Only a few weeks ago, the Tennessee Titans were 5-0 and the Chicago Bears were 5-1.
The teams were in control of their divisions and looking to secure positioning for a serious playoff run.
Suddenly, they meet Sunday in Nashville in desperate need of a rebound.
‘‘We’re an elite team, and we can play at a high level,” Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said. “The consistency behind that is something we need to improve throughout the course of the game.”
While a serious playoff run isn’t out of question for either team after back-to-back losses, recent failures are placing real importance on the teams’ meeting Sunday in Nashville.
Tennessee (5-2) is making changes to a defense that is becoming a bigger liability with each game. The Titans cut defensive back Johnathan Joseph and traded for Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Desmond King, while also cutting ties with linebacker Vic Beasley, a pass-rusher who did next to nothing in his five games with the team.
“Not every decision that we make works out,” said general manager Jon Robinson of Beasley. “We spent a lot of time working with him, trying to get him going. … At the end of the day, we felt this was best for the football team.”
Last week’s 31-20 loss in Cincinnati shined a brighter light on a defense that isn’t ready for prime time by a long shot. Tennessee put little pressure on rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, failing to record a sack, and allowed the Bengals to convert 10 of 15 third downs.
Getting off the field has been a struggle of horrific proportions for the AFC South co-leaders. Opponents are cashing in on nearly 62 percent of their third down plays, the worst ratio for an NFL team since 1991.
“Put it all on me – that’s my job,” said Titans coach Mike Vrabel. “My job is to make sure that we go out there, and that we have the details covered and that the plays we are calling, every player on our team knows what is expected of them. When we lose, put it on me.”
The Bears are 5-3 and have been anything but consistent.
Chicago was able to move the ball a bit better last week, but still fell 26-23 at home to New Orleans on Wil Lutz’s 35-yard field goal with 1:40 left in overtime. Nick Foles threw for 272 yards and two touchdowns, while David Montgomery supplied 89 yards on 21 rushes, including a season-high 38-yard run in the second quarter.
“There were spurts that we were better,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “We took some shots. We were able to take advantage of some of them and make them happen. Being able to score and force overtime was great.”
But as Nagy also acknowledges, Chicago must find a rhythm. Its offense ranks 28th in points per game (20.1), 28th in yards per game (332.0) and 31st in rushing yards per game (85.6).
Or to put it another way, Tennessee running back Derrick Henry out-rushes the Bears by himself on a per-game basis. Henry’s 775 yards leads the NFL by 123 over Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, and his eight running touchdowns trail only Cook’s 10 in the league.
Consistency might be fleeting for the Bears considering the health issues at hand. Nagy allowed Wednesday that he needs a contingency plan for his contingency plan on the offensive line.
With injuries and illness stacking up, only left tackle Charles Leno was on the practice field Wednesday while the rest of the starting line worked to get healthy. To make matters worse, the Bears’ top two reserves — tackle Jason Spriggs went on the COVID/reserve list, guard Rashaad Coward has a knee issue — are nowhere near given for this week.
“It was just stepping in the huddle and making sure that guys are relaxed and loose because I know it’s not an easy situation,” Foles said of practicing without his key linemen. “All of a sudden you’re stepping [in] and you’re playing. I get it, and maybe you’re in a different role. Been there, done that. I think the most important thing is just to know that, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a calmness in the huddle and we’re going to be in this together. And if we make a mistake, it’s going to be all right.”
This will be the 13th meeting of the franchises, dating back to the Titans’ previous existence as the Houston Oilers. Each team has six wins, with Tennessee prevailing 27-21 in 2016 during their last matchup.
Attendance at Nissan Stadium will be limited to about 14,000 due to COVID-19 concerns.