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What the hell were the Titans thinking on 3rd-and-23?

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The Titans almost had an underdog win against the Bills all sewn up, and they threw it all away in the fourth quarter with the dumbest play call of the season. Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White takes a closer look at some really bad football.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Titans just can't get right.

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I went awf about a terrible two-point conversion attempt the Titans made at the end of their game against the Colts. Had they converted said two-point play, the game would likely have gone to overtime since there was less than a minute left, and they would have done so with momentum back on their side. Instead, well, that didn't happen.

They may have topped that boneheaded play call at the end of a game with another just two weeks later, I bullshit you not. This time, however, it was the Tennessee defense with the unthinkable blunder that just makes your head want to asplode.


Third. And. Twenty. Three.

The Titans had just made a field goal to go up 13-7 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the final period. At that point the Bills offense hadn't done much all day, aside from the preceding drive where Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor had broken off long runs of 25 and 22 yards, the latter being an incredible, highlight-reel touchdown run. By the same token, Taylor had barely thrown for more than 50 yards in the game to that point, so if the Titans were able to get a couple of stops on defense, it was reasonable to believe they would be going home with an improbable win.

And they had 'em. The Titans had the Bills' asses dead to rights!

But, to quote Dennis Green, they "let 'em off the hook."

I'm just so flabbergasted after watching this play on the coaches tape, I don't know what to do.

The Bills started that drive on their own 20-yard line with 9:36 left in the game. The first play was a Boobie Dixon carry for 2 yards, the second was a Taylor incompletion. That brought up a less-than-ideal, but manageable third-and-8. Then came a mini Bills implosion.

Buffalo right tackle Seantrel Henderson was called for holding, which took them back 10 yards. The Bills line up at their own 12-yard line facing a third-and-18 on the next play when Henderson decides to move early, so that's another five yards lost. Suddenly, thanks to their right tackle, the Bills are backed up to their own 7-yard line staring third-and-23 right in the face.

I don't think they make a percentage high enough, that's not quite 100, that describes how much the percentages should have favored the Titans defense in this situation. Almost half of the fourth quarter was gone and Taylor hadn't really gotten anything going through the air, which meant scoring fast was probably out. The only spark the Bills had shown on offense all day had been Taylor toting that rock.

"So hey, I have an idea! Let's play zone or something, let 'em catch it in front of us, make the tackle and get off the field, no?" -- Me to my NFL Game Pass screen after I saw what actually happened.

I am starting to believe the Titans look at obviously positive end-of-the-game situations like these as challenges to see just how bad they can fuck themselves up at this point.

Look, I'm not going to say exactly what defense and what coverage the Titans should have called in that situation because there are almost always more than one way to git 'er done. What I am going to point out is that the defense they chose to play was probably the worst they could have called considering the situation and the opponent.

It's as if they picked that shit out of a hat, blindfolded.


OK, so first of all let's talk about alignment and coverage. Can you play man to man in this situation against this opponent? Yeah, I think you could. I would think zone would be much better so you can keep eyes on the quarterback lest he run -- he did -- but man is definitely an option. You would need to disguise it well. We all know the rule when a mobile quarterback sees everybody running with their back to him; you're just asking for Taylor to roll out in that case.

Did the Titans try to hide that they are playing man with their alignment?


Titans blunder

What's wrong with this picture, class?

Did I forget to mention that the safety who rolled down into the box also took off running on the snap to help over the top to the single-receiver side?

Yep, that happened too.

The pass rush

Which brings me to the second problem on this play, the pass rush. Against a shotgun formation with a single back, trips to the left and one wide receiver to the right, the Titans walked one safety down to the middle of the field, but both linebackers were lined up outside of the formation.

You aren't fooling anybody into thinking you're going to play zone with no linebackers in the box, especially when there was a running back in the backfield. There wasn't really a need to remove both linebackers from the box in the first place.

So at that point, Taylor probably knew it was man to man, but is all lost? Absolutely not. Even with the Bills playing man to man, as long as they make sure they keep good pass rush lanes, especially to Taylor's throwing hand, then they would have had a good shot to contain him. A defensive line that boasts the likes of Jurrell Casey and Derrick Morgan, a duo that combined for three sacks on the day, has more than enough talent to get after the quarterback as long as they rush as a unit and maintain good pass-rush lanes.

Did the Titans do that?


I don't know if their defensive line coach called it on the sideline or if the players on the field called it, but this pass-rush game Casey ran with Karl Klug was just plain stupid, straight up. First of all, the running back was offset to the defense's left side. All good pass rushers know that nine times out of 10 a center will slide away from the back, provided there is no blitz, when the quarterback is in shotgun.

Casey should've been the penetrator. Klug should've looped around toward Casey, which also happens to be to the side of Taylor's throwing hand. They did the opposite. Instead of having a defensive tackle stunting toward the side of the field right-handed quarterbacks usually like to run, the Titans had maybe their best defensive player running in the opposite direction.


Empty B gap

And, again, just because it's man to man doesn't mean that linebacker No. 54 Avery Williamson had to walk up and rush outside Morgan at left defensive end. That helped open up the running lane for Taylor inside. Had Williamson simply stayed at linebacker depth and lined up in the B gap, he could've stepped up and the running back, No. 26 Boobie Dixon, probably would've stepped up to block him on blitz pick up, just like he did to block Williamson when he was lined up outside.

Had Williamson actually done it that way, he still would have been able to cover Dixon effectively. That presence in the B gap would've also eliminated it as a running lane for Taylor had he felt a little froggy in the pocket.

But with nobody in that B gap, Taylor had nothing but green grass in front of him.

titans blunder

The Bills quarterback, who just had two runs of over 20 yards on their previous drive, was allowed to use his legs again, this time picking up 24 yards. Oh, don't forget the extra 15 yards for the horse collar that Titans linebacker Zach Brown applied when tackling him, apparently believing the Titans defense still wasn't sufficiently embarrassed enough after having allowed that third-down conversion.

Third. And. Twenty. Three.

The most mind boggling thing of all about this play was that even though the Titans played man to man, it appeared to be with two deep safeties. While some guys definitely did have their backs to the quarterback (blue circles), several others did not. The ones who could actually see Taylor (green circle) take off running were still too deep to come up and tackle him before he could pass the line for a first down.

titans blunder

The Bills went on to score a touchdown on that drive to take their first lead of the game, 14-13. It turns out that it would remain 14-13 as everything went downhill for the Titans from there.

Sometimes a team just makes a play on you at the end of the game and there's nothing you can do about it but tip your cap to them and try to make sure it never happens again. However, that wasn't the case here.

Everything about the Titans defense on that third-and-23 play was wrong. Everything. Wrong.

They lined up stupid, they used a dumb coverage and they ran an idiotic pass-rush game up front to top it off. The one way Taylor had hurt them all day was with his legs, and the Titans handed him the perfect opportunity to do it again on a silver platter.

That is the kind of stuff that bad teams do. They find ways to lose even when they have an advantage. Until the Titans learn how to close out games, they will continue to lose, simple as that. And that goes for the coaching staff as well as the players.