Commentary: Titans' Jake Locker failing in the clutch

10:19 AM, Dec 10, 2012   |    comments
Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker (10) tackles Patriots free safety Patrick Chung after Chung picked up a fumble in the fourth quarter Sunday. Locker got hurt on the play as the Titans lost 34-13. - JAE S. LEE / THE TENNESSEAN
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By David Climer, The Tennessean

INDIANAPOLIS - One of these days, Jake Locker is going to learn to finish what he started.

Or else.

Thirteen games into his second pro season, Locker continues to show some promising signs of developing into a quality NFL quarterback, but his inability to make plays in the clutch remains a very big concern.

It happened again on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. In a winnable game against AFC South rival Indianapolis, Locker stumbled badly down the stretch and the Titans followed his lead, squandering a 20-7 halftime lead and losing 27-23.

Once again, the Titans found a new and different way to lose. In games against upper-crust teams such as Houston and New England, they are clearly outmanned and lose by at least two touchdowns. Against second-tier competition, they somehow manage to squander opportunities.

In a dickens of a game, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times for Locker. His first half was exceptional - 15-of-20 for 213 yards and a touchdown with a passer rating of 125.6, not to mention a 32-yard scramble.

But in the second half, Locker threw for just 49 yards and was intercepted twice, including a pick-6 that gave the Colts the lead. By game's end, his passer rating had slipped to a pedestrian 71.4.

"We just made some mistakes," Locker said. "We had turnovers. We didn't have that in the first half. Those are things that can be a difference between gaining a bunch of yards and scoring points and not."

To his credit, Locker understands scrutiny comes with his position. The NFL of 2012 is a quarterback's league. All eyes are on the man behind center.

"It's hard to keep saying it and not have the outcome you want, but you've got to keep working hard and preparing and doing everything you can to have success when you get there," he said.

Maybe this comes with age and experience. But when you check out how some of the NFL's young guns perform in the clutch - including but not limited to Colts rookie Andrew Luck - you have to wonder. Could it be that some guys have it and other guys don't?

As a rookie, Luck makes those plays when the game is on the line. As a second-year pro, Locker often does not.

Telling stat: Indianapolis is 8-1 this season in games decided by one touchdown or less. The Titans are 2-3.

For now, at least, we should cut Locker some slack. Although Locker has been it the league a year longer, he has played the same number of NFL games as Luck and has started five fewer.

Despite the second-half struggles against the Colts, Locker's confidence doesn't appear shaken. And his teammates haven't lost their faith in him.

Asked if he saw a change in Locker after either of his second-half interceptions, running back Chris Johnson said:

"He's the same guy. He's human. He lets us know he's going to make mistakes but he's still going to stick in there and try to make plays. No matter if you play quarterback, running back, offensive line or whatever you play, everybody's going to make mistakes. You come back after the mistakes."

Plus, Locker's not getting a lot of help from the sidelines. His inexplicable pick-6 deep in the third quarter from the Tennessee 1-yard line was a play that should never have been called. And Titans coach Mike Munchak admitted it.

After the Colts punted the ball out of bounds at the 1, Locker was given a call that had two options. Depending on what he saw out of the defense, he could run a quarterback sneak to get a little maneuvering room or throw a quick pass to Nate Washington on the right flank.

After assessing the defensive alignment, Locker threw the hitch. Upon further review, he should've run the sneak.

"It was just one that I shouldn't have thrown," he said.

Knowing that a safety was rotating wide to cover any deep throw, Colts cornerback Cassius Vaughn jumped the route. He stepped in front of Washington, made the interception and stepped into the end zone for a touchdown that pushed Indianapolis ahead 21-20.

"That's my fault. I should've just had him sneak it and not give him the option," Munchak said. "... In some crucial situations, it's on us to maybe limit the decision making to help a young quarterback along."

There were plenty of other second-half glitches, notably a quarterback sneak with 3½ minutes remaining and the Titans on their 30. Although the Titans had just gotten a first down on a Johnson run on the previous play, coaches and players alike thought it was third-and-inches.

Before the coaches could get Locker's attention, he had run a sneak for no gain.

That's the kind of season it has become.

"The way we do that is designed to happen quickly so the defense is caught off guard," left tackle Michael Roos said. "We were already getting lined up and nobody looked up to see that it was a first down.

"It was a wasted down. That's our season right there. We need to create as many breaks as we can and we could've used that first down for a better play, but that's just the way it happened."

The good news: Only three games remain.

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