thus far, there has been little, if any evidence those efforts have been successful.
“We got them in some long-down situations, but we let them out of it,” Munchak said. “ … We had opportunities to get off the field because we were getting them in long-down situations. But, they made some plays, and we didn’t. That’s the difference in this league.”
Not to mention one of the things that could result in all too familiar results.
Concern rating: 10. When the Titans lost four of their first five last season, third-down defense was a major issue. They can not afford to go through that again.
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