Continuing defensive struggles proving costly to Tennessee

CINCINNATI (AP) — Each week, Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel watches the same costly mistakes.

The Titans can’t stop opponents on third down and can’t keep them from scoring touchdowns in the red zone. If it continues, Vrabel knows his team’s fate will be sealed and a once-promising 5-0 start will be long forgotten.

“It would seem in the last two games it’s impossible to win when you give them extra chances to continue the drive,” a frustrated Vrabel said following Sunday’s 31-20 loss at Cincinnati. “There are good things in there, but there are too many bad things that we have to eliminate.”

These problems have existed all season and nothing seems to change.

Tennessee (5-2) entered this weekend with the league’s worst defensive third down rate (61.0%) and ranked 31st in red zone touchdown rate (80.9%).

Yet against a Bengals offense missing five starters and four of their five top linemen with injuries or illness, the Titans still couldn’t solve the mystery of what’s gone so glaringly wrong for a team that reached last season’s AFC title game.

In fact, things seemingly got even worse Sunday.

Cincinnati (2-5-1) kept the ball for nearly 36 minutes in large part because it converted 10 of 15 third downs, including three of its last four when Tennessee needed the ball and Joe Burrow managed to take almost all of the final six minutes off the clock. The burgeoning Bengals also scored on all five red zone trips — four touchdowns, one field goal.

Plus, the Titans didn’t force a turnover, the one saving grace for this defense through the first five weeks. A league-leading plus-9 turnover margin helped hide some of the flaws through those first five games. Not now.

And, inexplicably, Tennessee allowed Burrow to enjoy his first sack-free game.

“Same old stuff we’ve been talking about. Not being coordinated, a play here, a guy here,” safety Kevin Byard said, trying to explain the miscues. “ At the end of the day, we have to be better. If I had the right answer to figure out why we didn’t get off the field on third down today, I would tell you.”

The continual miscues are cranking up the pressure inside the organization, too.

Following a second straight loss, Vrabel fielded questions about making personnel changes and whether he made the right decision in February by choosing not to replace retiring defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

“I would say that’s not a factor. I’m positive that’s not a factor,” Vrabel said. “We have to continue to coach better and play better. I’m certain that’s not leading to us giving up points and not getting off the field on third down.”

When asked how he could be so sure, Vrabel responded: “Because I sit there and watch everything we do. I watch the tape. I watch how we coach and I watch how we practice.”

While Vrabel seems content to make no changes on his staff, he hinted the depth chart might not be immune.

The two most obvious candidates to get new roles would be 36-year-old cornerback Jonathan Joseph and outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr., the 2016 NFL sacks champ. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney might not be far behind.

While Clowney was credited with one tackle, Beasley not only had none, but he also committed two penalties on the Bengals’ second touchdown drive just before halftime.

Joseph, meanwhile, had nine tackles — most down the field after giving up catches — and was called for pass interference in the end zone. His penalty set up Samaje Perine’s 1-yard TD run that put Tennessee in a 10-0 hole it never rebounded from.

And if the Titans can’t find solutions quickly, the final nine games could be every bit as challenging for Vrabel to watch as the past two.

“Swagger comes from playing consistently. We aren’t right now so the swagger hasn’t been there,” Byard said. “There’s still some good football out there. We’re not playing consistently well. That’s really what it is. You’ve got to play better, man.”

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