HOUSTON - Maybe the troubles and trials of the past week manifested themselves on Sunday.
QB Rusty Smith struggled in his first NFL start.
Whatever it was, the Tennessee Titans' many problems were on display during a flat and uninspired performance at Reliant Stadium that led to an embarrassing 20-0 shutout loss to the Houston Texans.
The Vince Young saga that unfolded after last week's game put untested rookie quarterback Rusty Smith under center. Next came the bad news that offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger had been diagnosed with cancer. He will begin chemotherapy treatments on Monday.
The Tennessee defense was still plagued by its same old third-down woes, and the team was also thin on the defensive line due to injuries.
About the only fight the Titans showed on Sunday was Cortland Finnegan's fourth-quarter dust-up with Andre Johnson that got both players ejected. Finnegan was on the receiving end of most of that, as video showed Johnson landing at least three punches on the Titans' fiesty cornerback.
It all added up to a performance that looked mailed in from a team that was listless, lifeless and undisciplined in losing its fourth game in a row and falling into the cellar in the AFC South at 5-6.
“This week was tough. We definitely had a lot of adversity come our way this week,” defensive back Vincent Fuller said. “I've never recalled going through a quarterback switch and then getting bad news about one of our coaches. It was definitely a taxing week. Despite all that, I thought we prepared well, and myself included, I thought we would have had a better performance.”
Smith was picked off three times by Texans cornerback Glover Quin, who just two weeks ago became famous for being the victim of a Hail Mary pass in Jacksonville. To top it off, Quin pulled off his interception hat trick with a broken hand.
But the Titans didn't do Smith any favors in his first start, either. Chris Johnson was held to a career-low 5 yards on just seven carries. Tennessee's receivers also dropped three Smith passes in the first half, all of which could have moved the chains.
So inept was the offense that through three quarters, the Titans had just three first downs and did not cross midfield until 13:11 to play in the game. And that came thanks to a roughness penalty on the Texans after a Marc Mariani punt return put the ball at the Houston 36.
Still, the Titans could not find the end zone with Smith twice being intercepted in the red zone by Quin.
“We wouldn't stay on the field on third downs,” Smith said. “We didn't build momentum and couldn't stay ahead of the chains. Our defense was on the field too long, and that was our fault.”
But the rookie was far from alone in his culpability in this one.
Part of the issue with the Titans was the appearance that the team was flat, though most players denied that the Young tirade in the locker room toward coach Jeff Fisher last week had a direct effect on their performance Sunday.
“It's easy to use it as a scapegoat, but I don't think so,” tight end Bo Scaife said. “We had a good week of practice and at the end of the day, you've got to perform on Sunday, and we just didn't do that.”
Linebacker Stephen Tulloch said the Titans have to do some self-evaluating.
“We're not in shambles. We've just got to evaluate ourselves,” Tulloch said. “I told the guys before we broke that we're being evaluated. Whatever it is that's going on, we've got to find a way to change it. We'll do our best to turn things around. We've got a lot of pride and we don't want to go out there and lay an egg.”
Defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil emphasized that the Titans must pull together and not splinter into individual directions in the midst of their current troubles.
“I think the biggest thing is we need to get tighter, be more cohesive, come together even more than we have been. Don't go the other way,” he said. “We win and lose as a team, so we need to do it together. It's all about teamwork, and it's all about having the right attitude, coming to work. Our guys have done that. They've played hard and they've executed the game plans. It's just that this is the NFL and sometimes the other team is better than you are.”
Added Tulloch, “We've got a little adversity on our side right now, and we're trying to figure some things out. We've got to pull together. We've got five more regular season games left and Jacksonville coming in.”