Vrabel Makes Clear The Struggling Titans Will Not Coast To End Of Season

FILE - Tennessee Titans punter Ryan Stonehouse (4) is helped from the field after being injured on a play during their NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts Dec. 3, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel announced Monday, Dec. 4, the firing of special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman after the Titans had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown followed by Stonehouse's season-ending injury on his next punt attempt. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)
FILE - Tennessee Titans punter Ryan Stonehouse (4) is helped from the field after being injured on a play during their NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts Dec. 3, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel announced Monday, Dec. 4, the firing of special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman after the Titans had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown followed by Stonehouse's season-ending injury on his next punt attempt. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel dispelled any thought that the Titans will coast to the finish of their struggling season Monday.

He fired special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman after an overtime loss to Indianapolis that thinned the Titans' anemic playoff hopes, a game lost in part due to a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown with their record-setting punter knocked out for the season on his next attempt.

“I felt like the timing was what it needed to be,” Vrabel said in announcing that special teams assistant Tom Quinn will take over for the rest of this season.

Vrabel made the move with the Titans (4-8) now having to find a punter to replace Ryan Stonehouse who will be having season-ending surgery on his left, non-kicking leg. As a rookie, Stonehouse set an NFL single-season record for gross yards per punt that had stood since 1940.

“Certainly don't want to lose a player, and that's unfortunate,” Vrabel said.

Stonehouse also holds on field goals and extra points, and veteran Nick Folk missed his first extra point of the season with backup quarterback and holder Ryan Tannehill filling in. That cost the Titans a 26-25 lead late in regulation.

Asked about the mistakes, Vrabel said the Titans just have to be better moving forward. They haven't been eliminated officially, but they stood ahead of only New England (2-10) in the AFC standings Monday.

WHAT’S WORKING

The defense. Yes, they gave up 31 points through overtime, but they held the Colts to 1 of 5 when backed up inside their 20. They allowed three field goals and forced a fumble inside their 10. The one touchdown? That came in overtime.

Tennessee ranks second in the NFL inside the red zone, allowing touchdowns on only 37.2% of trips.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The offense. Yes, they opened with their first touchdown this season on the opening drive. They also jumped out to a 17-7 lead that could've been bigger if an official had called defensive pass interference or illegal contact with Nick Cross not looking for the ball while defending DeAndre Hopkins on third-and-6 late in the first quarter.

But this unit had four straight three-and-outs and couldn't stay on the field much of the second half.

STOCK UP

Rookie QB Will Levis. He has been sacked 19 times just like Ryan Tannehill was through his first six starts. But Levis has seven touchdown passes and only two interceptions despite being 2-4 as a starter. Even when the ball was knocked out of his hand, he ran downfield and recovered it when Colts safety Julian Blackmon fumbled.

The 33rd pick overall out of Kentucky drove the Titans to a fourth-quarter touchdown that should've put them ahead if not for the missed PAT. He also drove the offense to a field goal in overtime for the lead.

STOCK DOWN

Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. Yes, the Titans matched a season high by scoring 28 points. They also had season highs with 25 first downs, 12 rushing first downs, 177 yards rushing and in time of possession of more than 38 minutes. But the offense could not stay on the field or run the clock enough to protect the lead.

INJURIES

Not only did the Titans lose Stonehouse for the rest of this season, Vrabel said two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons will miss a couple of weeks after hurting his right knee. Simmons tore his left ACL in February 2019 before being drafted in April.

Some good news for Tennessee is that two-time NFL rushing champ Derrick Henry is not in the concussion protocol after being removed from the game early in the fourth quarter. He went inside the medical tent, then the locker room and didn't return. He still finished with his third 100-yard rushing game this season.

CB Kristian Fulton aggravated a hamstring late in overtime.

KEY NUMBER

5 — Hopkins became only the fifth NFL player with at least 900 catches (903), 12,000 yards receiving (12,072) and 75 TD catches (76) within his first 11 seasons. He joined Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice, Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald. He also extended his active streak to 157 straight games with a catch for every game he's played since entering the NFL, the longest active streak in the league and fourth longest in NFL history. He can tie Marshall Faulk (158) for third against Miami.

NEXT STEPS

Heal up for the tall task of trying to end a road skid going back to November 2022 when they prepare to visit Miami (9-3) on Dec. 11. Going into Monday, the Dolphins currently hold the AFC's No. 1 playoff spot.

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