Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Pin Pittsburgh on the offense. Hang Houston on the defense. Ownership of this Tennessee Titans' loss belongs most with special teams and the coach who showed little urgency to maintain them.
Jeff Fisher has insisted repeatedly that the Titans are fine at returner. But bad kick return games turned horrific in the 24-17 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday at Giants Stadium.
Rookie cornerback Ryan Mouton fumbled away an early kickoff return and butchered a third-quarter punt. New York turned the giveaways into 14 points, sealing the Titans’ 0-3 season start.
Afterwards, Fisher talked about how Mouton will be a good returner, and that’s wonderful. But this was supposed to be a good team this year and Fisher clearly overestimated his club’s ability to ease rookie returners in and allow them to get comfortable.
Maybe Mouton’s going to be good. But what about now?
Fisher constantly talks about how he and his staff won’t ask players to do things they can’t. Isn’t that precisely what’s happened here?
“That’s my responsibility to get someone in there who can make those plays,”’ Fisher said.
Virtually every player in the postgame locker room talked about not pointing fingers. But when asked about the soundness of placing a rookie in such position in a hostile, wet environment in a game the Titans had to win, they didn’t venture down the path questioning Fisher’s decision to put a rookie in the spot and to stick with him.
After return games were a strength in 2008, the Titans couldn’t hold on to return specialist Chris Carr in free agency, and that was understandable. The Baltimore Ravens offered him their nickelback job on top of return work, and with Vincent Fuller the Titans didn’t have the role on defense to offer. (Fuller broke his arm in this game, so they could use a veteran nickel now, but that’s a different story.)
Mark Jones was hardly a savior when the Titans brought him in as the veteran replacement for Carr, and some in the building weren’t on board with a guy who could do a lot less as a supplementary receiver than Carr did as a supplementary defensive back. Jones missed much of the preseason hurt, put together a good game right before cuts and looked like he’d be the guy. But Tennessee dropped him the next day and turned different directions.
Veteran corner Cortland Finnegan was shaky as the punt returner in Pittsburgh and yielded to Mouton once the rookie fully recovered from a preseason ankle injury. Rookie running back Javon Ringer was not good in two games fielding kicks and Mouton started Sunday with both jobs.
Cornerback Jason McCourty -- yet another rookie -- took over for Mouton on kickoff returns after Jason Trusnik forced and recovered a fumble at the Tennessee 19-yard line less than six minutes into the game.
McCourty went on to make a heady play, allowing a kickoff to go out of bounds for a penalty. He also failed to fumble the kickoffs he caught.
But Mouton remained in place on punts, setting the stage for the third-quarter debacle, where he was pinned underneath a defender after letting it bounce off his arm while retreating. He flailed helplessly, unable to even try to cover the loose ball.
This whole scenario is a result of insufficient planning and overconfidence from Fisher and his staff. It’s the difference between a bearable 1-2 and the 0-3 start that’s been turned into a playoff season just by just three teams since 1990. It's an especially tough turnaround when considering that AFC South rivals are Houston and Jacksonville are both also 1-2.
Fisher, the one-time Chicago Bears punt returner who preaches ball security above all else, watched Mouton struggle in a loss to Houston last week but put him in position to provide the Titans with more adventures.
Against the Texans, Mouton managed to recover two muffs. Still, when a return man juggles a ball over his head retreating inside the 10-yard line one week, how can Fisher justify it the next game when he watches a similar retreating catch and this one turns disastrous?
“I just have to turn around and get back first and get my shoulders square first and then catch the ball,” Mouton said. “I tried to catch it over my shoulder, that’s something that you never do as a punt returner.”
Special teams captain Donnie Nickey said the team has to trust who’s back there and it’s not the a decision for players to make. But when asked for a candidate assessment of the return game work, he gave it.
“Horrible,” Nickey said. “No. 1 is to get field position. Even if we weren’t covering right, we’ve got to keep the ball, we can’t cough it up. There were some breakdowns in the blocking scheme but that happens every week and that’s going to happen on every punt, every kickoff. That’s going to happen every week. It changed the momentum of the game and on that punt it just seemed like it swung to them.”
The Titans got some good runs from LenDale White, and the frustrated back spent much of his post game news conference talking of looking inward and not pointing fingers. But when Mouton was the topic, White said there is no sort of insulation that comes with first-year status.
“I’m not taking no shots, I’m not saying he lost the game, I’m not saying any of that,” White said. “But you asked me if it’s [being] a rookie. Kenny Britt’s a rookie too, right? Is he making plays? Once we draft you and you’re on this team, you make plays.”
The defense gave up 10 points out of reasonable field position scenarios and 14 on the two special teams’ giveaways.
After the kickoff fumble, it took five plays for the Jets to move 19 yards to the score that made it 14-0. After Larry Izzo recovered the muffed punt, the Jets needed four plays to cover 23 yards and go ahead for good, 21-17.
Mouton’s teammates were sympathetic but realistic.
Michael Griffin worked a good bit as a kick returner when he was a rookie in 2007 and talked about knowing how much harder fielding punts is. The ball is on a guy quick and it was wet.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a lot to ask of him, we’ve just got to work harder,” Griffin said. “If it’s staying after practice, fielding more balls from the Jugs machine or if it’s finding a replacement. Either/or, I still have faith in Mouton and I’m pretty sure we’re going to get things turned around back there."
Pressed for a bit more on the special teams fumble issues before he showered and dressed and headed to the team bus, Fisher talked about the future when the questions are about the present.
Was there no alternative to Mouton fielding punts after his initial problem on the kick, even after Finnegan was out with a hamstring injury?
“No, that’s the way we went into it,” Fisher said. “I mean he’s playing more than at returner, covering kicks. The young guys got a lot of work today and they’re going to be better off because of it.”
Great for later, perhaps.
Doesn’t do much for anybody now.