MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Playing a road game without starting quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Titans needed a few things to go their way Sunday in order to come away with a victory.
They needed a dominant effort by the defense, a splash of production from the offense and a relatively mistake-free game by the team overall. A few breaks – whether in the form of borderline calls or fortunate bounces going their way – wouldn't have hurt either.
The Titans managed to check off some of those boxes, but not enough in their 16-10 loss to the Dolphins, not on a day when Mariota was sidelined with a strained hamstring.
In the end, the Titans suffered a disappointing defeat, one that dropped them out of a first-place tie in the AFC South heading into next week's Monday-night game against visiting Indianapolis.
It marked the first time in two seasons the Titans had lost a contest decided by seven points or less. They'd been 4-0 under Mike Mularkey as a head coach in those situations before Sunday's result.
Here's a look at how things broke down:
Defensive bounceback –** The good news for the Titans on a frustrating afternoon was that the team's defense – which had been steamrolled the previous week by DeShaun Watson and Houston – bounced back against a Miami offense that's struggled all season.
The Titans' defense came into this contest ranked 29th overall, but shut down former Vanderbilt standout Jay Cutler and the Dolphins' offense for most of the afternoon.
Tennessee's defense limited Miami to just 12 first downs and 178 total yards. The Titans forced two turnovers, hit Cutler three times and sacked him once – all of which contributed to Miami's five-for-15 performance on third down. It was Kevin Byard's recovery of a Jay Ajayi fumble, as a matter of fact, which led to the Titans' first score – a 45-yard field goal by Ryan Succop.
"I thought (the defense) played really well," Mularkey said. "They came back from last week, responded and played our kind of defense."
The Titans only surrendered one scoring drive of any significance, as two of the Dolphins' scores – 10 of their points – came as a direct result of turnovers.
The only downer for the Titans' defense was a failure to stop Miami running back Jay Ajayi on a late third-and-seven run that basically sealed the game for the Dolphins.
Offensive struggles –** It was understood the Titans weren't going to be the same team offensively without Mariota, but quarterback Matt Cassel and company needed to be better than they were against the Dolphins.
The Titans produced 188 yards of total offense, suffered six sacks and converted two-of-13 third down attempts. As mentioned, Tennessee turned the ball over twice, leading to 10 Miami points.
There were a few offensive moments that were especially difficult to overcome:
The first came after Byard's fumble recovery in the first half, when the Titans took over at the Miami 24-yard line. A touchdown drive would have been a big morale booster, but the Titans were stymied on three downs and kicked the field goal.
A second occurred early in the fourth quarter, when Cassel appeared to have wide receiver Eric Decker open downfield for a good chunk of yardage on third-and-nine. The pass was behind Decker, however, and the Titans were forced to punt.
A third came on the Titans' second-to-last possession, when they got off to a promising start with a couple of first downs. But an incomplete deep pass to Rishard Matthews, a one-yard run by Derrick Henry and another Dolphins sack ended the drive just like that.
"They're a good defense obviously but we have a lot of pride in ourselves and we know what type of offense we are," Titans running back DeMarco Murray said. "We have to play better, we have to focus a lot harder, finish plays and it starts there."
Added Mularkey: "We just could not be consistent with our play offensively."
Mistakes, no breaks – The Titans were especially in need of a clean game Sunday given the team's offensive limitations, but they committed a season-high 11 penalties for 77 yards. Tennessee also lost the turnover battle, with Murray losing a fumble for only the second time in two seasons.
But the Titans certainly didn't catch any breaks either.
Should rookie tight end Jonnu Smith have really been called for offensive pass interference in the first quarter, negating Cassel's apparent 59-yard touchdown pass to tight end Delanie Walker? Television replays certainly didn't offer a definitive look at what officials flagged on the play.
"Where that came from, I don't know," Mularkey said. "Poor call, really poor call."
Should Cassel's fumble – the one that Miami's Reshad Jones recovered and took in for a touchdown two players later – really have been called a fumble? It appeared to my eyes that Cassel's arm was moving forward, which is the reason the loose ball ended up so far downfield.
Titans players said they thought the play had been whistled dead as an incompletion.
"I wasn't in on that play," Murray said, "but obviously I heard it on the sideline and that is why most of the guys stopped. It's unfortunate."
On a Mariota-less day when the Titans needed some things to fall in their favor, the critical questionable calls were two more things that did not.
— Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.
The Tennessee Titans take on the Miami Dolphins in Week 5 action at Hard Rock Stadium. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)