Mike Vrabel is one of the best head coaches in the NFL, but his Titans, the No. 1 seed in the 2022 AFC playoffs, were beaten by the Bengals on Saturday due to several poor decisions late in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee did well to erase a 16-6 third-quarter deficit to tie Cincinnati at home. That didn’t matter when the Titans’ disastrous final two possessions allowed the Bengals to walk away with a 19-16 victory in the divisional round on a game-winning field goal by rookie Evan McPherson.
The Titans’ last two series started out promising, only to come up empty on both and, worse, also position the Bengals to produce the winning points.
Vrabel likes to win attrition battles with the physical game and his run-fueled offense. Here’s how he backfired, twice, in the fourth quarter:
The Titans’ defense sacked Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (which they did nine times in all) to get their opponent out of field goal range and return the ball to them with 11:18 remaining in a 16-game game. 16. Derrick Henry’s backup, D’Onta Foreman, who probably should have started, opened the drive with runs of 9 and 10 yards. Wide receiver AJ Brown stayed hot and made another big play to keep the chains moving.
But after two brief completions to wide receiver Julio Jones, the Titans completely blew a third-and-1 at the Bengals 35-yard line. Instead of running Foreman or Henry to get the necessary inches, they tried to convert by keeping the ball in the hands of quarterback Ryan Tannehill with a low-percentage outside run from the shotgun instead of a traditional QB breakout from the center.
Tannehill lost yards. The Titans then returned to a predictable run down the middle on fourth-and-1. Henry, not as explosive as usual after a serious foot injury (which was evident on most of his previous carries), was pleased. . If Foreman had touched the ball on either of those occasions, there’s a good chance the Titans would have moved the chains. Instead, they turned the ball over on downs at the edge of field goal range.
2. The Titans show horrible clock management and miss their QB
The Titans, despite earlier failure, were able to get the ball back with the game still tied at 16-16 after another big sack by Burrow. With just 2:43 remaining, they had the necessary added benefit of two timeouts remaining when they started trading from their 16.
Instead of throwing with Tannehill on the first few downs to start a fast march to field goal range, they wasted the first 43 seconds before the two-minute warning through a 3-yard dust cloud from Henry. The next play was much smarter, a 16-yard pass to Jones. They were lucky there were only 14 more seconds left in the play, because the Bengals were forced to call timeout with defensive end Trey Hendrickson injured.
But with 1:46 remaining, there was another run by Henry, this time for no gain. The Titans didn’t call a timeout despite being only at their own 35-yard line. With 1:08 left on the second and long, they settled for a useless 5-yard throw to third-string running back Dontrell Hilliard on the next play.
On the resulting 3rd and 5th of their 40, the Titans were suddenly back in aggressive passing mode with less than half a minute left. Unfortunately for them, the referees didn’t see Bengals coach Zac Taylor trying to help the Titans by calling another timeout. Tannehill forced a shot into coverage that was deflected for an interception, his third pick of the game. Three offensive plays later, the Bengals had won.
Vrabel and offensive coordinator Todd Downing will think hard about what might have been a bad night for Tannehill when he wasn’t throwing to Brown. But they still could have rewarded his great defensive effort against Burrow with better late decisions. While it was a boost to have Henry back and give him 20 carries, they should also be called into question for not featuring the much healthier super backup Foreman, who outscored him 66-62 on just four carries. The Titans also blew a key point by failing to convert an early 2-point attempt with Henry.
“Well, I don’t think Ryan or I or anyone else has done enough to win the game,” Vrabel said in his postgame news conference. “That’s how it works. It’s never going to be about one person, not as long as I’m the head coach, which will be a while.”
Under Vrabel, the Titans try to win games with the right situational mix of aggressive and conservative, which has worked so well during his tenure and should continue for many seasons. They were caught somewhere in the middle against the Bengals and fell for a big Tennessee trap.