One of the Tennessee Titans‘ biggest issues was clear as day in their Sunday Night Football loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Start with the second quarter, a Titans’ third-and-9 from their own 40 with 2:09 left before halftime. Rookie quarterback Malik Willis threw a perfect pass down the sideline into the lap of veteran receiver Chris Conley, facing single-man coverage. Conley dropped the pass. The ball bounced off his arm.
Then look at the fourth quarter. The Titans again with the ball, facing 2nd-and-9 from the Chiefs 38. Willis gave another receiver, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, a chance down the sideline, this time for a first-and-goal. But Westbrook-Ikhine, facing tight coverage but with a clean opportunity at a catch, bobbled the pass as he leaped for the grab. Incomplete.
“I know (Willis) made some really nice balls that got up and down that hopefully we can figure out a way to catch and come down with,” coach Mike Vrabel said postgame.
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Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs needed overtime to defeat the Derrick Henry led Tennessee Titans in Week 9.
But those were two examples, among many others this season, of why the Titans (5-3) have missed A.J. Brown this season. Why they’ve been haunted by trading him away to the Philadelphia Eagles during the offseason.
Tennessee’s personnel haven’t proved they can consistently make plays on the outside. With a strong Derrick Henry-led run game and an elite defense, the wide receiver concerns are shaping into an Achilles Heel for the Titans’ hopes of a deep playoff run.
Titans wide receivers had zero catches on five targets against the Chiefs, making Tennessee just the fourth team in the last six seasons to not have a wide receiver record a catch in a game, according to Next Gen Stats.
“We just go back to work,” Westbrook-Ikhine said postgame of the receivers’ struggles.
But the issues go far beyond the Kansas City game. Entering Week 10, Titans wide receivers this season have a combined 658 receiving yards — fewer than seven NFL pass catchers, including six wide receivers: the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill (1,104), Vikings’ Justin Jefferson (867), Bills’ Stefon Diggs (857), Rams’ Cooper Kupp (813), Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle (812), Brown (718) and the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce (659).
Sure, the Titans boast a run-first offense — they’ve called a run play or scrambled on 58.5% of their plays this season (249 of 425) — but their receivers haven’t been great at capitalizing on their opportunities either. Combined, they have a catch rate of just 58%, fifth-worst among NFL receiver rooms (only above the Panthers, Bears, Broncos and Cowboys), per Next Gen Stats.
A major issue? Titans pass catchers struggle to create separation, making it difficult to capitalize on the one-on-one opportunities that have come — and will continue to come – with Henry getting so much attention in the box. Tennessee wide receivers and tight ends this season average just 2.8 yards of separation from the nearest defender at the time of a catch or completion, tied with Cleveland for worst in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats.
In fact, Titans pass catchers (WRs, TEs, RBs combined) hold three of the four worst games in 2022 league-wide in regards to average separation, per NGS: Week 5 vs. the Commanders (2.2 yards), Week 7 vs. the Colts (2.3) and Week 9 vs. the Chiefs (2.3).
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Injuries haven’t helped the Brown-less Titans receiver room. They have three of their top seven wideouts on injured reserve: rookies Treylon Burks (toe) and Kyle Philips (hamstring), and second-year pro Racey McMath. Burks, however, was designated to return to practice Wednesday and could return as soon as Sunday vs. the Broncos. That’s good news.
Tennessee’s first-round pick, Burks has 10 catches for 129 yards in four games.
“That’s the plan,” Burks said Wednesday of playing against Denver. “We’ll see how this week goes.”
But how much of a difference can Burks realistically make in the last nine games of the regular season? While the former Arkansas was certainly ascending before his injury, he’s averaged just 32.3 receiving yards per game in four appearances. Philips (hamstring) can’t return until Week 12. Coach Mike Vrabel indicated earlier in the season that McMath may have a chance to come back later this season.
Banking on those three, including a fifth-round pick (Philips) and a second-year pro who had two receptions last season (McMath), to lift the NFL’s second-worst passing attack (136.3 passing yards/game) almost accentuates the sad state of the wide receiver room.
Even if the Titans planned to trade for one by the deadline earlier this month, it’s not clear how they would’ve made the numbers work. They had just $1.5 million in cap space in the days ahead of the deadline.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the Titans. After trading for veteran Robert Woods in March, on paper they had a No. 2 receiver and seemingly perfect complement to Brown. And it still felt like there was a good chance Tennessee would draft a receiver early, too.
Then the shocking trade of Brown, who was entering the last year of his rookie deal, came during the first day of the draft. There was no public expectation he’d be dealt until it happened. Tennessee sent the star receiver to Philadelphia for the 18th – which became Burks – and the 101st overall pick in the 2022 draft.
Extension negotiations had gone awry. There was a gap between the sides. Brown later told ESPN the Titans gave him a “low offer.” Meanwhile, Tennessee felt that Brown’s camp played hardball in negotiations. He stopped communicating with the team for weeks and vowed to stay off the field until a new contract was reached.
As the Eagles’ No. 1 receiver, Brown is thriving. He has 43 receptions for 718 yards and six touchdowns in eight games. He’s on pace for career highs across the board.
According to general manager Jon Robinson, the decision to trade Brown was a “tough one.”
“We got to a spot where it was going to be hard to get a deal done and the trade thing kind of manifested itself from (there),” Robinson said in April.
For the Titans this season, what’s manifesting in the receiving game is missed opportunities.
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.
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