Tennessee Titans' offense needs a superhero, and none appear to be healthy | Estes
Sunday’s rainy loss to the dreadful Houston Texans was a lot of things, none particularly pleasant or promising for the banged-up Tennessee Titans.
Mostly, it was an inevitable slap in the face.
It was reality showing up – about two fanciful weeks late – to bring back to Earth a franchise that for the first time, maybe ever, was starting to be widely overrated. Losing 22-13 to the Texans will either prove to be an outlier or the start of a harrowing trend. We don’t know which yet. Those pie-in-the-sky dreams of the Super Bowl and playing for the AFC’s first-round bye might still materialize.
TITANS REPORT CARD:Offense gets an 'F' after loss to Houston Texans
But if we're honest, they never quite meshed with the personnel. I mean, look at all these fringe NFL players the Titans are having to run out there and asking to play huge minutes and win games for them.
That just wasn’t sustainable, even if an impressive number of those players kept beating the odds and working wonders.
Or rather, the dwindling number of elite and healthy Titans players – think Jeffery Simmons and Kevin Byard and Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown – kept doing enough to cover the gaps. That, too, wasn’t going to be sustainable.
This defeat finally exposed a harsh truth we’ve known all along, yet we’d been able to overlook the past two weeks because the Titans’ defense played above its head:
The Titans’ offense isn’t any good without Derrick Henry.
And it’s not getting any better.
Three games without him, and the Titans still struggle mightily to do basic things that were pretty easy with him – things like not turning the ball over, scoring in the red zone, building possession time, controlling games. The well-worn path to victory this team has so often used is getting covered in weeds.
The Titans’ offensive identity has deviated far from set-your-watch-to-it predictability to merely trying to survive with whoever happens to be in uniform and healthy that snap.
That's asking a lot of the quarterback.
Tannehill really has spoiled the Titans since he stepped in for Marcus Mariota. He has been able to produce more often than not – in any situation. He didn’t play well Sunday, though. Four interceptions are too many.
“It all falls squarely on me," Tannehill said afterward. "I have to be better."
I agree with the second part.
With the Titans trailing and desperate, here’s who touched the ball the most for their offense in the fourth quarter other than Tannehill: Dontrell Hilliard (5 times), Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (5) and Anthony Firkser (3).
None of these players were drafted coming out of college.
Hilliard wasn’t even on the Titans’ roster until late October. Prior to Sunday, he had 22 career rushes and 22 receptions in three NFL seasons of sparse playing time. Against the Texans, the Titans targeted Hilliard 10 times as a receiver. He led the team with eight catches – and he had nine touches after Brown’s final reception in the third quarter, four more than Westbrook-Ikhine, the closest teammate other than Tannehill.
Westbrook-Ikhine had seven catches for 107 yards on an afternoon when the Titans lost Brown and Marcus Johnson to injury while already being without Julio Jones.
Nothing against NWI or Hilliard at all. Each gave everything he had. But is everything going to be enough to carry an NFL offense? Of course not.
It’s unrealistic to think the Titans could beat anyone – even the Texans – without Henry, Brown, Jones, Johnson and tight end Geoff Swaim, who's also out. That's not mentioning guard Nate Davis or the defensive starters missing Sunday, too, like cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins and linebackers David Long and Rashaan Evans.
“It’s nothing the training staff is doing," left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "The coaching staff takes good care of us during the week. It’s just an unlucky deal, you know. I wish I had more on that. It is what it is, and we have to overcome those things.”
Two of Tannehill’s interceptions were intended for Dez Fitzpatrick, the fourth-round receiver who barely made the Titans’ practice squad out of training camp.
Tannehill, as with most topics, has kept a stoic demeanor when asked about injuries. No one wants to use them as an excuse for failure, but even Tannehill couldn’t help but acknowledge the obvious when asked about communication with receivers he hasn’t played alongside very often.
“It makes it tough,” Tannehill said. “Playing situations that you don’t have a lot of reps with guys causes some issues.”
As coach Mike Vrabel says all the time, though, no one is going to feel sorry for the Titans. Injuries are part of the deal in a sport where stars Lamar Jackson (Ravens), Alvin Kamara (Saints), Aaron Jones (Packers), TJ Watt (Steelers), Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals) were sidelined this weekend. Teams must keep going anyway.
Until Sunday, the Titans had been doing that quite well. Even with all the injuries, you feel like they could have navigated anything if it wasn’t for losing Henry.
His foot injury looks more like a dealbreaker now than when it happened. It's sad. It’s frustrating for the Titans to know that a healthy Henry would have likely shredded this Texans defense and dominated this rainy game, same as he did twice against Houston last season.
Maybe he’ll be back for the playoffs. But the Titans have to get there first without him. That looks less of a lock than it did Sunday morning. If you can’t count on being the Texans, who can you count on being able to beat?
At this point, the Titans’ offense is clutching for the bye week with its last ounce of strength. It needs a healthy superhero.
Let’s hope Dontrell Hilliard has a cape.
Reach Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.