Cardinals vs. Titans: Takeaways from Tennessee's 37-34 Loss to Arizona
The Tennessee Titans almost pulled off a big upset against Arizona. Despite leading by 17 points late in the fourth quarter, the Arizona Cardinals squandered their lead and let the Titans score 17 unanswered points to tie it up.
Unfortunately for the Titans, the Cardinals still pulled out the win in overtime and officially removed the Titans from playoff contention.
Playing a nine-win team that may have the NFL's best defense closely is certainly encouraging, but a loss is still a loss.
Here are seven takeaways from the game.
1. Ryan Fitzpatrick Can Extend a Play Like Nobody's Business
Ryan Fitzpatrick was running for his life against the Cardinals, but amazingly, he escaped time and time again. He was sacked three times over the course of the game, but considering how many times he was pressured, that's a very small number.
In fact, Fitzpatrick extending plays like he did was one of the things that kept the Titans in the game.
He has problems with interceptions and deep passes, but Fitzpatrick can do a lot of things well. It's uncertain what his future with the team is with a new regime likely to move in, but he's making a good case to stay on as a high-end backup.
2. Cutting Chris Johnson Is the Right Move
There have been rumors floating around that the Titans are looking to cut Chris Johnson in the offseason. The front office says that they've made no decisions on the matter, via Mike Florio of NBC Sports, but with his limited production over the last few seasons and enormous salary, the move would make sense.
Johnson is still a capable playmaker, but he isn't the elite running back he was four years ago. Johnson is due $8 million as a base salary in 2014, and for someone who can't be relied on for 1,000 yards in a season (he currently has 860 rushing yards on the season), that's too much.
Against the Cardinals, Johnson only had 40 rushing yards on 13 carries. He has averaged only 3.7 yards per carry on the season.
With the retooled offensive line and a dangerous passing game that defenses have to account for, Johnson is out of excuses for not producing.
It'd be nice to keep him on the roster, but he's too costly. If the Titans are going to spend the money they'll have to to retain some of this season's free agents, cutting Johnson will certainly make things a lot easier.
3. The Titans' Receivers Are Looking Better and Better
Kendall Wright had an awesome game. He showed an ability to match up with some of the NFL's best corners and still make catches. He showed toughness. And he continued to show the great hands and quickness that have been a part of his play from the very beginning.
Delanie Walker came back strong from injury, continuing to earn a reputation as a reliable red-zone target.
Nate Washington continues to be reliable, and all that was without Justin Hunter, who missed the game because of a violation of team rules. He had a breakout performance in Week 14 against the Broncos.
4. Cornerback May Not Be a Draft Need
Alterraun Verner came into Week 15 leading the NFL in passes defended and tied for second in interceptions. Despite his short stature and his limits in a man-coverage scheme, he's a great player, and someone is probably going to be offering him a boatload of money in free agency.
The chances that the Titans will be able to retain him are slim, especially with a new regime in town to which he won't feel any loyalty.
With Verner probably gone, corner has looked like a big need for the Titans in the upcoming 2014 NFL draft.
However, they may not have that big of a need after all. Tommie Campbell was nipping at Verner's heels for the starting spot during the offseason, and Coty Sensabaugh has turned into a very promising player in his own right.
Against the Cardinals, Sensabaugh broke up a pass against Larry Fitzgerald. He ended the day with five tackles and one pass defended.
Sensabaugh still isn't the best tackler in the backfield, and he struggled covering Fitzgerald (who doesn't?), but he's made tremendous progress in his second season. Between Sensabaugh, Campbell and rookie Blidi Wreh-Wilson, the Titans may have enough young, improving corners to forgo spending a high pick on the position, even if they can't retain Verner.
5. An Edge-Rusher Should Be on the Offseason Wish List
The Titans' pass defense has been far better than their run defense for most of the season. One reason is because Alterraun Verner and Bernard Pollard have really improved two areas of weakness from last year, but another is the great pass rush the Titans have gotten from the interior defensive line.
Jurrell Casey hit double-digit sack numbers against the Cardinals, and he could very well be the best defensive tackle in the NFL right now. Still, the fact that so much of the pressure on quarterbacks has come from inside doesn't speak well to the pressure from the edge.
Derrick Morgan has spent a lot of time in opposing teams' backfields, but his pressures haven't translated to sacks the way I thought they would in the preseason.
Ropati Pitoitua has made a lot of splash plays, but he isn't the kind of end that defensive coordinators have to plan around, and he'll be a free agent after this season anyway.
The Titans should strongly consider using an early pick on a pass-rushing defensive end. With more pressure from the outside, the defensive tackles and linebackers could focus more on stopping the run, which has been a problem for the Titans this season.
It'd also be nice to lend some support to Derrick Morgan and Jurrell Casey.
6. Penalties Made a Big Difference
The Titans have had trouble with penalties this season. A lot of trouble.
Against the Cardinals, however, things changed. The Cardinals gave up penalty after penalty, while the Titans played with a lot more discipline than they usually do. In fact, the Titans' second scoring drive was only made possible by a series of penalties on the Cardinals.
The Titans ended up getting only three penalties for 16 yards. Compare that to the nine penalties for 69 yards that the Cardinals picked up, and it's easy to see the difference it made.
Getting rid of the penalty yards that usually go against them made the Titans able to hang with the Cardinals for a lot longer than they should have. Had they been able to play like that in some earlier games against lesser teams, things could have turned out very differently for them.
7. Despite the Disappointing Season, the Titans Are Close to Playoff Contention
With the Titans being officially eliminated from the playoffs after this loss, the season is a wrap. Mike Munchak is likely on his way out, but despite coming short of expectations, he managed to build a very talented roster.
Justin Hunter, Kendall Wright, Nate Washington and Delanie Walker will be great weapons for whoever the Titans' quarterback is in 2014. Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack will hopefully perform better next year after having a year to jell with the other linemen, and rookie center Brian Schwenke will hopefully continue to develop as well.
On the other side of the ball, Derrick Morgan and Jurrell Casey lead an excellent defensive line, while Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown make the linebackers nothing to sleep on.
The defensive backfield will suffer in free agency, but the group of young corners will get better and may even produce a starter to stand across from Jason McCourty.
Had Jake Locker managed to stay healthy all season, who knows how different things might have been, but that just wasn't in the cards. At least there's a lot of talent to build around.