The loss of their top two pass-receiving targets of the past couple of years has come home to roost for the Tennessee Titans.
A week one injury to Delanie Walker has left the tight end position virtually void of production in the passing game, and the abrupt departure of wide receiver Rishard Matthews has left the wide receiving corps painfully low in depth, as a backup receiver dropped a touchdown pass for the second game in a row in Sunday’s 13-12 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
As ugly as Nick Williams’ drop of a wide-open pass that might have won the game was on Sunday, the bigger concern right now might be at the tight end position.
Walker, a Pro Bowl talent, has been the most productive part of the Titans’ passing game since joining the franchise in 2013. No one player was expected to pick up all the receptions that left when he went down, but without Walker, the tight ends contributions to the pass game have been virtually nothing.
For the second week in a row, Titans tight ends did not catch a single pass, and were rarely even targeted on Sunday. Since Walker suffered a dislocated ankle late in week one at Miami, Titans tight ends have caught just four passes in four weeks. To put that into proper perspective, Walker caught four passes against the Dolphins before he was injured.
Since then, Luke Stocker has three catches (five total for the season) and Jonnu Smith, who was expected to alleviate some of the sting of losing Walker, has been on a milk carton with just one reception on the year.
“We’re just looking to improve and make plays when they come our way,” Smith said Monday. “We have to find ways to get open and contribute to this offense, whether it’s in the run game, the pass game or whatever it is.
“You can’t get frustrated. You’ve got to stay even keeled. You can’t get too high or get too low, and you have to know there are brighter days ahead.”
Titans coach Mike Vrabel defending Smith’s play, saying that his blocking was better Sunday than it had been against the Eagles the week before. Vrabel did say, however that the trust factor needs to improve.
“We all have to do more, including, anybody that would be a target for the quarterback. It’s the quarterback’s job to throw to those that are open and then continue to build trust in those players,” Vrabel said. “As a tight end, you’re involved in the blocking game, the running game, so you have to be able to block and protect, protect on play action passes, then get open. Those are things as a tight end, you’re always trying to work on.
“Jonnu got better. He was able to protect the edges on the play passes yesterday, whereas with Philly, he may have given a little bit of leakage into the middle. I thought he protected better. Then obviously, building confidence with Marcus (Mariota) and the quarterbacks.”
Vrabel said the trust can only be developed through practice and then carrying that over into in-game execution.
As for the chemistry with Mariota and Smith in the pass game, the coach said, “I think at times it’s there. I think at times it could be better.”
Meanwhile, at the back of the receiver rotation, Williams’ drop on Sunday might have been an even more egregious mistake than the drop by Darius Jennings the previous week. Vrabel would not be specific as to whether the Titans are in the market for receiver help, saying that he and general manager Jon Robinson continue to evaluate the roster.
“I think that Jon and I continue to evaluate the roster going forward at all positions, including wide receiver,” Vrabel said. “We have to see where we are health-wise, and then, always, I think that we’re going to try to do what’s best for the team.
“There’s mistakes that happen in the game. We just have to make sure why they’re happening. Is it focus? Is it coaching? Is it execution? Or is it just a mistake? Did you just get beat? Was the guy better than you on that play? We’ll continue to look at the roster and see who’s going to give us a chance to hopefully beat the Ravens.”