On Sunday, the Titans squandered the opportunity to take lead of the AFC South, as they lost to the Houston Texans 20-27 at NRG Stadium.
The loss followed a narrative very similar to that of Week 3 — Tennessee kept the game close but were unable to tie the score on their final drive.
With just under four minutes remaining in fourth quarter, the Titans were down seven points and beginning a drive at Houston’s 48-yard line. Two minutes later, Marcus Mariota threw three consecutive incomplete passes to Anthony Fasano and Andre Johnson, which resulted in a turnover by downs and an eventual team loss.
“We need to do the little things,” said Taylor Lewan after the game. “As a team, as a whole, we are better. The record does not show that. We need to do the little things consistently.”
Among the “little things” that the Titans struggled with on Sunday are special teams and penalties. Tennessee tallied 11 flag for 93 yards, and their special teams unit game up 10 points.
At the start of the second quarter, the Titans were penalized five yards for having twelve players on the field during a punt return. As a result, the Texans entered field goal range, and Nick Novak converted a 53-yard attempt. Then at the end of the third quarter, Will Fuller ran untouched on a 67-yard punt return to give the Texans the go-ahead score, 27-20.
These instances overshadow some of the stronger plays that the Titans made on both offense and defense.
Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox each intercepted intended passes to DeAndre Hopkins, and they limited the star wideout to one reception on six targets. The Titans’ front seven hit Brock Osweiler six times, three of which were Jurrell Casey’s doing. The Titans’ offensive line limited the Texans to one sack by Jadeveon Clowney. And DeMarco Murray nearly broke 100-rushing yards in consecutive weeks as he rushed for 95-yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
The fact that the Titans are objectively better on offense and defense compared to 2015 — they generate more yards (348 vs. 312) and allow fewer points (21 vs. 26.4) per game — but have the same record (1-3) through the first quarter of the 2016 season seems to be frustrating players and personnel.
“It sucks, there’s no other way to explain it,” McCourty said. “Having to fly home on this plane with a sick feeling in your stomach. And the only thing you can do with that feeling is put it to work.”
This frustration has resulted in team changes already. On Monday, head coach Mike Mularkey fired special teams head coach Bobby April and announced assistant Steve Hoffman as replacement.
This season was April’s first in Tennessee and his 25th in the NFL. Mularkey likely decided to release April due to Sunday’s special-team mistakes and the fact that the Titans currently 31st in average kick-return (28 yards) allowed and 27th in average punt-return (14.9 yards) allowed.
However, one could certainly argue that special teams are not the main source of the Titans’ frustrations. A more likely culprit is their offense, which has been heavily one-sided through four weeks of the season.
While the Titans rank 4th in the NFL for rush offense (127.0 yards per game), they are 26th for pass offense (221 yards per game). This deficiency is among their most prominent, particularly late in games as Tennessee looks to surmount a come-from-behind win and as Mariota tries to find a reliable target.
Mariota’s top target to date is running back DeMarco Murray, who has 19 receptions. Next is rookie wide receiver Tajae Sharpe with 16 receptions, which averages to just four receptions per game.
In defense of the team, Kendall Wright missed the first three games of the season as he recovered from a hamstring injury, and Delanie Walker missed Week 2 due to an injury as well. However, as the Titans approach the rest of 2016, passing is an area of concern and, perhaps, a remedy to their early-season frustrations.
Next week the team faces the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. Kickoff is at 12:00 PM CST.