Titans are 5-1, but their defense can't get off the field on third down

Diontae Johnson and the Steelers caught Titans cornerback Johnathan Joseph in soft coverage for a touchdown in the first half Sunday. AP Photo/Wade Payne

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A quick glance at the NFL's defensive rankings for third-down efficiency yields a surprising result for a 5-1 team.

Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel is known for his defensive pedigree, but his defense is allowing an NFL-worst 60.9% third-down conversion rate.

"It's all got to be tied together. We've gotta have all 11 guys executing. We've gotta coach it better and execute better," Vrabel said of his team's third-down defense.

Last Sunday's 27-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers highlighted the Titans' inability to get off the field on third down. The Steelers converted 13 of 18 third-down attempts (72%) on Sunday. That is the fifth-highest percentage by any team in a game this season, per ESPN Stats & Information research.

This came after the Titans' defense allowed the Buffalo Bills to convert 13 of their 17 third-down opportunities (76%) two weeks ago. Through six games, the Titans have allowed two of the five highest percentage third-down conversions by opposing offenses.

The 13 third-down conversions were the most for Pittsburgh in a game since 1999 (15 at Browns in 1999). In the first half alone, the Steelers converted 8 of 9 attempts for their highest third-down conversion percentage in a half in 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Of the Steelers' 13 conversions, four of them came on third-and-7 or longer.

The Titans' defensive struggles can be tied to an assortment of factors.

"It starts with communication -- it starts with the coverage, the rush," safety Kevin Byard said after the game. "Everything has to be coordinated, because I don't think that we're really -- we're not as detailed as we need to be, whether it's third-and-short, third-and-medium or third-and-long, we're giving up all the varieties. It comes down to pride, honestly. I think it comes down to pride and taking pride that we have to be better on third down. You have to take pride on third downs, especially third-and-longs when we have a good percentage of actually getting off the field, to get off the field."

Vrabel and the Titans' defensive coaching staff have relied more on zone coverage lately. The soft coverage allows receivers to easily run their routes and not have the timing of the passing game disrupted. At the same time, the pass rush is unable to get consistent pressure. When those things occur simultaneously, the result is a defense that can't get off the field.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger relied on the quick passing game against the Titans. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he averaged 2.02 seconds from snap to throw in the game.

When teams use zone defense, it's imperative for the defenders to tackle the receivers immediately, preventing yards after the catch. Pittsburgh trusted its receivers to make plays after Roethlisberger quickly got them the ball.

That's exactly what Diontae Johnson did. Roethlisberger connected with Johnson on quick slants for two touchdowns. Johnson's second touchdown reception came against Johnathan Joseph, who was in off coverage.

With Joseph playing 7 yards off the ball, Johnson simply took one step off the line and cut his route inside to create an easy throw for Roethlisberger. As Joseph tried to close the gap, Johnson put his foot in the ground and reversed field, causing Joseph to miss the tackle and casually strolled into the end zone for the score.

"Just got to do better tackling and covering and getting a better rush on the quarterback and making plays on third down. It’s pretty detrimental to our team when we can’t get off the field on third downs, and the Steelers did a really good job with taking advantage of that today," linebacker Jayon Brown said.

The Titans are left to examine ways to get back on track Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"You have a couple of choices," Vrabel said. "Are you going to play man? Are you going to play post safety zone, split safety zone and pressure? There are times where that has happened. Just not consistently enough. Then you see times where we have impactful rushers and guys are into the pocket or getting their hands up to tip the ball. We are going to have to continue with that and show them the impact that makes in turning the football over."