Gridiron Grades with Justin Melo is a recurring piece that will assign a letter grade to each position group following every Titans game.
Well, that was fun. After two weeks of being in the news for all the wrong reasons, the Tennessee Titans finally returned to the field. They looked like a team that feels as if its been unfairly treated in the media over the past few weeks. They took out all of their frustration in what was a truly dominant Week 5 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
The Titans have been criticized for failing to put away inferior opponents this season. It was especially refreshing that their first dominant performance of the season came against the previously undefeated Bills.
We have mostly good things to say about that performance. How can we not?
Ryan Tannehill continues to be a blessing for this organization. He turned in yet another efficient performance. Tannehill looks like he’s having a great time out there. Playing in Arthur Smith’s offense appears to be an easy task for him. The Titans have now scored at least 31 points in three straight games.
Tannehill completed 21 of 28 passes for 195 yards and three touchdown passes. He also added 42 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown. The Titans benefited from good field position for most of the night, and Tannehill routinely took advantage. His first pass of the game was a 16-yard touchdown pass to the returning A.J. Brown. It was a beautiful over-the-shoulder throw that found Brown in the back of the end zone. The three touchdown passes were obviously great. Tannehill continues to make good things happen with his legs as well.
You’d be hard pressed to find a single bad decision from Tannehill in this game. He continues to take excellent care of the football while leading this offense to explosive scoring outputs. Tannehill has now accounted for 10 touchdowns on the season with just a single turnover.
If you’re still waiting for Tannehill to regress, don’t hold your breath. Tannehill gives this team a chance to win every week, regardless of who lines up on the other side.
Running backs: C-plus
The running game continues to struggle. A lack of running room has unfortunately been a problem for Derrick Henry so far this season and it was once again an issue on Tuesday night.
Henry ran for just 57 yards on 19 carries, good (or bad) for just 3.0 yards per carry. His longest run of the night went for just 12 yards. That’s uncharacteristic of Henry and this rushing attack. The Bills, like the Broncos and Jaguars did before them, made stopping the run a priority and were successful in their efforts. 54 of Henry’s 57 yards came after contact, per Pro Football Focus. It’s worth noting that Henry did find the end zone twice.
His finest play came on a run that you could probably watch for years to come without getting tired of it. Henry’s stiff arm has become a nightmare for his opposition. Just when you thought you’ve seen it all, Henry sent Josh Norman to the moon with this one:
Darrynton Evans left the game with a lower body injury after carrying the ball just two times. That made room for Jeremy McNichols, who saw a lot of playing time in this one. McNichols didn’t find any more room to run than Henry did. He carried the ball 9 times for just 28 yards. McNichols did catch my eye in pass protection. He was terrific in that facet of the game.
A date with the Houston Texans in Week 6 could be just what this rushing attack needs to get going.
Wide receivers: B-minus
The Titans entered this one about as short-handed as it gets at the receiver position with Corey Davis, Adam Humphries and Cameron Batson still on the reserve/COVID list. They had just four receivers up for this one, and two of them wouldn’t be on the active roster under normal circumstances.
With that said, this was a pretty good showing. Getting Brown back was a huge boost and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Bills were without their top cornerback in Tre’Davious White and Brown took advantage of an old, slow Norman in coverage. When Norman wasn’t getting stiff armed into the upside down by Henry, he was trailing behind (or holding) Brown. He was no match for the fast and physical second-year receiver who caught 7 balls for 82 yards and a touchdown. Brown shook Norman out of his shoes with an excellent double move on his touchdown grab.
Kalif Raymond also made a huge play when he caught a ball on a slant route for 20 yards on a third-and-19. It was Raymond who put the Titans in excellent field position on that drive with a great punt return, and it was he who kept the drive going when penalties had them going backwards. Cody Hollister and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine caught just one pass each despite playing 27 and 45 snaps respectively.
The Titans will hope to get Davis and Humphries back next week, but this was a good performance by this group given the circumstances.
Tight ends: B-plus
Jonnu Smith continues to be a mismatch all over the field, especially in the red zone. Smith has enjoyed a breakout season thus far and it was more of the same on Tuesday night.
Smith saw 7 targets and hauled in 5 of them for just 40 yards. He was always going to see a lot of targets in this one with the Titans being short on receivers. His yardage output leaves something to be desired but Tannehill did find him in the end zone twice.
Smith now has 5 receiving touchdowns through the first four games. He will continue to play a key role in this explosive offense. Tannehill has made a habit of looking for him in the red zone and it’s paying dividends for all involved.
Anthony Firkser caught 3 balls for 19 yards. I expected to see more of Firkser, but the game script just didn’t fall his way.
Geoff Swaim was active for the first time this season. Swaim did a nice job filling in for MyCole Pruitt who remains on the reserve/COVID list. Swaim did his best Pruitt impression as a reliable run blocker. He even lined up at fullback on a few occasions. The Titans will be pleased with his play.
Offensive line: B
This unit continues to struggle at run blocking while excelling in pass protection. After putting in their best performance of the year in the Week 3 victory over Minnesota, we saw some regression last night in relation to the run game. We touched on those struggles above. Much of those struggles had to do with this unit failing to clear the way for its running backs. Henry has gotten hit at or behind the line of scrimmage far too often this season. This group is aware of that, and will not take it lightly. They simply need to do a better job taking control of the line of scrimmage off the snap.
It wasn’t all bad. For as poor as they were in the running game, they were excellent in pass protection. That’s been a common theme this season. Tannehill was not sacked in this one. In fact, Tannehill has been sacked just three times through four games. While they have some things to clean up, this O-line will take great pride in the job they’ve done to keep Tannehill upright.
The right side of the line continues to impress me. Dennis Kelly has played some really good football this season. In fact, he’s making the decision to let Jack Conklin walk look like the right one, especially when taking cost into account. Nate Davis continued the upward trend he’s been on for a while now. Ben Jones was his usual reliable self.
Pre-snap penalties have been an issue in previous weeks, but this group played a perfect game in that department. Offensive line coach Keith Carter will be pleased with that.
Taylor Lewan left the game with a shoulder injury after a similar injury forced him to exit the Vikings game two weeks ago. While Lewan was unable to return in that one, he was able to come back in the second half of this contest.
Lewan seemed to shake off the injury just fine Tuesday night, but it’s slightly concerning to see him continue to struggle with shoulder issues.
Defensive line: B-plus
This was an impressive performance given the fact that this group was without its best player in Jeffery Simmons. The Bills rushing attack was held under 100 total yards on the day. That fact becomes even more impressive when you realize that their quarterback Josh Allen is one of the better scramblers in the league.
DaQuan Jones was his usual impressive self, especially in the run game where he made his presence felt early with a trio of stout run stops in the first quarter. Jack Crawford had an early pressure that forced an Allen throwaway. Isaiah Mack, Matt Dickerson and Larrell Murchison were also active for this one. Murchison popped when he combined with fellow Day 3 rookie Chris Jackson for an excellent tackle for loss.
Bills starting running back Devin Singletary found absolutely no room to run. He totaled just 25 yards on 11 carries, good for a measly 2.3 yards per carry. It’s worth noting that the Bills were without rookie running back Zack Moss. Moss may be a better runner than Singletary. Former Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon totaled 52 yards on just 7 carries, but that number was inflated by a late 34-yard run when the game was essentially over.
This was much a better performance than the one we saw in Minnesota, when Dalvin Cook ran for a career-high 181 yards.
Inside Linebackers: C-plus
I was particularly harsh on this group the last time out. Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown haven’t quite been themselves this season. They took a small step forward on Tuesday. They both did some nice work in the run game. Brown and Evans did a good job combining with the D-line to routinely meet the running backs at the line of scrimmage or after a short gain, and Evans led the team in tackles.
The reason that this grade isn’t a little better is because I thought they were a little lackluster in coverage on third down. The Titans defense as a whole has been poor on third down this season and that remained true in this one. The Bills went 13-for-17 on third down, many of which were obvious passing situations when Allen routinely found his targets. The inside linebackers shoulder some of that responsibility.
If there was one Bills highlight they’ll be proud of in this one, it was the Dawson Knox stiff arm on Evans.
After failing to register a single snap on defense in Week 3, David Long played 7 snaps in this one. I’d like to see his athleticism utilized in coverage a little more. Will Compton played just 6 snaps, while Nick Dzubnar was limited to special teams play only.
Outside linebackers: C
It was more of the same from this unit. This group continues to apply pressure while struggling to get home. Harold Landry did record his first sack of the season, and it was a beauty:
Jadeveon Clowney continues to be a pressure king. I’m a firm believer that disruption is production, but one has to think that Clowney is a little frustrated at the lack of tangible results so far. He’s yet to record a sack through four games despite his pressure rate being amongst the best in the league. Clowney has to start knocking the quarterback down at some point. Hopefully it’s just a matter of time.
Vic Beasley failed to pop despite playing 30 snaps. The Titans were without Kamalei Correa and Derick Roberson. Correa was inactive despite being activated off the reserve/COVID list earlier in the day, while Roberson continues to struggle with a knee injury. Correa has apparently requested a trade, citing a lack of playing time.
This group has now combined for 1 sack through four games. Jon Robinson continues to wait for the type of sack production he envisioned when he signed Clowney and Beasley to one-year deals.
Simply put, Josh Allen often found himself with enough time to get a cup of coffee on the majority of his dropbacks. That can’t happen. This group often asked their secondary to cover for 5-plus seconds, something that is a near impossible task at this level.
I wonder if fatigue is playing a role. Landry and Clowney continue to play a ton of snaps. Landry was out there for a whopping 69 snaps, good for 96% of the total snaps on defense while Clowney was in on 53 plays. Part of that has been a numbers game. The Titans had just three outside linebackers up for this one, something that’s been a common problem throughout the early portion of the season. Perhaps we’d see more sack production from Landry and Clowney if they had a moment to catch their breath? The Titans need to get Roberson and whoever else on the field ASAP before they wear out the top-end of this group.
Malcom Butler had himself a day. He got off to a hot start when a Josh Allen pass bounced off of Bills receiver Andre Roberts right into his waiting hands. Butler returned it inside the 20-yard line and set up the first Titans touchdown of the day. Butler wasn’t done there. As the Bills were driving down the field late in the third quarter with the game still within reach, Butler made his second interception of the match. It was a key turnover that helped the Titans put the game away. The return was highlight reel worthy, as Butler covered 101.8 yards on the 68-yard return, per Next Gen Stats.
It was the result of excellent route recognition on Butler’s part:
I don’t have many complaints for the rest of this group. Stefon Diggs did total 106 yards on 10 catches, but was held to a long of 19. I thought this group did a good job keeping everything in front of them, something they failed to do against Justin Jefferson and Minnesota last time out.
As mentioned above, the pass rush needs to do a better job going forward. The secondary was hung out to dry on far too many occasions. This group also continues to miss Adoree Jackson who remains on Injured Reserve. Hopefully they can get him back on the field ASAP. They were also without rookie Kristian Fulton.
Johnathan Joseph played 54 snaps, and I thought he played well. Seventh-round rookie Chris Jackson continues to impress with what he can handle. The Titans have asked a lot of Jackson as they continue to struggle with health at the position and he’s delivered. Earlier I mentioned how he combined with Murchison for an excellent tackle for loss. He also made an acrobatic pass break-up on a key third down. Kareem Orr was elevated from the practice squad to help make up the numbers and gave the team 26 useful snaps. Tye Smith also played 28 snaps and replaced Joseph at one point as the left cornerback.
This group will face another stiff test in Deshaun Watson and the Texans this coming Sunday.
Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro quietly played some solid football after a rare disappointing showing in Minnesota. Both Byard and Vaccaro made a ton of nice run stops in and around the line of scrimmage. It was a refreshing sight to see after both players had struggled with some uncharacteristic tackling issues in recent weeks. Byard had a chance to record an interception in the first half but wasn’t able to get his hands on it.
Amani Hooker played just 21 snaps. I expected to see more three-safety looks, but that wasn’t the case for whatever reason. Joshua Kalu also chipped in with 7 snaps.
Special teams: A-plus
It’s rare that a special teams unit earns an A-plus grade without attempting a single field goal, but that’s how good this overall unit was on Tuesday.
Chris Milton was the star of this show. He made a pair of excellent plays on special teams. First, he made this textbook tackle when Roberts made a poor decision to attempt to return this one:
Milton later downed an early third-quarter Kern punt inside the 5. Milton continues to prove why he earned a roster spot with his excellent special teams play. He’s been one of the best gunners in the league this season.
Kalif Raymond also returned a punt for 40 yards. It set the Titans up in great field position, and the drive resulted in a Henry touchdown.
This group wasn’t done there. It’s rare that I get a chance to showcase three separate highlights on special teams, so bare with me here; I’m particularly enjoying this. The effort and energy of this unit remained high late into the game when Long forced a fumble with a powerful kick-off coverage tackle that was recovered by Orr:
The Titans are now 4-0 and made light work of a good Bills team despite having just two walk-through practices in the last 16 days. They rallied around one another and played a complete football game.
It’s early, but the top spot they currently hold in the AFC was earned, not given.