As the Tennessee Titans won four one-possession games during a 5-0 start, their explosive offense and the clutch kicks of veteran Stephen Gostkowski obscured some developing issues.
Last week's 27-24 loss to the 6-0 Pittsburgh Steelers shined a bright light on those problems, which Tennessee will try to solve Sunday when it travels to Cincinnati for a date with the 1-5-1 Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
Slow starts have been a problem, but the biggest worry is a defense that's allowing 401.8 yards per game. The major reason for that is its stunning inability to make a stop on third down. Opponents are converting 61 percent of the time, the worst mark for an NFL team in 30 years.
Pittsburgh's 13 of 18 success rate on third down was a big factor last week. Yet the Titans almost wiped out a 27-7 third-quarter deficit, and had Gostkowski's 45-yard field-goal try not gone wide right with 14 seconds left, a third-down interception in the end zone with less than three minutes left would have been the reason why.
But third-year coach Mike Vrabel knows the defense, especially on third down, has to improve for his team to win the championship to which it aspires.
"It all has to be tied together," he said. "We have to have 11 guys executing. We have to coach it better, and we have to execute it better. We have to make sure that we are all on the same page, that we are coaching as well as we can, and that we are executing better."
Part of Tennessee's problem on third down is a lack of pass rush. It has managed only seven sacks in six games despite adding accomplished edge rushers like Jadaveon Clowney and Vic Beasley. By contrast, Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (9) and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (8) own more sacks than the Titans.
If Tennessee can't create more pressure in the pocket, Cincinnati's rookie quarterback, Joe Burrow, is more than capable of exposing its secondary. Burrow's 406 yards and three touchdowns last week put the Bengals in position before their defense permitted Cleveland to drive 75 yards in the final 55 seconds to pull out a 37-34 win.
Burrow appears to be the real deal through his first seven games as a pro, averaging 289 yards in the air and completing 66.6 percent of his passes. The emergence of rookie Tee Higgins and the resurgence of veteran A.J. Green has given Burrow two more good targets to go along with Tyler Boyd.
"They have really good receivers," Vrabel said.
But Cincinnati doesn't have a good defense. It's permitting nearly 400 yards and 28 points per game. And it's now without perhaps its most accomplished veteran, as end Carlos Dunlap was dealt Wednesday to Seattle for backup center B.J. Finney and a seventh-round pick.
Dunlap's role had decreased sharply, and it didn't sit well with him. He was seen arguing with an assistant coach late in Sunday's game, when he got just 12 snaps. He leaves the Bengals with 82.5 career sacks, one shy of Eddie Edwards' club record.
On his way out of town, Dunlap praised Burrow and his now-former teammates.
"He's definitely a baller. He knows how to get it to his ballers," Dunlap said. "I think the Bengals are in good hands with these young players."
--Field Level Media