By Ben Arthur
FOX Sports AFC South Writer
First it sparked a second-half collapse against the New York Giants. Then the Buffalo Bills doing whatever they wanted in the passing game. Then the Las Vegas Raiders having a field day, too — albeit in a loss.
The Tennessee Titans‘ Achilles Heel early this season? Conceding explosive plays.
“We got to get it fixed,” defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “It’s kind of hurt us here early on through these first three games.”
The Titans (1-2) have given up 20 explosive plays so far this season — eight pass plays of 20 or more yards and 12 runs of 10 or more yards (excluding scrambles). It’s been a big reason why Tennessee is defending inside the 20 at a higher rate than anyone else in the NFL. According to Sharpfootballanalysis.com, Titans opponents are averaging 14 red-zone plays per game entering Week 4, most in the league.
Tennessee’s defense has been strong under duress this year (like in 2021), ranked third in the NFL in third-down efficiency and tied for eighth in red-zone efficiency. But lapses between the 20s add avoidable stress.
“I told the guys (Thursday), ‘Go back and look. X plays equal points. It does,'” Bowen said. “If we don’t give up X plays, there aren’t very many points.”
While the run defense has been an issue since the opener – the Titans are 29th in rushing yards allowed per game – coverage busts have placed a pronounced spotlight on the young cornerback room, viewed as a weakness since the start of the season. Seven of the eight explosive pass plays Tennessee has given up have come in the last two games.
Opposite Kristian Fulton, the Titans are starting a rookie in second-round pick Roger McCreary, who beat out 2021 first-rounder Caleb Farley. With Fulton sidelined, Farley started against the Bills in Week 2 but struggled in the 41-7 blowout loss. He subsequently played just one defensive snap against the Raiders, with Titans starting veteran Terrance Mitchell — signed off the Patriots practice squad days earlier — over him. Mitchell had a rough outing, allowing eight receptions on 12 targets for 107 yards and a touchdown, per Pro Football Reference. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr had a 122.6 passer rating targeting Mitchell.
Mitchell isn’t the only cornerback who’s been placed in a tough spot. Tre Avery, an undrafted rookie, found himself at times on an island in Week 2 with the Bills’ Stefon Diggs, one of the league’s best receivers. Avery allowed three receptions on three targets for 66 yards and a touchdown, according to Pro Football Reference. Josh Allen had a perfect 158.3 passer rating targeting him.
It hasn’t helped that second-year pro Elijah Molden, the team’s top nickel back, has been on injured reserve since the start of the season.
“There’s just been progress each week,” Fulton said when asked what gives him hope things will change. “I feel like the first few weeks, we’ve probably had some miscommunication that led to busted coverage with guys running wide open or just a bad eye. But I feel like this past week with the (explosive) plays, we were in position for most part, but we just didn’t make the play. So I feel like that’s the challenge for us taking the next step. We’re communicating. Now we just got to be in position to make the plays. We have to be hungry to make the plays.”
Bowen added that the goal is continuing to making offenses “earn it,” as opposed to the defense beating itself.
“Not getting the ball thrown over our head, not giving them creases to gash us for 15, 20 yards in the run game,” he said. “Got to keep things in front of us. Hopefully, make them drive the field.”
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more