The Titans have given it away 13 times over their last four games. For a team with designs on playing deep into January and hopefully beyond, it’s a pattern that simply can’t continue. And they know it.
“We talk about it on the field,” Tannehill said. “We talk about it during practice. We emphasize it and work drills to have good ball security and finish. Just unfortunately we’re not translating it right now. We have to find a way as an offense, everybody who is involved, to carry over what we work in practice onto the football field on Sundays.”
It’s not happening at the moment. While Tennessee remains in control of the AFC South with three games remaining, it missed out on a chance to leapfrog New England for the inside track on homefield advantage in the AFC and the bye that comes with it.
Not that the Titans can afford to look that far ahead. For as dominant as they can appear at times — Tennessee rolled up 201 yards rushing and controlled the ball for more than 39 minutes on Sunday — the Titans are also prone to the kind of errors that end seasons prematurely.
Tennessee turned the ball over on three straight possessions in the second half, twice on fumbles and a third on an interception by Tannehill. The Steelers (7-6-1) converted each miscue into a field goal by Chris Boswell to win on a day in which they managed all of 168 yards of total offense against a Titans defense that stuffed them at nearly every turn.
“We have to play cleaner football,” said Tannehill, who threw for 153 yards and ran for his seventh touchdown of the season, a 1-yard quarterback sneak in the first quarter. “I felt like we moved the ball throughout the game … But when you turn the ball over, you put yourself in a bad position.”
A position the Titans have found themselves in far too frequently of late. They committed five turnovers in an upset home loss to Houston, gave it away four times while getting drilled on the road by New England. A lackluster but mistake-free victory over hapless Jacksonville appeared to have Tennessee pointed in the right direction.
Some of the turnovers, the Steelers legitimately forced. Others, like a bungled exchange between Tannehill and center Ben Jones that set up the last of Boswell’s four field goals, were self-inflicted.
“I don’t think we ever had one on the ground in practice or anything,” Tannehill said, later adding, “For whatever reason, I didn’t get a handle on it. Just terrible timing for something like that to come up.”
The blunders overshadowed an otherwise commanding performance. D’Onta Foreman topped 100 yards rushing for the second time in three games while filling in for the injured Derrick Henry. The defense sacked Ben Roethlisberger three times, limited Steelers rookie running back Najee Harris to 18 yards on 12 carries, held Pittsburgh to just 2 of 11 on third down and didn’t give up a play longer than 19 yards.
It should have been enough. It should have been more than enough.
“We just didn’t play better than their defense,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said. “Their defense came up and made some plays. That’s the way it goes.”
Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel refused to place the blame exclusively on his offense. He pointed out that for all the carelessness, the Titans still had a chance to win the game late.
Relying heavily on the running game, Tennessee drove to the Pittsburgh 16, where it faced fourth-and-7. Tannehill hit Nick Westbrook-Ikhine at the 10. Westbrook-Ikhine was met immediately by Pittsburgh cornerback Joe Haden and pushed back. The official measurement came up inches short of a first down as an opportunity to deal the Steelers’ postseason hopes a serious blow vanished.
Asked if the game “got away” from his team, Vrabel bristled.
“Got away? No, it didn’t look like that to me,” he said. “It looked like we came up a few inches short on fourth down. … (Our guys) compete and I appreciate that out of them. I enjoy coaching them and I know we’re always going to have a shot. It might not be pretty, but the guys are competing and fighting for each other.”
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