The Tennessee Titans came into Sunday’s game with the Houston Texans with redemption on their minds.
After a 34-31 loss to their lowly division rival, the Titans instead are now in reassessment mode, wondering what has gone wrong in an unexpected 0-2 start and consecutive road games upcoming.
“We’ve lost two games in a row. We’re putting ourselves in a hole right now, and we’re going to put ourselves in a hole too deep to get out of if we don’t get it turned around this week,” defensive end Jevon Kearse said of a team that harbored serious Super Bowl aspirations entering the year.
And just as the Titans followed a 2000 playoff upset against Baltimore with a sluggish start the next year, Tennessee finds itself in the same situation this year as it did in 2001 - a talented team but starting the year at the bottom of the division standings.
Kearse said he plans to spread the word about not letting such things that happened in 2001, when the Titans finished 7-9, repeat themselves with this Titans team.
“This week I’m going to talk to them about that, because that wasn’t a good feeling,” Kearse said. “It’s like we stayed in the games till the end, and then we give it away toward the end. What we’ve got to do is finish games. When we get the lead, we’d better hold onto it.”
For the second consecutive game, the Titans neither held onto the lead nor the ball when it counted.
Tennessee built what looked like a comfortable 21-7 lead, thanks mostly to the exploits of Chris Johnson.
Johnson began his onslaught of the Texans defense with a 57-yard touchdown run on a third-and-18 draw play. In what was essentially a “give-up” play, it was the Houston defense that instead acquiesced as Johnson raced untouched for a quick 7-0 Titans lead.
The Texans answered back when Andre Johnson, who had a big day of his own with 10 catches for 149 yards and a pair of touchdowns, made a juggling catch from 19 yards out in the end zone against Nick Harper.
Chris Johnson, however, put Tennessee ahead, again exploiting a defensive breakdown in the Houston secondary when the Texans failed to cover him as he was split out wide. Johnson, who was supposed to run a fly route, instead took only a couple of steps and Kerry Collins fired the ball to him. Johnson raised his hand to signal to Collins that he was uncovered, and the speedster did the rest, going 69 yards for a touchdown.
“The only thing I was thinking about was should I run the fly or just jog off the ball,” Johnson said. “Just to make it safe, I jogged off the ball and he hit me quick.”
Collins hurried the snap count to get the ball to Johnson before the Texans safety could get in position to cover him.
“I just wanted to get the ball to him as quickly as I could,” Collins said. “I hurried the cadence up because I knew he was uncovered, so I just took a hop, really, and just got it out to him.”
Tennessee was tack to on another score with Collins finding Nate Washington from 8 yards away, giving the Titans touchdowns on their first three possessions and a 14-point lead.
But even that success couldn’t mask the issues that are suddenly plaguing this team in the early going. The defense, one week after giving up 363 yards passing to Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, allowed Matt Schaub to roll up 357 yards and four touchdowns on 25 of 39 passes, with the Titans not getting so much as one sack in the game.
The lack of pressure, combined with busted coverages, allowed the Texans to strike on a 72-yard touchdown pass from Schaub to Andre Johnson as Michael Griffin bit up on play action, leaving Johnson alone in the middle of the field.
In all, the Texans had four pass plays of at least 29 yards to three different receivers. While the pass rush problems were evident, cornerback Nick Harper said the secondary was equally or more so to blame.
“It was busted coverages, and quarterbacks are going to find the open guy in busted coverages,” Harper said. “There were some guys that were running Scott free because we didn’t have people where they needed to be.
“If we would have been where we should have been, there’s no way they would have had those deep balls.”
The plays exposed potential problems for a secondary that sent three players to the Pro Bowl a year ago.
An while the defense had issues, there was culpability for the offense with two costly turnovers after the strong start as well.
After a Collins pass was picked off by Eugene Wilson, the Texans wasted no time, going 29 yards to Jacoby Jones for the tying score.
The teams traded field goals before the half, and the Titans seemingly had taken back control of the game when Johnson ripped off a franchise record-tying 91-yard run to put Tennessee back in front 31-24.
That control was fleeting, however, as the Texans methodically drove 65 yards in 11 plays to tie the game again in the third quarter, and got a 23-yard field goal from Kris Brown for the eventual win with 2:58 to play.
Despite their problems, the Titans still had a chance, but in what has quickly becoming a disturbing trend, dating back to last year’s playoff loss, the opportunity was lost. This time, it was Collins’ fumble on a scramble with 1:32 to play that killed off Tennessee’s last hope.
“I tried to tuck it and run, and it just hit my leg,” said Collins, whose fumble was recovered by Jeff Zgonina at the 39-yard line, finishing off the game and giving the Texans the triumph.
But even at that, there was plenty of blame to go around in the Titans locker room.
Perhaps Bulluck best summed up the Titans’ plight, as a team that fancied itself a strong contender with all the pieces in place has suddenly been humbled, sitting 0-2 with the likes of Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis and Kansas City.
“As strong a team as we are on paper, we have to go out and play and prove it," Bulluck said. "That’s the great thing about this league is that you have to go out and prove it every year and every week. And we have yet to prove that we are the team we think we are."