NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)The Tennessee Titans are facing their biggest challenge of Mike Vrabel’s five seasons as head coach.
A year ago, Vrabel guided the Titans through using an NFL -record 91 players with two-time NFL rushing champ Derrick Henry missing the final nine games to the AFC’s No. 1 seed and a 12-5 record. That earned Vrabel the AP NFL Coach of the Year award.
This season, they’ve used 80 different players, and their grip on the AFC South is slipping way.
The Titans (7-7) have lost four straight in their longest skid since the end of the 2015 season with the latest a 17-14 road loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Their four-game lead in search of a third straight division title is down to one with three games remaining, and the regular-season finale at Jacksonville (6-8) very well could decide whether Tennessee makes the playoffs for a fourth straight year.
And now the Titans get to do it on a short week in hosting Houston (1-12-1) on Saturday.
Asked Monday how they keep the faith amidst the growing injury woes and execution issues, Vrabel said they have to be professionals.
”We have to come to work,” Vrabel said. ”We all have a job to do. We have to excel at it. We have to do our job better. And we have to continue to find ways to not hurt ourselves in all three phases.”
The defense snapped a four-game drought without forcing a turnover with two interceptions and held Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert without a touchdown pass for only the third time in his career. The Titans looked like the defense that held eight straight opponents to 20 points or fewer despite a rotating cast of defenders.
Two-time All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, who had one interception in the third quarter, wasn’t thinking playoffs after the loss.
”It don’t look like we’re a team right now that’s going to beat anybody, so we’ve got to find a way to get back to work and beat Houston,” Byard said. ”That’s all we can really do at this point.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Offensive play-calling. Too often the Titans rotate Henry off the field on third down. The two-time NFL rushing champ is having a career season as a receiver in both catches (30) and yards (379), and he was on the sideline for one of the third-and-2s the Titans failed to convert with short passes.
Vrabel said he’s responsible for every call that goes in. That would include a pass on third-and-9 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter from the Chargers 24 when Ryan Tannehill missed an open receiver to his right before being sacked for a 9-yard loss. That forced Randy Bullock to attempt a 51-yard field goal.
Henry finished with 104 yards rushing and led them with 59 yards receiving. Even a run for no gain would’ve left the Titans with a shorter field-goal attempt. Vrabel also said he thought of going for two after Tannehill scored with 48 seconds left before kicking the extra point.
Rookie CB Roger McCreary. He had one of Tennessee’s defensive highlights of the season when he tipped a pass while in the air to teammate Joshua Kalu for an interception in the end zone late in the first half.
LT Dennis Daley. He started and finished with 47 snaps, though he rotated with Dillon Radunz before the second-year lineman hurt a knee and didn’t finish the game.
The Titans ruled seven out before flying to California and have 16 on injured reserve. Eight more were hurt in this loss led by Tannehill, Radunz, right guard Nate Davis, linebackers Dylan Cole and Jack Gibbens and defensive backs Terrance Mitchell, Josh Thompson and Andrew Adams.
Tannehill was carted to the locker room after rolling his right ankle in the first quarter, a move he said later was a time-saver. He returned heavily taped and wound up running for the tying TD. He also completed all six of his passes on the final drive.
2 – Win two of the final three, and the Titans clinch a third straight division title.
The Titans finally get their first back-to-back home games – six days apart. They host Houston on Saturday, then play their second Thursday night game this season on Dec. 29 in hosting the Dallas Cowboys.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker
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