Gridiron Grades: Titans claim thrilling comeback victory over 49ers

Gridiron Grades’ with Justin Melo is a recurring piece that will assign a letter grade to each position group following every Titans game.

It was a story of two halves. The Tennessee Titans failed to inspire confidence throughout a horrid first half performance. Tennessee gained a total of 55 yards offensively in the first two quarters while failing to get on the score sheet. They went backwards time and time again and were lucky to find themselves down just 10-0 at the break. They came out a different team in the second part. Defensive turnovers largely led the way, but Tennessee made several big plays when they needed them most on the offensive side of the ball. It felt an awful lot like last week’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, with Tennessee on the right end of it this time. Like Tennessee did with Pittsburgh on Sunday, San Francisco let them hang around early, began turning the football over and eventually completely lost momentum. It’s a reminder of the week-to-week parity we often encounter in this league. Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t. It certainly went Tennessee’s way on Thursday.

Let’s get into this thriller.

Quarterbacks: B-plus

Ryan Tannehill was excellent in the second half. It was refreshing to see him get his No. 1 receiver back. It made a massive difference in his confidence and what he was willing to attempt. Good quarterbacks still need good weapons at their disposal. It’s funny how that works, huh?

Tannehill (and the rest of the offense) woke up in the second half. Tannehill finished 22-of-29 for 209 yards and one touchdown. He was money on third down in the second half (more on that under the ‘wide receivers’ tab). Tannehill undeniably made his biggest play of the game when it was on the line with under two minutes to play when he scrambled for 24 yards to San Francisco’s 31-yard line.

Tennessee would gain another six yards via two carries, putting Randy Bullock within range to make the game-winning kick. It was a big run and moment for Tannehill, who’s athletic ability and competitive toughness shined through when the Titans needed it most. He played an excellent game.

Tannehill will take on his former team, the Miami Dolphins next. He’ll be motivated for that one.

Running backs: C-minus

The running backs did not find much success. Jeremy McNichols surprisingly led the team in rushing yards for the first time this season, but gained just 31 yards on seven carries. D’Onta Foreman expectedly led the team in carries, but found no room to operate, finishing with 17 yards on nine carries. Foreman found the end zone from three yards out midway through the third quarter. It tied the game at 10 apiece and continued the momentum swing in Tennessee’s favor.

Foreman’s biggest run of the day didn’t count due to a holding call. Foreman was also flagged for a facemask on the play, but San Francisco correctly decided to enforce the holding penalty instead. Dontrell Hilliard failed to execute a key block on a third-and-short. It led to a Titans punt.

Hopefully Derrick Henry is ready to return any day now.

Wide receivers: A

Welcome back, A.J. Brown. You gain a new level of appreciation for something when you’ve had time to miss it. That’s how Titans fans feel about Brown right now. No. 11 returned to the field after a three-game, four-week absence due to a painful chest injury that included cracked ribs. Brown didn’t miss a beat, powering the Titans’ offense forward by recording a career-high 11 receptions for an astounding 145 yards and a touchdown, which served as a crucial go-ahead score at the time. It was an 18-yard score with a little over 13 minutes left.

Brown saw a season-high 16 targets, most of which made their impact in the second half. Tennessee’s offensive fortunes completely changed once they began targeting Brown down the field. Funny how that works! Brown’s bullying grab on a free play (SF jumped offside) on third-and-23 was undeniably the biggest play of the game. It was an unbelievable throw by Tannehill, who threw the ball 40-plus yards across his body. It was absolutely lovely on all fronts.

Here goes some insane facts and stats you may have seen circulating social media. Brown accounted for a stupefying 69.4% of Tennessee’s receiving yards, which is the most by any NFL player in a game this season. He had *eight* catches on third down, the most by ANY player since 1978(!). Brown was absolutely outstanding.

Nick Westbrook served as the No. 2 receiver throughout most of the night with Julio Jones being limited. Westbrook made a few big grabs. On Tennessee’s first possession, he attempted to give them life by moving the chains on third-and-11. Westbrook sat down in the soft zone coverage. Early in the third quarter, Westbrook recorded a 24-yard grab on third-and-15. Just plays later, Brown moved the chains on third down while breaking tackles along the way.

Enjoy this lovely compilation of every Brown catch from his astonishing performance. This offense is completely different with a healthy Brown back in the lineup.

Tight ends: C-minus

Tennessee obviously isn’t going to get much from this group in the pass catching department. Anthony Firkser made a big catch in the fourth quarter as Tennessee was trying to bleed the clock. There were seven minutes left and Firkser moved the chains on third-and-8. It was a 13-yard grab (Firkser’s lone catch on the night) that included some nice yards after catch.

MyCole Pruitt had a big passing play unfortunately negated by a David Quessenberry hold on Nick Bosa. Pruitt broke tackles along the way. It sucked that it didn’t count. Geoff Swaim made an underrated impact on Tennessee’s final, game-winning drive. All three of Tannehill’s passing attempts on the drive targeted Swaim. The first two went for five and four yard gains respectively. The third was flagged for a crucial pass interference. Tannehill ran for 24 yards on the next play and Tennessee was now in field goal range. Good on you, Swaim.

Offensive line: B-minus

It started with a concerning development well before the game even started. Taylor Lewan had previously been ruled out due to a back injury. Had it been a regular week, Lewan probably would have played. But it wasn’t a regular week. It was a short one, and he failed to recover in time. Kendall Lamm was slated to start in his place at left tackle. Lamm is an admirable swing tackle that’s capable of filling in. He did so against the Los Angeles Rams earlier in the season. The problem? Lamm tested positive for COVID-19 the morning of the game. Tennessee promptly called up Christian DiLauro to serve as the third offensive tackle. Dillon Radunz, a second-round pick out of North Dakota State was catapulted into the starting lineup at left tackle, a position he hasn’t played, or hasn’t been training to play in essentially two years. Radunz was a left tackle in college, but Tennessee drafted him to play on the right side. He slotted into the lineup next to Aaron Brewer, who started at left guard in place of Rodger Saffold, who also tested positive for Covid earlier this week. Tennessee was without the entire left side of their offensive line. Not ideal.

Radunz has been the victim of much chatter this season, and understandably so. Tennessee has struggled in pass protection and weren’t getting any contributions from Radunz. At one point, they chose to start veteran journeymen Bobby Hart over him, and Hart is truly awful.

Radunz handled himself well in his first career start. Credit him. He was thrown into an emergency, unexpected situation and it went about as well as it could. That means it wasn’t perfect, but that was expected given the situation. On the first play of the game, he was beaten by Bosa on a running back screen that lost eight yards. He rebounded nicely just two plays later on third down, allowing Tannehill the time he needed to find Westbrook. Early in the second quarter, Radunz was called for a chop block alongside Brewer, who was more at fault for the penalty given the assignment. Two plays later, Radunz got beaten badly on a second-and-short run that lost yardage, and led to a punt. Radunz then recorded a false start on the opening play of the second half.

Again, it wasn’t perfect but that sums up his negative plays. His assignment couldn’t have been any more difficult in pass protection. San Francisco wisely placed Bosa on that side routinely, but Bosa eventually packed his bags and moved over to the other side of the line after struggling to beat Radunz as a pass rusher. That goes down as a massive, massive unexpected win for Radunz and this offensive line. Radunz’s rookie campaign has been rocky to say the least, but this performance provided plenty of optimism for 2022.

Brewer did not play a very good game at left guard. He had the early penalty and was then beaten for a sack by Kentavius Street in the fourth quarter. Tannehill could have perhaps gotten rid of the ball to an open Chester Rogers on the play though.

Pass protection was much better than expected against an extremely difficult opponent. They didn’t get a lot of push in the run game, but I’d still chalk this up as a massive victory for this group all things considered.

Lewan and Saffold will likely be back in Week 17.

Defensive line: B-minus

Kyle Shanahan’s offense is extremely difficult to defend against and he has the weapons in place to take advantage of his brilliance. Credit to them. San Francisco’s first drive was absolutely surgical. Tennessee’s front seven did a great job against the run. Jeff Wilson Jr. earned the start in SF’s backfield, but gained just 45 yards on 14 carries. Wilson did score a TD, but gained just 3.2 yards per carry and his longest run of the day went for just nine yards. That’s outstanding. Deebo Samuel gained 32 yards on five carries. I was a bit surprised he didn’t earn a few more carries.

Denico Autry recorded a crucial sack on third down late in the second quarter. Tennessee was down 10-0 at the time and Autry’s sack gave them a lifeline when they needed one. Jeffery Simmons had a relatively quiet game by his high standards.

Naquan Jones suffered an injury late in the third quarter. Hopefully it’s not serious. The undrafted free agent out of Michigan State has played some good football in recent weeks. Tennessee was already down Larrell Murchison, but Teair Tart did return to the lineup. Hopefully Jones and Murchison can take advantage of this mini-bye and get healthy.

Linebackers: B-plus

Zach Cunningham has been a terrific addition thus far. He’s playing with a ton of energy as a tenacious tackler. He’s a Mike Vrabel player through and through. A week after leading the team in tackles in his debut, Cunningham played another great, physical game as a run defender. He’s quickly become a key member of this front seven. His attitude fits in perfectly.

Bud Dupree recorded a sack for the second consecutive week. It occurred early in the fourth quarter on a first-and-20 while Tennessee was up 17-10. It was a coverage sack that forced a second-and-29.

Dupree jumped offside on a third-and-11 early in the second quarter, but his encroachment prompted a reaction from left tackle Trent Williams, who was flagged for a facemask on Dupree. The rules enforce the facemask, and it turned third-and-11 into third-and-26. It’s worth mentioning because it feels like a weird application of the rules. Ultimately, it’s nice to see Dupree rounding into form at the opportune moment. Hopefully there’s more to come.

Rashaan Evans could have made a game-changing interception late in the second quarter but he dropped a Jimmy Garoppolo softball. It was a huge missed opportunity. Evans ultimately played a good game despite that misfire. Evans has played two really good games in a row since returning to the lineup against Pittsburgh last week.

Harold Landry made some plays in the run game but didn’t impact the pocket like we expect him to.

It will be interesting to witness how the ILB rotation works out once David Long Jr. returns.

Secondary: B-plus

This group created a pair of massive turnovers that made a difference. Jackrabbit Jenkins returned from a two-game absence and made an immediate impact. Jenkins recorded an interception in the end zone late in the first quarter. It was HUGE and helped Tennessee avoid a dreadful 14-0 start.

Safety Amani Hooker picked off Garoppolo in the third quarter on the very first defensive play after Tennessee cut San Francisco’s lead to 10-3. It was a momentum swinging play. Tennessee would take over possession in SF territory and eventually tie the game 10-10. It was Hooker’s first interception of the season. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

Kevin Byard outstandingly eliminated George Kittle from San Francisco’s offensive gameplan. We’re struggling to put into words how difficult that is to do. It came just days after Byard was the lone Titan named to the Pro Bowl. He’s the best safety in ALL of football right now. Kittle is a TERRIFIC talent. He was limited to 21 yards on two catches. It came after a three-game stretch where Kittle totaled 425 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He was targeted just three times. Byard completely took him away. It’s unbelievable.

Kristian Fulton had his toughest night of the season. He was tasked with bracketing Deebo Samuel, who’s just an outstanding, unicorn-like talent. Fulton unfortunately fell down in coverage on what turned out to be a 23-yard gain for Samuel, who took the ball to Tennessee’s one-yard line. San Francisco scored a touchdown on the very next play. Fulton would slip and fall again while covering Deebo on a crucial fourth down. All in all, Samuel torched the Titans for 191 total yards on 14 touches. The former LSU standout did record an excellent, crucial pass breakup on Kyle Juszczyk with 3:42 left in the fourth quarter. Fulton was then beat by Samuel for a 56-yard gain on the next play. Ouch. In Fulton’s defence, nobody is stopping Samuel right now.

Chris Jackson returned from injury but didn’t play a single defensive snap. Buster Skrine continues to play some great football. Skrine spent time both inside and outside throughout the night.

The turnovers were huge. This secondary contains a bunch of ball hawks.

Special teams: A-minus

Chester Rogers kicked things off on the right foot with an excellent kick return to Tennessee’s own 40-yard line. It was the second consecutive week with a big Rogers return on special teams.

Ranny Bullock was the hero, narrowly making the game winner from 44 yards out with under 10 seconds left to play. Bullock is having such a nice season. He was 2-of-2 on field goals and 2-of-2 on extra points. Vrabel showed a ton of faith in him at the end of the game and Bullock repaid his head coach.

Brett Kern wasn’t quite himself to open the night. A terrible 39-yard punt set SF up in favorable territory to begin the second quarter. Just minutes later, Kern got off another average 46-yard punt. He more than made up for it by getting off an absolutely outstanding 59-yard punt while trying to help Tennessee protect a late 17-10 lead. The ball was downed at the 5, but SF drove 95 yards for a late game-tying score. That’s not on Kern, though. He gave them a chance.

The Titans are 10-5 and can clinch the AFC South with an Indianapolis Colts loss on Saturday. Pay close attention to the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots this weekend. The Titans can move back into the AFC’s top seed with losses by the Chiefs and Patriots. Tennessee will now enter a mini-bye week, and should be as healthy as they’ve been in quite some time when they host the Miami Dolphins in Week 17.

Author: Justin MeloSenior Writer, Interviewer and Podcaster for Broadway Sports covering the Tennessee Titans and NFL draft. For more than five years, Justin Melo has professionally covered all things NFL draft and Titans for The Draft Network, SB Nation and USA Today. Best known for his Interview Series with NFL draft prospects, Justin has interviewed more than 500 NFL players. Co-host of the Music City Audible podcast alongside Justin Graver (@titansfilmroom).

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