The Tennessee Titans defeated the Indianapolis Colts 19-10 on Sunday at Nissan Stadium to improve their record to 4-2 while taking a commanding lead atop the AFC South. Mike Vrabel’s Titans are now 5-0 when afforded extra time to prepare for their opponent via the bye. Vrabel and his coaching staff routinely take advantage of the bye to insert new wrinkles or lineup changes into their game plan.
Many expected the Titans to insert Le’Raven Clark into their starting lineup at left tackle. That did not happen, with Dennis Daley taking up his usual spot on Ryan Tannehill’s blindside. The Titans did make two notable changes, however. One was executed to perfection, while the other proved to be a failure. Let’s examine.
Perhaps the most surprising change was the usage of safety Andrew Adams, who was signed off the Pittsburgh Steelers’ practice squad on September 21. Adams had been starting in place of Amani Hooker, who was suffering from a concussion. Hooker cleared concussion protocol and returned to the Titans’ lineup on Sunday. Hooker played 64 defensive snaps against the Colts, per Next Gen Stats, which accounted for 100% of the Titans’ defensive plays. So why was Adams on the field for a shocking 62 snaps, which amounted to a whopping 96.9% of all Titans defensive plays?
Adams was used as a “BIG NICKEL” or slot cornerback with frequency. Defensive coordinator Shane Bowen showcased a willingness to field three safeties with consistency. Kevin Byard also played 100% of Tennessee’s defensive snaps. That means that out of 64 snaps, the Titans fielded the trio of Hooker, Byard and Adams on 62 of them. At times, it reminded me of how the Titans used Dane Cruikshank last season. Hooker also moved to the slot on occasion with Adams lining up alongside Byard at safety. That sort of versatility makes the Titans’ defense an even tougher matchup for their opponents.
Bowen’s gamble paid off. Adams’ scored Tennessee’s lone touchdown of the day, a 76-yard pick-six interception of Colts quarterback Matt Ryan in the second quarter that increased Tennessee’s lead to 10-0. It was Adams’ biggest play of the game, but it wasn’t his first eye-popping contribution. Adams made a crucial stop just moments earlier.
The Titans have utilized several defenders at the nickel position this season. Ugo Amadi began the campaign in that role, but an injury led to a decrease in playing time. Amadi has been a healthy scratch two contests in a row. Rookie cornerback Roger McCreary has kicked inside on occasion when the Titans are forced to match personnel. Expected starter Elijah Molden remains on IR. Molden is nearing a return, but a clear-cut timetable hasn’t been offered. Expect Adams to remain in this role for the time being.
Tennessee’s other adjustment out of the bye arrived via the offensive side. It was an unexpected development, and it debuted with more of a whimper than a bang. It involved rookie quarterback Malik Willis.
Willis played several offensive snaps. Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing seemed to have designed a package to get Willis’ athletic abilities on the field. Willis lined up at receiver on occasion. His presence on the field forced Gus Bradley’s defense to adjust on the fly while accounting for Willis. The Titans spent time setting the Colts up for that possibility, and it eventually came to fruition in the fourth quarter. The outcome was nightmarish.
The Titans were attempting to secure victory while nursing a 16-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Willis came in motion into the backfield on a first-and-10 from Indianapolis’ 44-yard line with 11:10 remaining. Tannehill extended the ball in Willis’ direction, who promptly (and sloppily) fumbled the exchange. Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke pounced on the fumble and the Colts were afforded a new lease on life.
The fumbled exchange occurred after Titans running back Derrick Henry had gained 11 yards on chain-moving back-to-back carries. Tennessee’s offensive line were beginning to flash signs of dominating the line of scrimmage while imposing their will. It was a curious play call by offensive coordinator Todd Downing.
The Colts settled for a 50-yard field goal on their ensuing possession, which minimized Tennessee’s lead to 16-10 and a one-score ballgame. The Titans responded with a Randy Bullock field goal, extending their lead to two-scores, ultimately avoiding another fourth-quarter letdown. The Titans got away with one.
Willis’ involvement wasn’t overly stunning given Tennessee’s lack of playmaking weapons. Treylon Burks and Racey McMath remain on IR with injuries. Kyle Philips was ruled out after earning the dreaded hamstring designation on Friday. The Titans entered Sunday with just four receivers, two of which were Cody Hollister, and Mason Kinsey via the standard gameday elevation route.
Tennessee’s offense gained just 254 total yards. Tannehill was sacked twice and under duress on several additional dropbacks. The Titans went 5-of-12 on third down. It summarizes yet another poor performance offensively.
Tight end Austin Hooper led all Titans pass-catchers with three receptions and 56 yards. Hollister’s 32 receiving yards led all wide receivers. Downing and Vrabel turned to Willis to provide an offensive spark, but the result was disastrous.
The involvements of Adams and Willis were the two biggest adjustments the coaching staff inserted during the bye. Neither was particularly expected, either. One directly contributed to Tennessee’s victory, while the other almost led to its undoing.