The Tennessee Titans were the early season talk of the NFL when they began with a 3-1 record. But at the halfway point, things have turned around the other way. Sunday’s 24-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at LP Field was their third in four games, and their second on the just ended three game home stand. It leaves the Titans at 4-4, with a very tough second half schedule. They face five clubs with winning records, and have only three home contests remaining.
This was also a big disappointment because things began so well. The Titans were clearly the better team in the first half, and dominated the second quarter. They outscored the Bengals 14-0, putting together consecutive touchdown drives of 78 and 81 yards that earned them a 17-7 halftime lead. Chris Johnson turned in his best rushing performance since the Cleveland game with 55 yards. Matt Hasselbeck had 166 yards passing, and hit Lavelle Hawkins and Jared Cook respectively for 16 and 13-yard touchdowns. Even though the Bengals entered the game with the NFL’s number four ranked defense (second against the run), the Titans had few problems offensively in the opening 30 minutes.
But that changed dramatically in the second half. The Titans only gained 95 yards of total offense. They made it past midfield only once. Johnson gained a mere nine yards rushing on five carries, and had zero yards in the fourth quarter. Hawkins, Cook and Nate Washington were each injured at various points, but when healthy were unable to establish consistency with Hasselbeck. After completing 14 of his first 21 passes, he was only 10 of 20 in the second half. The Titans continued to have problems converting third downs or mounting consistent drives as the Bengals began overwhelming them on both sides of the ball.
Heralded Cincinnati rookies quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green were nothing special in the first half, but took over the game in the third and fourth quarters. Dalton completed 22 of 39 for 217 yards with three touchdowns. Despite his offensive line constantly being called for holding, Dalton kept bailing out the Bengals. The Titans failed to capitalize on multiple situations where they had the Bengals backed up in second or third and long situations. The Titans defense was also unable to force any turnovers, and only sacked Dalton once for a seven-yard loss.
Meanwhile Green, held to two catches for 16 yards in the first half, exploded down the stretch. He had five catches, while also drawing a critical pass interference call against Jason McCourty that cost the Titans 45 yards and led to a touchdown. On the drive that put the Bengals ahead, it was Green first catching a 23-yard pass, then cutting between Titans cornerback McCourty and safety Michael Griffin for another 20-yard reception that put the Bengals on the Titans seven-yard line. His final totals were seven catches for 83 yards. While he didn’t score any touchdowns, his big grabs and presence helped other Bengals receivers find cracks in the Titans defense.
Hawkins had the best day among Titans receivers with five catches for 63 yards and a touchdown. They also utilized Cook more in the passing game. He had four receptions and scored the Titans final touchdown. But Cook also had a critical fumble late in the fourth quarter, which led to the Bengals final score, a 36-yard field goal.
“You have to play two halves,” an upset Hasselbeck said on Titans radio after the game. “It’s a cliche, but we didn’t do that today.” “We just didn’t execute,” added Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. Neither he nor head coach Mike Munchak had any explanations for why a team that initially looked so sharp later became so flat and ineffective. The Titans had only six first downs the second half, and they got three of those in the final two minutes, when they were frantically trying to tie the score.
Things started to turn after the Titans got a short punt from the Bengals on their first third quarter possession. Starting on the Bengals 49 with a 10 point lead, the Titans immediately began going backward. A holding call and a series of inept plays left them with a fourth down and 16. From that point, the Titans played poorly on offense and defense.
One bright spot was special teams. Rob Bironas hit his only field goal from 43 yards, and Brett Kern had an excellent 45.7 average on seven punts (though that’s an awful lot of punts). Kick coverage was outstanding on both punts and kickoffs. But the new kickoff rules are clearly hurting the Titans return game. Last year Marc Mariani had a Pro Bowl season as a kickoff and punt returner. This year he’s yet to break either for big yardage. Sunday he had one punt return for eight yards and one kickoff return for 27.
“We have a lot work ahead of us to earn more (than 4-4),” Munchak said. “We thought we’d win this football game, and we knew we had to. We didn’t, so we are where we are. We earned the 4-4 record with some good and bad. I definitely think we should do better than that, but we’re not. All we can do is learn from this one and go on.”
The Titans remain in second place, but have fallen further behind the Houston Texans (now 6-3). They go on the road for three of the next four games, playing teams in other divisions. They begin with the Carolina Panthers Sunday in Charlotte, where they’ll face another red-hot rookie in quarterback Cam Newton. That’s followed by a visit to Atlanta and the Falcons, who are back on track after a slow start. They return to LP Field Nov. 27 against the Tampa Bay Bucs, then head to Buffalo, where their opponent will be the resurgent Bills.
The Titans were a very pleasant surprise in the first quarter of the season, and a major disappointment in the second. How they fare in the third will go a long way toward determining if 2011 will be a successful year or another dismal one.