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Front Page - Friday, September 15, 2023

Titans: Questions abound before Chargers arrive

Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s erratic play against the Saints was only one of the open questions facing the team as it prepares for Sunday’s home opener against the Chargers. - Photo By Gerald Herbert | AP

This “new” offense that was supposed to be a big boost for the Tennessee Titans is already facing major issues.

Judging from last Sunday’s 16-15 loss in New Orleans, the 2023 Titans offense looks remarkably like the dismal one they trotted out in 2022.

Perhaps it will take some time for Tim Kelly’s system to kick in and start to run smoothly. But for a team that decided to reload for another run with Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry rather than begin a full-on rebuild, the results from the season opener certainly have called that decision into question.

Yes, the Titans defense appears strong with a pass rush led by Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry and newcomer Arden Key. But in today’s NFL, it’s becoming more and more difficult to win the way Mike Vrabel prefers to play with defense and running the ball. Except that the Titans didn’t even try to do that Sunday on offense, as I will explain.

So much of the league now is predicated on offensive savvy and good quarterback play. And in his time with the Titans, Tannehill has given the Titans good enough play at quarterback to win games.

But not last Sunday, with three costly interceptions and enough throws off the mark that now the concern begets already the speculation of whether this was more than just a one-game aberration.

Certainly, Tannehill will have to perform better if the Titans are going to have a chance to win Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers and throughout the season.

And while Tannehill certainly had a lot of culpability in the opener, he isn’t the only one found lacking. The offensive line, completely rebuilt in the offseason, struggled the same way the group from last year did, especially in pass protection, where Tannehill was sacked three times and hit 10 more.

Tannehill would never say it aloud, but he hasn’t looked like the same quarterback the last couple of years since the line play has deteriorated.

And what of Kelly, who seemed in the opener to want to force feed the ball to DeAndre Hopkins in his first game as a Titan? That sounds good, until you peruse the final stat sheet and see that Hopkins’ 13 targets produced seven catches for 65 yards.

But, perhaps the strangest part of what was on display was the open lack of use for Henry. His most explosive play came on a 46-yard screen pass. But he carried the ball just 15 times for 63 yards – in a one-point game. Those numbers would be understandable if the Titans had fallen into a 21-3 hole and were forced to play catchup. But Tennessee either led or was tied a good part of the game, and never trailed by more than seven points.

In the past, under the greatly hailed play-caller Arthur Smith, or even under the maligned Todd Downing, that situation would have been Henry’s calling card. Instead, midway through the third quarter, Henry was on the sideline watching rookie Tyjae Spears play a series in a 9-9 game that called for three straight passes, the last of which was intercepted.

In fact, overall Spears was on the field for more snaps than Henry Sunday – 33 snaps for Spears to 28 for Henry. That  would have been heresy for Titans teams in the past.

All the way around, it was strange to see this offense unveiled for the 2023 season. The Titans actually ran the ball only 19 times on called run plays, and had 40 passes called when you add Tannehill’s three sacks and three scrambles to his 34 pass attempts.

As mentioned above, with Tannehill struggling, why did the Titans throw the football twice as many times as they ran it with arguably still the best running back in the game available to carry the load?

If the Titans have decided that now is the time to come into the modern era of throwing the football and trying to win with the passing game, that’s fine. They just need to make sure they can protect Tannehill and that Tannehill can bounce back from such a poor showing going forward.

But in the meantime, handing the football to No. 22 still works. Perhaps the Titans should remember that.