With the record now 0-for-2009, just two weeks in, who could have guessed the Tennessee Titans would miss Chris Carr nearly as much as they miss Albert Haynesworth?Or to restate the question on everyone's mind since Sunday's upset loss to the Houston Texans: What is wrong with this team?
Everyone has an opinion. This is not like baseball, basketball or hockey, where the teams play so many games in a week, it'll soon be shrugged off if the home team blows a few during the regular season. They'll play again in the next day or two.
Not so with the Titans. With nothing else to chew on, the team's sudden struggles are Topic A all week among Nashville sports fans.
So how can a team that fancied itself a Super Bowl contender after returning most of a 13-3 team start off with an "oh-fer" two weeks into the season? It's kind of like taking your car to the mechanic and telling him it isn't quite running right. When he gets under the hood, he might find a lot more wrong than you bargained for.
Let's start with the defense.
Does the team really miss Albert Haynesworth that much? Well, not really. Tennessee's run defense is still solid, having held Houston's Steve Slaton, who tormented them for a pair of 100-yard games last year, to just 34 yards on 17 carries. (Which came right after holding the Steelers as a team to just 36 yards on the ground.) So in that regard, the defensive line is holding up just fine without the two-time All-Pro defensive tackle.
Pass defense is another story. Perhaps it's not an embarrassment that Super Bowl champion quarterback Ben Roethlisberger put up 363 yards through the air on the Tennessee defense. After all, the Titans did manage to sack him four times and pick him off twice.
But when a middle-of-the-road quarterback—Houston's Matt Schaub — puts up 357 yards and four touchdowns the following week, something is amiss. It certainly makes you wonder what will it look like when the Titans face Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Kurt Warner in coming weeks.
The defensive line certainly has its share of culpability, not reaching Schaub for any sacks the entire game. As Kyle Vanden Bosch explained after Sunday's loss, "If the quarterback drops back, I feel like he should go down. I don't feel like we should ever be held sackless. It's something we've got to rectify."
But KVB and the guys up front aren't alone in this one. The Titans secondary played so poorly Sunday that names like Deron Jenkins and Lamont Thompson were uttered in the press box when trying to draw comparisons.
"We came in with a certain game plan in mind, and they had other things in mind," cornerback Nick Harper said. "And I guess their game plan was better than the one we had. It's the NFL, and if you don't make adjustments, there's no way you can win."
The breakdowns that happened against the Texans are unacceptable. Especially since the Titans have three Pro Bowl players in the defensive backfield in Michael Griffin, Cortland Finnegan and Chris Hope.
And the return game? Quite simply, it's a mess. When the Titans decided to let Mark Jones go and not keep a roster spot for a return man specifically on the roster, it was a gamble—despite Jeff Fisher's insistence that the team had plenty of returners and it would not be a problem.
At Pittsburgh, it was indeed a problem. Finnegan muffed a punt during his one game holding the return spot for injured Ryan Mouton. And against the Texans, returns were an issue again as Javon Ringer muffed a kickoff and Mouton dropped a punt, falling on it at his own 1.
The Titans have been fortunate thus far in that they have recovered all the fumbles on punts and kickoffs thus far. But the truth of the matter is, the team needs to solidify its return situation now. It appears the team is trying to fit square pegs into a round hole.
That's not a knock on Mouton and Ringer, two rookies trying to find their way around the NFL. But consider this: Mouton, now returning punts, was primarily a kickoff return man at Hawaii. He hasn't returned punts since his junior college days in 2005-06. And Ringer is a running back who has considerable rushing skills but was never a full-time kickoff returner at Michigan State, where he notched up just 15 returns in a 45-game career for the Spartans.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend, though, is that the Titans are making too many mistakes this early in the season for a veteran team.
Kerry Collins' unforced fumble at the end of Sunday's game is only the tip of that iceberg. The Titans were whistled for eight penalties and 64 yards against the Texans, which is bad enough. But that doesn't even count seven more penalties that were either declined or wiped out as offsetting fouls.
"There were a lot of mistakes today," Vanden Bosch said Sunday. "Last year, especially at the beginning of the season, we found ways to win close games, and we've come up short twice now doing that. We need to find ways to win these games when it comes down to the wire."
That starts with playing better, smarter football, something the Titans have not done dating back to last year's playoff loss against Baltimore. Wins have been there for the taking. Yet because of mistakes, the team has now lost five of its last six games, including the playoff loss.
"We have opportunities to seize," receiver Nate Washington said. "We have opportunities right here, but we're not going to get it. I think we need to start going to get it on both sides of the ball and on special teams. Everyone's included.
"We know we're right there. It's just all a matter of closure."
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