NFL

Titans coach Mike Vrabel searching inside (and outside) the building for answers to secondary woes

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Having invested a large amount of draft capital at cornerback over the past three years, the Tennessee Titans couldn’t have expected to be in the dilemma they’re currently in.

They have gone back-to-back weeks allowing 300-yard passing performances to Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.

In the second matchup, the Titans were able to pull out the 24-22 win, but that didn’t stop coach Mike Vrabel from being frustrated by his defensive backs.

“We have got to find some guys that can go out there, cover, challenge and compete,” Vrabel said Sunday. “We’ll keep searching, and we’ve got some guys here that we will give another look to this week.”

The Titans (1-2) are in the bottom 10 in yards allowed per game at 256.3, so there hasn’t been much return on their investments through three games this season.

The Titans selected Kristian Fulton in the second round in 2020, and then used a first-round pick on Caleb Farley in 2021. They went back to the well in the second round in April and took Roger McCreary.

Yet, when they needed a stop late in the fourth quarter Sunday on fourth-and-15, only two of their high draft picks were on the field. Fulton was at right cornerback, and McCreary was lined up over the slot.

Unlike the start of training camp, Farley wasn’t in the lineup. Instead, it was Terrance Mitchell, a defensive back the Titans signed midway through the week.

Wide receiver Mack Hollins managed to get behind Mitchell and caught a 48-yard pass to keep the drive alive for the Raiders (0-3). Hollins outjumped Mitchell and snatched the ball out of the air for a touchdown a few plays later. Tennessee managed to stop the Raiders’ 2-point conversion attempt and secured the win.

Mitchell played 48 snaps on defense while Farley played only one. The risk of starting a guy who joined the team five days earlier over a guy who was the starter entering training camp almost backfired.

Farley’s only snap came on the final drive when Fulton had to come out for a play because of calf cramps.

Fulton missed last week’s game against the Bills, opening the door for Farley to start. Farley was pulled from the lineup at halftime after giving up a 39-yard completion to reserve receiver Jake Kumerow. He was reinserted later after Chris Jackson suffered a knee injury.

It has been a mighty fall from grace for Farley, who was considered to be one of the best defensive backs in the 2021 draft class. A back injury damaged Farley’s prospect status causing him to tumble to Tennessee at No. 22.

Titans general manager Jon Robinson was enamored with Farley’s ability and selected him after getting reassurance from doctors that his health wouldn’t be an issue.

“Extremely competitive, excellent size and speed for the position that he played,” Robinson said after selecting Farley. “He was an easy guy to evaluate off of the film and really just checked every box for us.”

Having only played three games last season because of a torn ACL in his left knee, Farley was hoping to rebound. The Titans indicated that he was expected to start opposite Fulton. Vrabel named Farley as one of the team’s offseason standouts and praised him for his improved physique along with his heightened football IQ.

Despite the head start, Farley was surpassed by the rookie during training camp. It is still unclear exactly what has caused Farley to spiral down the depth chart.

When asked about the situation, Vrabel mentioned how players have to “get comfortable in doing their jobs and making sure they’re understanding the concept of the calls.”

Farley played only 15 snaps in the season opener because the Titans’ defensive staff elected to use a nickel package that consisted of McCreary and Fulton on the outside with newcomer Ugo Amadi, who suffered an ankle injury against Buffalo that has kept him sidelined, up over the slot.

Tennessee’s initial starter at nickel, Elijah Molden, tweaked his groin during training camp and missed significant time before being placed on injured reserve in September. Molden will be eligible to return to practice in Week 5.

Other options on the roster include rookie Tre Avery and practice squad defensive back Nate Brooks. The Titans have used veteran defensive backs Lonnie Johnson and Joshua Kalu in cornerback roles as well.

There’s a good chance the Titans will have to turn back to Farley at some point. Vrabel said he hasn’t lost confidence in Farley and hinted at opportunities in the future, but that doesn’t mean that he and the front office won’t continue to assess the position.

In the meantime, Farley has taken the shortcomings personally but plans to keep grinding away.

“You can only get better, work harder,” Farley said. “Continue to do what they ask you to do. It sucks. It’s embarrassing. There’s really no direct answer for it.”


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