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By Joe Rexrode
November 16, 2017
Vince Williams sacks Marcus Mariota in the second half of Thursday's game in Pittsburgh (George Walker IV/Tennessean)
PITTSBURGH — The Tennessee Titans have been making the mistakes that help blah teams stay with them, but they’ve been overcoming those gaffes, winning those games and advancing toward their first playoff berth since 2008.
The advance certainly isn’t over after Thursday’s 40-17 thumping delivered by the Pittsburgh Steelers at cold-yet-loud Heinz Field. The mistakes are getting out of hand, though. Good teams, the kind you see in the playoffs, burn you for them.
"The dam kind of broke," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of a game that was 16-14 Pittsburgh early in the third and 23-17 early in the fourth.
"They kicked our butts in that second half," Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard said.
"If you throw four interceptions," Marcus Mariota said of his career high, "it's tough to win."
This really could have been a different game. A game of some sort, at least. That seems ridiculous to say aloud in light of the final score. Maybe Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and a loaded offense that blazed through the second half would have made it easy for the 8-2 Steelers either way. But consider the Titans’ list of football sins
• A Mariota pass that got away from him on the first possession, sailing over the head of receiver Rishard Matthews and into the hands of Pittsburgh’s Mike Hilton. That led to a field goal to make it 10-0 Steelers because the Titans’ defense stepped up in the sudden-change situation.
• Inadequate blocking that got Titans placekicker Ryan Succop’s first field goal of the night blocked.
• Another Mariota pick, this on a stare-down of rookie receiver Corey Davis, with the Titans driving in the second quarter and trailing 10-7. At that point the Steelers had 98 total yards, 56 interception return yards and the lead. Mularkey put that one on Davis for not coming back to fight for the ball, but it can't be thrown.
"When it comes down to it," Mariota said, "I'm the one that makes the decision."
• A Jurrell Casey personal foul for roughing the passer on the Steelers’ first drive of the second half, after Mariota hit Matthews for a 75-yard catch and run to cut the lead to 16-14. The penalty helped keep a drive alive that ended in a touchdown. And yes, it was a ticky-tack call. But as Casey found out in the preseason, a fingernail scrape anywhere low on a quarterback is going to be called.
• On the drive after that, Mariota moved the Titans right downfield and put a pass on tight end Delanie Walker in the end zone that couldn’t have been more perfect. Walker dropped it. The Titans settled for Succop from 44 yards and a 23-17 deficit, and they were never in the game again.
"I'm very upset ... that could have been a momentum changer," said Walker, a guy who usually catches everything.
"That's big," Mularkey said. "I mean, it's hard to get that open, hard to get plays like that."
And then there was the strange sequence at the end of the first half, Mularkey taking timeouts with the Steelers driving to make it 13-7 so Mariota could have time for his own drive. The Titans then went run, screen, run; Steelers coach Mike Tomlin used his timeouts; and Roethlisberger happily made the plays for a 16-7 lead at the half instead. Yes, the officials mistakenly let the Steelers advance a Brown fumble, providing 10 crucial yards. But hey, the officials were just following the Titans' lead.
Some are going to look at this as an outright exposure of the Titans. It’s true, their defense gave up touchdowns on the first three possessions of the second half, beloved former Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau ending up with a sour homecoming.
But the Titans won’t see guys like this again during the regular season. Brown (144 yards, three touchdowns) and Le’Veon Bell (103 total yards) make up the best receiver-runner combo in the NFL. The Steelers also have one of the best defenses in the league, statistically speaking, though the Titans should have done more to take advantage of a banged-up secondary.
But Mariota simply made some plays you can’t make if you want to have a chance in games like this, against opponents like this. He wasn't alone.
This team is 6-4, still in good shape, the first four-game winning streak since 2009 halted but a welcoming schedule ahead. The Titans just need to be within a game of the 6-3 Jacksonville Jaguars and beat them in the regular-season finale at Nissan Stadium to win the AFC South.
That would be a huge step forward for this franchise. But the struggles of the past few weeks look worse in light of this humiliation. And Thursday was a look at just how small the Titans’ margin for error will be – and how ugly another batch of them will be – if they do make it to January football.
Reach Joe Rexrode at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.