HOUSTON -- The Titans' offense took footsteps backward each time it appeared to start moving forward in a 20-0 loss Sunday against the Houston Texans.
Tennessee had at least one play or a penalty that resulted in negative yardage on each of its 10 possessions and netted a combined 29 yards on the first play of each possession.
"We played terrible on offense," left tackle Michael Roos said. "The defense did a good job. They got off the field on third downs, gave us chances, and field position. I think it is just a matter of every guy looking at themselves in the mirror and finding out what it is that they are doing wrong. If it's not anything wrong, at least doing whatever it is better, and taking it upon yourself to come back and work."
Tennessee gained 162 yards with running back Chris Johnson being held to a career low of 5 yards on seven carries. Rookie Rusty Smith made his first start at quarterback and went 17-for-31 for 138 yards but threw two interceptions in the red zone and another interception that set up Houston's first touchdown in the second quarter.
"Anytime you start a rookie, in his first start, first game, you talk all week about the importance of everyone picking their game up," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "We have to get the little things right. We have to help him. We have to get the little catches and those kinds of things. We had our hands on some balls early but we couldn't keep the drive alive. Then, we hurt ourselves with penalties. Some penalties and false start penalties are related to a first start quarterback. He's trying to check on players and get in and out of things. He made some good throws. Obviously we didn't play well enough to win the game. We had a couple balls we'd like to have back. Everybody has to help."
Smith connected with Justin Gage four times for 50 yards, Jared Cook four times for 40 yards and three times with Randy Moss for 23 yards. Smith relieved Vince Young on Nov. 21 against Washington and went 3-for-9 for 62 yards in his first NFL action. Young suffered a season-ending thumb injury against the Redskins, and reserve quarterback Kerry Collins' calf injury suffered on Nov. 14 at Miami was not healed enough for the 16-year NFL veteran to return against Houston.
Smith said the game action provided a "gold" learning experience that practice couldn't simulate.
"I can't give you a grade right now," Smith said. "I can give you a better answer after I get back and watch some film. Honestly, I wish I could have some of those throws back, but you can't get them back. I thought I made some good decisions, some good throws, some bad decisions and some bad throws.
"One of the main characteristics that a good quarterback has is amnesia, being able to forget about things that happened in the past, good and bad," Smith added. "You have to be able to get over things, bad and good."
Fisher said the team was not distracted by Young's early departure from the Titans locker room after the Washington game, the relationship between the coach and player since, or the Wednesday diagnosis that offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger has cancer. Heimerdinger missed Wednesday's practice but returned Thursday and Friday and coached against the Texans. He will begin chemotherapy treatment Monday.
"No, the team responded," Fisher said. "They came back and worked hard. They worked hard through the holiday, we had a good practice Friday, and we were ready to play. We just didn't make enough plays to win the game."
The Titans' offense struggled on first and second downs Sunday, which created third-and-long situations that were tough to convert. Tennessee went 3-for-11 on third down and did not run a play inside Texans territory until the fourth quarter.
Houston went 9-for-18 on third down and possessed the ball for nearly 40 minutes behind the dual-threat effort of former University of Tennessee running back Arian Foster (30 rushes for 143 yards and nine receptions for 75 yards).
Still in contention
The Titans (5-6) lost their fourth straight game but remain in contention in the AFC South with the Texans (5-6), who snapped their four-game losing streak. Jacksonville (6-5) lost Sunday and visits Tennessee Dec. 5.
Defensive end Jason Babin said "there's no magic potion or magic solution" to getting back on the winning track.
"We've got to step it up," Babin said. "There's no excuse for losing this game or losing this many in a row. We need to get back to playing our defense and playing our offense and win games."
Roos said the Titans have a chance to correct things as they begin a stretch of three straight division games at home.
"Mathematically we aren't even needing help. We're still in it," Roos said. "If we win out, win everything else in our division, it's still a pretty good chance of us making the playoffs."
Babin, Hayes sack Schaub
Babin recorded his team-best ninth sack of the season, dropping Houston's Matt Schaub for a loss and forcing a field goal by the Texans in the third quarter. The Texans drafted Babin in 2004 and played him at linebacker in his rookie season. The nine sacks are a career high in a season for Babin.
Titans DE William Hayes recorded his first sack of the season. Hayes sacked Schaub on the final play of the first half, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Houston offensive tackle Eric Winston.
Moss moves into eighth
Moss moved into eighth place in NFL history in career receptions, passing Andre Reed (951 catches) by one. The 13-year NFL veteran ranks second all-time with 153 touchdown catches and fifth all-time with 14,827 receiving yards. The Titans claimed Moss off waivers on Nov. 3 from Minnesota. He is still looking for his first touchdown in a Tennessee uniform.
Shutout ends one Bironas streak, postpones another
Tennessee's first shutout since October 2009 ended kicker Rob Bironas' franchise record streak of 20 games with at least one made field goal. Bironas, who did not have an opportunity to attempt a field goal Sunday, has made 14 straight attempts and 19 of 20 field goals this season.