NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One of the things that made critics wary of the five-year, $35 million contract Michael Griffin signed in the offseason was the safety’s propensity for missed tackles.
We saw a picture perfect “Griff whiff” with 7:17 left on the clock in the second quarter at LP Field on Sunday, when New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley took a carry wide right. He ran through what seemed to be a meager effort from Griffin, who had arrived relatively quickly, and Ridley ripped off 15 yards.
It was symbolic of a defensive struggle Tennessee simply couldn’t afford in a first start for quarterback Jake Locker. As New England racked up 390 net yards and benefitted from big Locker gaffes, the Titans saw just how much distance lies between them and the defending AFC champs in a 34-13 loss.
“This was our first real, live test,” cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “And obviously we failed.”
One of the things that moved the Titans to sign Griffin, whom they had designated their franchise player, to the long-term deal was a transformation in his attitude. Rather than moping about being kept from free agency, he showed new resolve, dedication and accountability.
Although the Titans are doing him a disservice playing him close to the line of scrimmage as the strong safety instead of as a roaming free safety, a player deemed worthy of that kind of deal simply has to do more than wave at people or get run over. (He offered no comment when asked about being asked to play in the box.)
He spoke very softly after the game, but showed more accountability regarding his tackling troubles and performance than he has on poor Sundays in the past.
“Ain’t nobody got to tell me right now, I know I played a terrible game,” he said.
“I know I was missing tackles. I’m on myself right now about missing tackles and what not. That was one of the things that I preached and preached and preached going into the season. Got to get better, try to get bigger. I gained like five, six pounds to try to be stronger in the run game. I guess I just need to work on my tackling. My focus right now is just to try to get better at tackling.”
He’s clearly got the physical qualities needed to bring ball carriers down and he often shows the football sense to be in the right place.
So why the struggles?
“It’s trying to get there,” he said. “Coach tells me all the time, a lot of times I get there and I try to shoot my gun rather than trying to make a sure tackle. It’s just my nature. When you shoot your guns sometimes you’re going to miss tackles like that. In the NFL, we don’t tackle during the week. I’ll see if I can talk to the coaches about trying to work on, trying to make open-field tackles and things like that.”
But Griffin was hardly the lone offender for the Titans when it came to a failure to make plays.
The pass rush got one big sack from Kamerion Wimbley, but otherwise hardly bothered Tom Brady as he completed 74 percent of his throws en route to a 117.1 passer rating.
And Ridley had a great day, seemingly surprising the Titans with the sort of decisive and determined running they don’t see from their own back, Chris Johnson, anymore. Ridley had 21 carries for 125 yards and scored a touchdown while Johnson had 11 carries for 4 yards.
“They ran the ball better than they should have been able to,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said.
Meanwhile, Locker made a couple of poor choices just the way you imagine he might against a Bill Belichick-coached defense.
It stopped an offense that had moved the ball reasonably well to that point, but the mistake didn’t lead to any points for the Patriots.
The next one was a crusher.
Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones slapped the ball out of Locker’s hand near the Titans’ goal line, and rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower scooped it up and took it 6 yards for a touchdown that put the Patriots up 14-3.
The Titans were never closer than 11 points again.
“The first one was a bad decision,” Locker said. “They were just in a soft coverage. I shouldn’t have thrown it. The fumble, I have to take better care of the ball in the pocket.”
He and his coach lamented missed opportunities.
“They didn’t make many mistakes,” Munchak said. “They didn’t turn the ball over, they didn’t do some of the things we did, have crucial penalties that hurt them like we did. That’s what the separation is. It's us consistently getting better and making plays and not helping the other team. And that’s kind of where the gap is right now.”