As Randy Bullock’s 47-yard field goal attempt drifted wide left and the Tennessee Titans somberly trudged off the field, the atmosphere at Nissan Stadium was comparable to the last time the Titans played on their home turf.
Although there was less at stake in Sunday’s 21-20 season-opening loss to the New York Giants than there was in Tennessee’s 19-16 playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in January, letting another winnable game slip through the cracks stung just the same.
“Losing sucks no matter when it happens,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “I never want to start off the season on the wrong foot, especially at home in front of your own fans. You’ve got to turn the page quickly though. It’s a long season. It’s just one game and we’ve got to keep that mentality to be able to take a real look at what happened, get it fixed quickly and turn the page and get ready to go for next week.”
Despite holding a 13-0 lead into the third quarter, Tennessee surrendered 13 unanswered points in the span of three minutes before allowing the eventual go-ahead touchdown and 2-point conversion in the final minute. Sunday’s loss marks the third time in five seasons the Titans dropped their season opener under Mike Vrabel.
Below are the things that stood out — good and bad — from the Titans’ Week 1 loss to the Giants:
Ryan Tannehill: good
Let’s be clear: the Titans did not lose to the Giants because of Tannehill. If anything, the 34-year-old signal caller was the only thing keeping Tennessee’s offense alive after the run game failed to get much going all game (more on that later).
Tannehill completed 20 of 33 passes for 266 yards and two scores. More importantly, he was sacked just once and had zero turnovers. On Tennessee’s touchdown drive in the third quarter, he converted twice on and-long situations — a 27-yard pass to Treylon Burks on 1st-and-18 and a 23-yard touchdown pass to Dontrell Hilliard that gave Tennessee back the lead — and he was 4-for-6 for 38 yards on the Titans’ final drive to get them into field goal range.
A Randy Bullock FG attempt longer than 40 yards: bad
Bullock made a 46-yard field goal earlier in the game with little issue. So, when he attempted another from equal distance with the game on the line, the Titans sideline presumably had faith he would do it again. This time, Bullock hooked it to the left.
It was the sixth time in the last two seasons that the 32-year-old missed a field goal from 40-49 yards; he was 8 of 13 on such kicks last season. The only range he misses from more often is 50 yards or mare, converting just 50 percent of the time (13 of 26).
Bullock is near automatic under 40 yards, converting on 117 of 124 attempts (94.4 percent).
“I felt great about going into it,” Bullock said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t go through. But I've had a really strong offseason, training camp, preseason, everything. This one kick isn’t going to define me.”
Dontrell Hilliard: good
Although he only had two carries for eight yards, Hilliard was a straight-up weapon out of the backfield — a dimension the Titans offense doesn’t necessarily get from Derrick Henry, Hassan Haskins or Julius Chestnut.
Hilliard had three receptions on four targets for 61 yards and two touchdowns, including a 31-yard catch in the second quarter — Tennessee’s longest pass play of the game. He was the Titans’ second-leading receiver among running backs last season (19), and his versatility as a pass catcher could be a new wrinkle the Titans work into the offensive game plan moving forward.
“We built up a lot of confidence in Dontrell over last season when he joined us,” Tannehill said. “We had the whole spring, so we were able to move [him] around a little bit. He showed up big for us today, one down or two down in the red zone. But he does a good job for us on third downs, and he has some natural feel and ability to be able to get himself open.”
The run game: bad
While there appeared to be no real signs that anything was wrong with Henry, the 28-year-old tailback just never looked quite right. At times, it appeared he didn’t hit a few open holes with his usual home run speed, and other times he looked to be overthinking a bit as he waited behind the line of scrimmage for plays to develop.
Aside from Henry’s 28 carries for 82 yards, the rest of the backfield combined for five carries for 11 yards and Tennessee had just two rushing first downs all game.
The Titans are a team that’s built to line up and run it right at you. Even last season with Henry on the shelf, Tennessee didn’t abandon its run-first identity with Hilliard, D’Onta Foreman and Adrian Peterson filling in.
There’s likely no cause for concern one game in. But if Henry and company don’t find their groove by Week 4 or 5, then it could be time to start worrying. The passing offense isn’t ready to carry the team just yet.
“We just have to be better in the run game — all 11 of us — and we all know that,” Henry said. “It wasn't good today, wasn't good enough for us to win a game and for us to have the explosive runs and want to play the style of football that we play. We know it wasn't good enough. No excuses and we've just got to be better next week.”
Rookie WRs: good
We’re only one game into 2022 and it’s already looking like rookie wideout Kyle Philips is Tannehill’s go-to receiver. The UCLA alum caught six of his nine targets for 66 yards, and Tannehill targeted him four times on the Titans’ final drive. His 21-yard reception with 23 seconds left got Tennessee into field goal range.
“Kyle’s made a bunch of plays for me this training camp,” Tannehill said. “We built up that relationship and he’s shown that he can win consistently in practice, so that translates over to the game. He gets put into that situation, man-to-man coverage, he wins in practice, so I expect him to win in a game situation.”
Until that final drive, Treylon Burks had been Tannehill’s most-targeted WR. The rookie first rounder caught three passes for 55 yards, including a 27-yarder on Tennessee’s touchdown drive in the third quarter. While neither found the end zone, they did combine for nearly half of the team’s total targets (14 of 31) and both appear to have a good early rapport with Tannehill.
The run defense: bad
The Titans had the No. 2 run defense in the NFL a season ago, but you wouldn’t be able to tell based on their performance on Sunday. They didn’t give up 200 yards rushing to anyone last year, and they allowed just one 100-yard rusher in 17 games.
Saquon Barkley had 164 yards and a touchdown himself, and as a team, the Giants ran for 238 yards and averaged 7.4 yards per carry.
Sure, some of that production can be attributed to the loss of outside linebacker Harold Landry, but the Titans were late to the ball a number of times and they missed quite a few tackles.
“That is something that we've done a good job of, and this is an unforgiving league,” Vrabel said. “When you don’t play your gaps or you don't tackle it's a very unforgiving league, especially with an excellent back. … A couple of times it was edge, sometimes it was inside tackling. We'll have to really reevaluate what we're doing. Give them credit. They were able to run the football which was the No. 1 key for us on defense.”
Todd Downing: bad
Of everything that was bad on Sunday, Downing’s play calling may be the worst of them all. From trying to run with Henry in a seldom-used wildcat package, to throwing to Geoff Swaim more than Austin Hooper and Chig Okonkwo combined, to running an end-around with a rookie tight end on 3rd-and-1 instead of handing the ball to arguably the best running back in the NFL, Downing dug deep into his bag of head-scratching plays against the Giants.
In the second half alone, the Titans had three three-and-outs, four drives that produced less than 20 yards and they punted four times. Final drive aside, the Titans passed the ball on first down just 3 of 11 times in the second half, and if you take away their 75-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, they had just 97 yards of total offense in the third and fourth quarters.
Vrabel presumably brought in passing game coordinator Tim Kelly for this exact reason. Another week or two of play calling like Sunday, and Downing could end up being demoted and/or fired.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_