NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Titans season-ending loss to the Cincinnati Bengals sent legitimate shockwaves through the host city. Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates pointed out a glaring issue for Tennessee with media meeting with players the day after the game.
It may well be the biggest reason the Titans got tossed out of their own postseason.
From the very first play, watching the Titans trot out onto the field with all 11-projected offensive starters rested and ready to take the football field felt surreal. Stars Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones were as rested as they had ever. The pick-your-poison offense had only been on the field together for 120 snaps total during the regular season.
Tennessee was the No. 1 seed. Fans howled about disrespect. The Super Bowl would come through Nashville as Nissan Stadium surged with energy waiting to see how Tennessee would reach their potential in the season’s most important game.
Then came the first of Ryan Tannehill’s three interceptions.
Titans did the one thing they absolutely could not survive
Turnovers are the name of the game, kids.
Tannehill had Julio Jones open on a play-action pass concept to his right. Instead of moving the chains on first down at minimum, Tannehill threw the ball just a moment late. Bengals safety Jessie Bates read, reacted and snagged it.
Bengals S Jessie Bates said that on the first play from scrimmage yesterday, Titans QB Ryan Tannehill stared his target down and Bates knew exactly what was going on, leading to the INT.
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) January 23, 2022
The Titans offense seemed to have corrected their giveaway problem.
It had been over a month since the Titans had thrown away their chance to get a lay-up win at Pittsburgh. Tannehill had played clean, efficient football and led Tennessee to three straight victories to end their 12-win regular season. It was really the only way it felt like the Titans could lose this game.
It was precisely what they did.
“(Bates) made a heck of a play,” said Tannehill of the first pick. “We got Julio (Jones) on a switch release there going vertical with a lot of space right there. He squatted on it. I didn’t feel like, there was a throw right there to go over the top, so he squatted and drove on it. Usually the safety is not in that position against that coverage against that play. You have to tip your hat to him. He made a heck of a play.”
Paid professionals on both sides of the ball can make plays of their own, and Tennessee’s performance was good enough to overcome one of those. Those mistakes cannot be predictable enough for consistently inferior teams to exploit them.
Titans fans will pull their hair out and scream for Tannehill’s ouster, while smarter football heads prevail and break down tape of Saturday’s implosion. As ESPN’s Matt Bowen analyzed film of Bates’ interception, an observation was made about the Titans’ offensive play design.
Would agree. Allowed Bates to get eyes to the front side. And that brings us to another discussion on the Titans pass game structure. Which, can be viewed as limited by play design. https://t.co/dbnXbnWtnP
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) January 23, 2022
The limitations of an offense with that amount of star-power simply happen.
Limited or not, Titans were still in it
The defense was outstanding, Tannehill’s connection with Brown found life and a “King Cat” Henry touchdown brought legitimate momentum.
Play-calling nuked that with interception No. 2.
Tennessee had first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 9. Tannehill stood in the shotgun with running back D’Onta Foreman, Chester Rogers and Julio Jones to the right. The snap came out, Tannehill whipped right to hit Rogers on a bubble screen. Bengals corner Mike Hilton came flying in to tip it up to himself for a 19-yard interception return.
“They came off the slot there, inside zone, so nickel pressure answer is to throw the bubble,” Tannehill said. “The base was closing in pretty quick on Chester (Rogers) on the outside, so I was going to have to drag on Chester and the nickel made a heck of a play.”
Watch on CBS pic.twitter.com/db5dG8dhiE
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) January 22, 2022
Cincinnati’s blitz was coming, but the call felt inexplicable. Foreman had just given them a game-changing 45-yard run to put them in position. The Titans had gotten to that point with four strong running plays.
On first-and-goal from the Cincinnati 9, the lane for Foreman was again open.
3 Bengals picks proved fatal
Tennessee had third-and-5 in a tie game with :26 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
Tight end Anthony Firkser was running wide open on a crossing pattern that could have helped at least inch closer. Four-down territory with your playoff lives on the line and two time outs left only made since. Firkser short of the line to gain was the only option on the play, giving Tannehill no margin for error. Three Titans receivers ran deep, longer-developing routes as the Cincinnati pass rush closed in and forced Tannehill to make a risky decision.
Make it a three-pack of picks.
Cincinnati should never have gotten the football back in regulation. Tennessee had all the time in the world to play for overtime. A team that had survived all season long through insurmountable odds dismantled themselves and mangled a storybook ending in the process.
“I think it was the execution and being able to execute,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “We had two timeouts. The thought process was, get a first down and get to the 35-yard line where we needed to be to make a kick. Wished we would’ve been able to convert to third down and call a timeout.”
Vrabel has hammered the message to media that, when the Titans win, all the credit goes to the players. When they lose, all the blame goes to him. He is welcome to shoulder the blame and do what he can to protect the people who work for him.
Someone certainly must.
It is offensive coordinator Todd Downing today, however, that should receive much more scrutiny. He managed the same maligned roster that everyone else did all season long, but in his team’s most important moments truly cost them.
Vrabel will not be reactionary in his decisions on Downing. Tennessee’s head coach has earned the benefit of the doubt in his eye for hires. Two former coordinators are NFL head coaches and a third is Dean Pees. Pees’ replacement, Shane Bowen, lived the kind of offseason Todd Downing now certainly faces.
Bowen survived and overcame it.
It is entirely possible this offense sees a similar personnel overhaul in the same way the 2020 defense did. Perhaps, Downing is being made the same kind of scapegoat that his counterpart wrongfully was. Watching Tennessee choke away it’s Super Bowl hopes against the Bengals feels much different than this team’s home one-and-done last season.
“Our third-down conversion wasn’t good enough, our ability to score touchdowns in the red zone, but we all have to play better, we have to coach better.“
That’s an awful lot of issues on offense in a playoff game. Vrabel’s catchphrase after losses is not new, but it gut-checked the city of Nashville on Saturday.
Featured Image: USA TODAY Sports.