Mike Vrabel is in his first season as the head coach of the Tennessee Titans. And in the midst of a three-game losing streak, he is seriously overthinking things.
Vrabel turned to gadget plays late in a 20-19 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, turning to his passing game in fourth-and-1 situations and ultimately paying for it. The Titans had the chance to take a one-point lead with 30 seconds to play in London, but Vrabel’s decision to throw a slant just one good step from the LA end zone doomed Tennessee to a 3-4 record and a long, “what-if” filled flight back to Nashville.
The Titans had dominated the time of possession at Wembley Stadium, but their inability to finish drives left them trailing 20-13 with fewer than five minutes to play. But a big drive led by tailback Dion Lewis created a first-and-goal situation from the Chargers’ two-yard line with 47 seconds to go. Their first attempt ended with a Lewis carry and one-yard loss. The second was an incomplete pass to the end zone that belied the team’s lack of timeouts (forced by a combination of bad luck — a late injury to guard Josh Kline — and Vrabel’s fourth-quarter insistence on challenging a play that in no way looked like it would be overturned).
And then things got screwy.
The Titans did so many things wrong, but still had a chance to win this game
With the pocket collapsing around him, Mariota was forced to use his legs to turn third-and-goal from the three-yard line into a Titans touchdown. As he broke through the line of scrimmage, he had one man to beat. A juke to the right would give him the space to crash into the end zone on his feet. A juke to the left would make him an easy target for the Chargers defense.
He went left — and still nearly scored anyway:
That play was originally ruled a touchdown before a review spotted the ball at the half-yard line. The Titans, with a mobile quarterback and a 240-pound tailback in Derrick Henry, seemed destined to run the ball. After one Chargers timeout, Tennessee snapped the ball, faked the give to Henry, and threw to the left side.
It was a smart idea that survived its own awful execution. The Titans sent two tight ends to the end zone with only a single linebacker in coverage in the area. But they sent them to the same side, and those two targets were so closely grouped together one man was able to cover both of them once he got a read on Mariota’s eyes. Only the solid hands of Luke Stocker kept the play from failing:
It was ugly, but it worked. And that just emboldened the awful calls to come.
The Titans were right to roll the dice and go for two. And then, eeeeeeaaargggghhhh
Vrabel’s decision to go for two and attempt to grab a late lead rather than play for a tie made sense. After all, his bold playcalling on fourth down in overtime in Week 4 turned a potential tie or Titans defeat into a victory over the defending Super Bowl champions. It wasn’t a surprise to see him keep his kicker on the sideline and put his team in position to win.
But from there, his decisions were...lacking. The Titans’ first attempt at a two-point conversion saw Mariota completely blank Dion Lewis — the player who had carved up the Los Angeles defense for 155 yards to that point — in the end zone before scrambling into nothingness and eventually throwing an incomplete pass. A holding call on Casey Heyward, who scrambled late to jump on Lewis and cheated in the process, effectively gave Tennessee another fourth-and-1 situation with the game on the line.
And rather than trust Lewis, Mariota, or the pile-pushing Henry, Vrabel dialed up another pass play:
The Titans didn’t even bother to put a tailback behind Mariota, leaving the Chargers’ second level to read pass all the way. The play was a slow-developing slant to Taywan Taylor, a player who’d had one catch on one target at that point. It never had a chance.
The LA defense, not sucked toward the line of scrimmage by the threat of the run, was able to fill the end zone in coverage. Mariota’s pass had to zip past the outstretched arm of safety Adrian Phillips, then through the hands of cornerback Michael Davis, who’d undercut the route, to find its target.
It didn’t. And the Chargers lost.
It was the seventh straight time the Titans have failed on a two-point conversion. All seven of those attempts were passes.
Vrabel defended the call to go for two after the game, but didn’t address why he thought a pass play from the one was the right move with the game on the line:
Vrabel gambled and lost Sunday, but the issue wasn’t his decision to go for two. Tying the game with 30 seconds left was no guarantee of overtime. The Chargers had two timeouts and had already scored a pair of touchdowns of 55+ yards. Giving Philip Rivers 4-5 plays to gain 40 yards or so would have been a good deal for Los Angeles, even with the franchise’s history of awful kickers.
No, the issue was dialing up an end zone slant that, time and time again, has been the bane of teams trying to win games from the one-yard line. Just ask Pete Carroll.
But hey, maybe it’s a good thing that Taylor Lewan wasn’t rewarded with a win after this: