NASHVILLE – The Titans lost to the Texans 24-21 on Sunday at Nissan Stadium.
Here's a look at six things that stood out from the game as the team begins to turn its attention to the New Orleans Saints.
Jonnu's Speed, and Effort
Tight end Jonnu Smith made the highlight reel with his 57-yard run, when he took a pitch from quarterback Ryan Tannehill and sprinted into the open field. He looked like a natural at the position. It was the longest rushing attempt by an NFL tight end since 1976, when Jets tight end Rich Caster was credited with a 60-yarder against the Redskins. But a play – a tackle – Smith made earlier in the game got my attention. Per NextGenStats, Smith measured the most distance before a tackle this weekend, as he covered 96.3 yards to take down Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus following his interception in the second quarter. It didn't end up saving a touchdown – the Texans ended up scoring – but it said a lot about Smith's grit.
Special Teams Miscues
The Titans have won games because of big plays on special teams, from blocked field goals to precise punting that's pinned opposing teams deep in their own territory time and again. But the Titans hurt themselves here on Sunday. Kicker Ryan Succop had a kick blocked, and he's just 1-of-6 on the season. Kicker Ryan Santoso didn't reach the end zone on two of his kickoffs, and his onsides kick was a dud. Punter Brett Kern threw a nice ball on a fake punt, but the trickery didn't work. Should LeShaun Sims had fielded that punt on the one in the closing seconds? Probably not. But it was a split-second decision that barely deserves a mention here. In a close loss, however, all of this hurt. And field goal kicking has hurt the Titans all year – the team is just 8-of-18 on field goal attempts this season.
Fourteen games into a season, players are no longer considered rookies. Deep in the season, they've earned some field cred. Titans rookie A.J. Brown doesn't look like a rookie, and he doesn't play like one. Brown is the team's most dangerous receiver, and he keeps proving it. Brown posted his fourth 100-yard game of the season with his eight-catch, 114-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Texans. He's a terror with the ball in his hands, and the Titans need to make sure he has it as many times as possible down the stretch. He's a game-changer.
My Twitter mentions got ugly during and after Sunday's loss. You'd think the Titans were the 1-13 Bengals, not a team that had won four in a row and six of seven games coming into the contest. I get the frustration from fans, because it was a mammoth game and the Titans didn't find a way to win it. There were several mistakes that kept it from happening. But the biggest turning point came in the second quarter when tight end Anthony Firkser let a ball escape his grasp at the goalline, and it ended up in the hands of Mercilus, who took it 86 yards the other way and set up a score. It was a costly swing for the Titans in a three-point loss.
Big Defensive Plays
The Titans didn't make enough plays on defense on Sunday. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson completed too many passes, for too many yards, and on many plays, he had too much time. But the Titans managed to make some big plays in the red zone. Safety Kenny Vaccaro's early interception at the one-yard line was huge, and linebacker Jayon Brown's INT in the end zone – on a ball that was deflected by defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons – was mammoth, too. Unfortunately, the Titans needed more plays like them.
Titans running back Derrick Henry's 21-carry, 86-yard performance on Sunday was nothing to be ashamed of. Henry averaged 4.1 yards per carry, he ripped off a 23-yard run, and he's now at 1,329 yards for the season. But Henry's run of four straight 100-yard games ended, and I can't help but think his hamstring injury – and missing practices all week leading up to the game – kept him from being at his best. Henry appeared to lack some explosion, and an extra gear. The Titans can only hope time allows Henry to heal and return to full form.
The Tennessee Titans take on the Houston Texans in Week 15 of the 2019 season at Nissan Stadium. (Photos: Donald Page)