The Tennessee Titans have been fortunate through the first five games of the 2020 season to not have their shortcomings cost them in the win column.
Sunday against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, that was not the case. Tennessee came back from a 24-7 halftime deficit to close it to 27-24 in the fourth quarter before kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a game-tying 45-yard field goal with 19 seconds left that sealed the Titans' first loss of the year.
“[I’m] confident that he'll make the next one,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “It's unfortunate. I fully expected him to make it, he expected to make it, and it didn't turn out that way. We all have a lot to improve on, starting with me, and then going all the way down to the coaching staff and the players.”
The Titans have the NFL’s worst field goal percentage this season (64.3). Since the beginning of the 2019 season, Tennessee owns the worst field goal percentage in the league at 53.1 percent (17 of 32). That's 20 percentage points worse than the next-lowest team, the Los Angeles Rams at 73.8 percent (31 of 42).
Gostkowski has had a tumultuous start to his Titans tenure. He missed the first three field goals of the season before hitting the game winner against the Broncos. He then hit nine in a row before going 0-for-2 last week against the Houston Texans and missing the potential game-tying field goal on Sunday.
“I felt pretty good all game and came out there and it went right down the middle and faded to the right,” Gostkowski said. “I’ll have to look at it. [I’m] just very disappointed to let the team down like that. I was confident going out there but didn’t get it done. Just not very good right now.”
Aside from the Titans’ kicking woes, the Steelers exposed another one of Tennessee’s flaws: third-down defense. Sunday was the third straight week and the fourth time this season the Titans allowed teams to convert on 50 percent or more of their third downs.
The Steelers converted on 13 of 18 third downs in Sunday’s win. They began 7-for-7 on third downs and they didn’t punt until the third quarter.
Last season, the Titans only allowed teams to convert on 36.2 percent of third downs — a far cry from 2020’s numbers. The Titans are on pace for the worst third-down percentage since the then-San Diego Chargers' 49.2 percent in 2011.
“At the end of the day, our third-down defense and red-zone defense has to be better if we're going to continue to win games,” safety Kevin Byard said. “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.”
Part of Tennessee’s lack of success on third downs stems from the lack of a credible pass rush. The Titans didn’t sack Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger once and they’ve only had three games this year with multiple sacks.
Through six games, Tennessee only has seven sacks, which is tied for the third-fewest in the NFL. Of that number, 1.5 have come from an edge rusher (Harold Landry) while the rest have come from defensive tackles and defensive backs.
“[We’ve] just got to do better tackling and covering and getting a better rush on the quarterback and making plays on third down,” linebacker Jayon Brown said. “It’s pretty detrimental to our team when we can’t get off the field on third downs, and the Steelers did a really good job with taking advantage of that today.”
Through six games, Tennessee has allowed teams to convert on third downs 60.9 percent of the time — worst in the NFL. Going forward, Vrabel, defensive play caller Shane Bowen and the rest of the staff need to find a way to get the defense off the field.
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