Mike Vrabel had the opportunity to go out and find a new defensive coordinator after Dean Pees retired following the Titans loss in the AFC Championship Game.
Instead, Vrabel decided that the best solution would be to keep as much continuity from Pees’ system in place and just run the defense himself with help from outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen and the rest of the Titans defensive staff.
Through five games, the Titans defense struggled. But the team was winning, so head coach Vrabel and defensive coordinator Vrabel didn’t really have to be cross-examined separately to try and find answers for the Titans’ defensive shortcomings.
Even in the wake of their first loss against Pittsburgh, it was promised that things would change, that the lack of a pass rush and the terrible third-down conversion rates would improve.
It was thought that playing a struggling and depleted team like the Bengals would be the elixir that defensive coordinator Vrabel needed to quell questions about his coaching alter ego.
Instead, Sunday at Cincinnati, the situation looked markedly worse and shows little hope of increased improvement with current personnel.
How much worse? Bad enough that a team with one win, starting a rookie quarterback, who played with four starting linemen and its best running back out, shredded the Titans and earned a blowout win.
It was the same old story, no pass rush and the Titans allowing a startling 67% conversion rate on third down – even worse than the 61% they averaged allowing coming into the game.
In his postgame press conference, head coach Vrabel did have to defend defensive coordinator Vrabel at times, something head coach Vrabel will have to increasingly get used to going forward if improvement does not come quickly.
“I would say that that’s not a factor,” head coach Vrabel said. “I’m positive that that’s not a factor. We have to continue to coach better and play better. I’m certain that that’s not what’s leading to us giving up points and us not getting off the field on third down.”
As a follow, a reporter asked head coach Vrabel why he felt that way, and responded, “Because I’m sitting there and I watch everything that we do and I watch the tape. I watch how we coach and I watch how we practice and I watch how we play.”
Defensive coordinator Vrabel fielded questions about the unit’s shortcomings, as well. He was asked about the players and the personnel that the Titans are running out there on defense and if being short-handed in the secondary is causing major problems.
No doubt, slow cornerbacks like Johnathan Joseph are a liability in certain situations. Likewise, opposing offenses also know they can take advantage of the inexperience of players like rookie nickelback Chris Jackson.
Seeking help, the Titans acquired defensive back Desmond King from the Chargers Monday for a sixth-round pick in the 2021 draft. King was a Pro Bowl punt returner two years ago but has had trouble working his way into the lineup this year for the Chargers.
“You have to coach and play better with whoever is out there. That’s the National Football League,” defensive coordinator Vrabel said. “Speed is something that is not the only requirement to play this game. There’s technique, communication. There’s a lot of things that go into it other than just being fast. There’s a lot that we have to improve on.”
It would help if imported pass rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley, both given big paychecks to come to Tennessee, could get the quarterback on the ground. Neither has a sack in a season that is one game away from the midway point.
Asked if disappointing players who continue to struggle could be benched, replaced or even released, head coach Vrabel said he and general manager Jon Robinson would continue to talk about personnel decisions.
“I think that we’re always trying to better, and to continue to look at options,” head coach Vrabel said. “That’s what Jon and I will do as soon as we finish. There’s always those things that change in personnel and as the season goes along. We’re not ready to make that commitment after this football game. But things have to change. They have to change in order for us to get better.”
Head coach Vrabel then went back to coachspeak – hey, he learned from Bill Belichick – that the team simply has not been playing well enough of late to win games. Of course, the same problems have been around for most of the season, it’s just that the offense has stopped scoring 30 points per game to mask those defensive deficiencies.
“We didn’t coach well enough, we didn’t play well enough. It’s always going to be the same thing. I don’t know how else I’m supposed to put it, because that’s ultimately what it is,” head coach Vrabel said. “I’ve done this as a player. I’ve done this as a coach. The records don’t mean anything. If you play like this, if you don’t play well in the National Football League, you’re going to lose, and just because you play well doesn’t mean you’re going to win. We all have to get going and be better.”
For his part, defensive coordinator Vrabel is trying to see the glass half full as he works to somehow pull his group together and coax a better performance out of them. After all, head coach Vrabel is counting on him to at least get his unit back to a point where the Titans can again be on the winning end of the offensive shootouts like they did earlier in the season.
“It would seem in the last two games that it is impossible to win when you give the extra chances to continue to drive. There’s good things in there, but there are too many bad things that we’re going to have to eliminate,” defensive coordinator Vrabel said after the game.
Sure, the injuries and the underperformance of several players have factored into the struggles. Defensive coordinator Vrabel was asked before the loss to Cincinnati about just how much adjustment goes into the game plan when parts are missing.
“That’s part of the challenge of saying, ‘Hey,’ that happens a lot in the game. ‘OK, so and so’s down. These are the adjustments that we have to make,’ and sometimes we’ve done them good enough and sometimes we haven’t done them so well,” defensive coordinator Vrabel said. “But I think you try to be conscious of that or saying, ‘OK. If this guy has to play another position, let’s pare down maybe what he needs to know, or to how he’ll be able to function and operate to give himself the best chance to go out there and play well, and obviously to help the team.’ So, I think that there’s a lot of that that goes on when you start to move pieces around late in the week or during the game, which seems to come up.”
Fair enough. But defensive coordinator Vrabel had better find a way to figure things out quickly, or else head coach Vrabel is going to continue to have some major explaining to do.
If things don’t change, head coach Vrabel might even have to rethink his decision as to whether defensive coordinator Vrabel is the right guy moving forward.