Ryan, who the Titans gave a three-year, $30 million contract in March to be their No. 1 cornerback, spent most of the game locked on Texans slot receiver Bruce Ellington like he was Julian Edelman. Meanwhile, Hopkins was gobbling up the trio of Brice McCain, LeShaun Sims and Adoree' Jackson.
Tennessee's attempt to cover Hopkins and speedster Will Fuller went poorly in the 57-14 loss and the results raise a serious question: Did the Titans pass defense get better this year? General manager Jon Robinson spent the money and resources on it, so why aren't they in the right position to show it?
"I get paid to play the defense. I'm playing the defense," Ryan said. "I can match up with everybody, personally. I think when I'm in the slot, I'm the best at that. That's what I'm here to do. The good thing is we have the ability to adapt, week in and week out."
It wasn't the Titans' only mistake, but it was the most egregious. Their young defensive backs also let Deshaun Watson move them with his eyes and fakes. The Titans' pass rush struggled to get pressure on Watson nor could they contain him. Jayon Brown and Wesley Woodyard missed two of the Titans' few sure-fire opportunities for sacks. Missed assignments and delayed reactions by the defensive backs in Cover 3 led to multiple big plays.
Sometimes game plans don't work out, but that's where in-game adjustments come in. The Titans were content with the status quo for too long. It was clear after the Texans' first two drives, when Hopkins was catching slant routes from Watson like it was warm-ups, that using McCain on wasn't a recipe for success.
Jackson was too small and raw as a cornerback to cover Hopkins. Sims and McCain weren't good enough. Tennessee said earlier this offseason Ryan would be a prime candidate to cover big elite receivers while Jackson covered quicker shifty receivers. That didn't happen Sunday.
"I felt comfortable with what we were doing, confident in what we were doing. We’ve been pretty good with what we’ve been doing for three games," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "Felt like don’t start moving parts if you don’t have to move them. Well, we did. We moved them in the second half.”
Watson was asked after the game which team had the more difficult defense: the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Titans. His response was "I’ll say Tennessee, just because it’s an NFL team." Not exactly promising.
Jackson has looked like a rookie. Sims and McCain have had some struggles. Safety Johnathan Cyprien, who the Titans signed to a four-year, $25 million contract in March, had a rough opening game then missed the last three games with a hamstring injury. He's expected to miss his fourth consecutive game at Miami. Kevin Byard and Ryan have been the best of the group, but neither has consistently shined.
Ryan defended defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's scheme.
"We been running our defense all year. It's been praised when it works. When it's not, now people want to start talking about matchups," Ryan said.
Ryan is the Titans cornerback on the outside and the slot, but McCain and Jackson can play in the slot too. It's true, the Titans have been playing sides for most of the season. But it hasn't worked much, even though the team often won.
The Titans pass defense ranks 29th allowing 275 yards per game. Last season, Tennessee's pass defense was a disaster and it gave up 269 yards per game.
In watching the tape, the Titans never truly switched Ryan to shadowing Hopkins even once the game was out of hand. The Texans spread the Titans out, forcing them to play nickel coverage for most of the game. In that defense, Jackson was almost exclusively the left cornerback, Sims and McCain split reps at the right cornerback spot, and Ryan was nestled in the slot role.
There are certain games that dictate matchups -- even if playing sides worked for the Titans before -- and Sunday was one of those games. LeBeau has a wealth of experience, but this decision was certainly puzzling.
This week against the Miami Dolphins, Ryan should be going head-to-head with Jarvis Landry, arguably the NFL's best slot receiver. Matchups dictate that. And a struggling Dolphins offense may be the perfect recipe to get that leaky Titans pass defense back on track.