For several weeks now, the Titans defense has been struggling.
And up until Sunday, an explosive offense had been able to bail them out.
In a showdown of two of the NFL's unbeaten teams, the Titans found themselves on the short end of things with a 27-24 loss in a game where they were fortunate just to have a shot to tie it and force overtime potentially for a second straight week.
Stephen Gostkowski's troubles aside, the Titans have bigger issues to deal with right now if this team fancies itself as a team that can generate wins in January and reach the Super Bowl.
After the Steelers went 13 of 18 on third down Sunday, the Titans are allowing an astounding 61 percent of third downs to be converted. With numbers like that, the Titans are lucky they aren't 1-5, instead of 5-1. It is only because the Titans offense has explosive capabilities that this defense has been able to be propped up as well as it has.
To their credit, the Tennessee defense managed three interceptions against Ben Roethlisberger Sunday. But to be plus-three in turnover margin and still lose the game tells you just how porous the Titans defense has been in third-down situations this season.
The Titans have just seven sacks in six games, and that lack of pressure on the quarterback is plaguing a defense that opponents probably want to see in third-down situations. Not only are the Titans giving up the third-and-short situations, but also they are surrendering the third-and-long plays as well. On Sunday, the Steelers moved the chains on a third-and-14, a third-and-11 and a third-and-12 all in the first half.
“It starts everywhere, honestly. It starts with communication, it starts with the coverage, the rush. Everything has to be coordinated, because I don't think that we're really – we're not as detailed as we need to be, whether it's third-and-short, third-and-medium, or third-and-long, we're giving up all the varieties,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said. “So, we have to be better and we have to go watch this film and continue to correct those things. It comes down to pride, honestly, I think it comes down to pride and taking pride that we have to be better on third down.”
Byard said the defense must hold up its end of the bargain and not rely on the offense to pull off late-game heroics each week. That formula had worked – up until Sunday when the Titans simply ran out of magic from Ryan Tannehill and the offense.
“That's the story of the Titans right now. We're not starting fast enough on defense. It's kind of like we're anticipating or expecting the offense to always pull – dig us out of a hole and that can't be the mentality. That definitely can't be the mentality going forward,” safety Kevin Byard said.
Much is different about the Titans from last year when the defense more than held up its end of things. Gone is Dean Pees, and the transition to a defensive coordinator-by-committee with Mike Vrabel and Shane Bowen has struggled. The well-timed blitzes Pees dialed up have been nearly non-existent this year, and the pass rush that was supposed to be bolstered by the additions of Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney has yet to happen.
The Titans must figure things out before meaningful games in December and January are derailed by their defensive shortcomings. Perhaps the three takeaways on Sunday are cause for optimism, but there is much to correct before this team can feel good about this defense being of a championship-type caliber.
“Like we played the second half, that should be our identity,” said defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, one of the Titans few bright spots on defense this season.
Or at least the start of one.