Gridiron Grades: Titans dominate Dolphins en route to division title, top seed in the AFC

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 perfect day for the Tennessee Titans, who dominated and swept aside the Miami Dolphins by a final score of 34-3. It was a methodical, complete performance that may have been Tennessee’s best showing of the season. Tennessee’s offense took care of the football and largely moved the ball down the field at will. It didn’t occur without its difficulties, especially early, but it was overall a quality performance. Defensively, it was dominant as a fierce front seven and uber-talented secondary didn’t give up an inch. For the second time in four weeks, the Titans’ defense held a team to a touchdown-less affair.

Elsewhere, the Cincinnati Bengals won a last minute thriller against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was significant because Kansas City’s loss catapulted Tennessee into the No. 1 seed in the AFC, a spot they’ll hold heading into the regular season if they defeat the Houston Texans next Sunday. A win there would give Tennessee a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. It would be a huge advantage. Not only do you get to avoid traveling to a place like Foxboro, freezing cold Kansas City or even Buffalo, but it would also give Derrick Henry– and the rest of a banged-up roster that’s fielded more players than any other team in NFL history– another week to kick their feet up and get healthy.

Again, it was literally a perfect day for the Titans, who won back-to-back division titles while clinching their third consecutive postseason appearance. It’s a great time to be a Titans fan.

Let’s pick apart this excellent showing.

Quarterbacks: B-plus

The Ryan Tannehill revenge game LIVES. No, Tennessee’s quarterback didn’t put up eye-popping numbers, but he made plays when they needed it most. Tannehill completed 13-of-18 passing attempts for 120 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Tennessee went 7-of-15 on third down and 1-for-1 on fourth down against a surging Dolphins defense that’s been in excellent form as of late. Those numbers were largely a product of Tannehill’s ability to take care of the football and make great decisions when faced with critical down-and-distance instances.

Tannehill played a quality game while overseeing a methodical all-around performance. What a blessing he’s been for this franchise, and this season especially, as a steadying presence in the face of mounting injuries and uncertainty. Tannehill will look to help Tennessee clinch the one-seed against the Texans next week. He’ll be motivated for that one, given how the first meeting went.

Running backs: A-plus

D’Onta Foreman played his best game as a Titan. Foreman got hot early and carried that momentum with him throughout the game. Foreman had an excellent 14-yard, physical run late in the first quarter to set up a first-and-goal at Miami’s one-yard line. Tennessee scored the opening touchdown on the very next play.

Freeman would find the end zone late in the second quarter on a 21-yard score that featured some excellent blocking up front by all five offensive linemen. It was another physical run that showcased Foreman’s decisiveness with the ball in his hands.

Foreman’s big day wasn’t done there. The Titans were faced with a third-and-one midway through the fourth quarter. They surprisingly lined up in the wildcat formation with Tannehill flexed out wide. Foreman took the snap and busted up the middle for a 35-yard gain that helped clinch the victory.

All in all, Foreman had a massive day while handling a Derrick-Henry-like workload. Foreman carried the ball a season-high 26 times for 132 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. He was tough, physical, dependable, decisive and elusive. It’s amazing to think about how Foreman was sitting on his couch not all that long ago just waiting for an opportunity.

Dontrell Hilliard had a nice day himself. Another ball-carrier that was added just weeks ago, Hilliard put the cherry on top with this gorgeous 39-yard touchdown run with just two minutes left to play.

It put a stamp on the victory by increasing Tennessee’s lead to 34-3. Hilliard’s largest play from scrimmage was wiped out by a questionable penalty. Hilliard picked up 54 yards early in the third quarter on a rare, well-executed screen. All kidding aside, it was a great play design to get the defense flowing one way before Tannehill flipped it back to Hilliard. The referees called a blind slide block on Chester Rogers down the field. It was highly questionable, and cost Tennessee a bunch of yardage.

It was a relatively perfect day for this makeshift backfield. To nitpick, Jeremy McNichols whiffed in pass protection on third down early in the third quarter. It led to Miami’s only sack of the day and a Titans punt.

Tennessee currently holds the one-seed and Derrick Henry may be soon returning. Get excited, folks.

Wide receivers: C-minus

It was nowhere near reminiscent of last week’s dominant showing, but both of A.J. Brown’s catches were awfully timely and impactful. Late in the first quarter, Tannehill hit Brown from play-action for a 25-yard catch-and-run that was vintage Brown and nearly resulted in a TD near the sideline. Brown couldn’t keep his momentum in bounds, and had to settle for a 20-plus yard explosive play. Midway through the second quarter, the Titans went back to the Tannehill-to-Brown-play-action-well for a 16-yard gain. It was Brown’s second and final catch of the day.

Brown could have had a bigger day. The former Ole Miss standout was targeted in the end zone on a long developing broken play, but the defensive back broke it up. On the second play of Tennessee’s first possession, Tannehill missed an open Brown. There may have been some miscommunication on the play, as Tannehill appeared to have expected Brown to sit down in the zone. Later in the opening frame, Brown and Tannehill missed again on a play-action attempt. Brown appeared to have unexpectedly slowed up on the route. Brown will have bigger days than this one.

Nick Westbrook served as the No. 2 receiver with Julio Jones remaining on the COVID-Reserve List. Westbrook was targeted twice but failed to make a catch. Chester Rogers recorded two catches for a total of 13 yards. One of them occurred on third down and allowed Tennessee to keep the chains moving.

Tennessee leaned on their running game and surging defense. Just two receivers made a catch, and this group totaled four receptions as a whole. Luckily, Tennessee didn’t need them on Sunday. Hopefully Julio Jones provides a boost in the playoffs.

Tight ends: B-plus

It was nice to see this group finally make a large impact in the passing game. Geoff Swaim opened the scoring by catching a one-yard touchdown on a play-action attempt that fooled Miami’s defense at the goal line.

Midway through the second quarter, Swaim moved the chains on another play-action attempt on third-and-short. Tennessee trusted Swaim quite a bit throughout this one, and he cashed in every time.

Anthony Firkser caught his first TD of the season on a, yes, you guessed it, play-action attempt midway through the fourth quarter. It was a 15-yard score.

Firkser made a few big catches throughout. He had a third-down grab that took the ball inside Miami’s 15-yard line. It set up a fourth-and-one. Vrabel elected to go for it and Tannehill converted with a QB sneak. It felt like deja vu when Firkser made another third-down grab to set up a second fourth-and-one inside Miami’s territory. Vrabel decided to kick the field goal this time. It was nice to see Firkser make so many big grabs, but you do wish he moved the chains on those two in particular.

It wasn’t all rosy. MyCole Pruitt unfortunately suffered a season-ending foot/lower leg injury midway through the second quarter. It was an ugly scene on the field, as Pruitt was clearly in some pain. Credit Vrabel for quickly jogging out to check on a player he shares history with back to their Houston Texans days. It’s awful stuff. Pruitt will look to rehab as he gets set to hit free agency next season. We’d love to see him bounce back from this and come back to Tennessee.

Offensive line: A

This group played a solid game up front all things considered. It was extremely refreshing to witness them have their starting front five all available for the first time in several weeks. We hope it stays that way throughout the postseason run. They opened up a ton of rushing lanes en route to a day where Tennessee ran for an astounding 198 yards. There were several running plays that were truly and beautifully blocked up front, with guys like Rodger Saffold doing excellent work as pulling blockers, etc.

Pass protection has been an issue this season but it was much better on Sunday. Tannehill was sacked just once and was not regularly under pressure or duress. It was refreshing to see this group put it all together in all phases of the game.

That doesn’t mean it was perfect. Taylor Lewan had a false start in the first quarter. A Ben Jones hold (that was announced as Swaim) erased a big Foreman run. The Titans caught a break on the very next play when a pass interference awarded them a new set of downs. The very next play? A Nate Davis hold. Not an ideal sequence. Aaron Brewer was also called for a penalty or two.

This is a good front seven Miami possesses defensively and Tennessee did a great job handling them up front, both in the run game and in pass protection. You’d certainly take a few more repeat performances.

Defensive line: A

This D-line was extremely energetic and physical. They swarmed to the football and didn’t give up an inch. The Dolphins were held to just 74 rushing yards as a team. They ran the ball well early to start the game, but Tennessee quickly made their corrections. Jeffery Simmons had an excellent tackle in the run game that went for no gain early in the first quarter. It was all uphill from there. Naquan Jones had an excellent run stop to force a third-and-8.

This group did an even better job rushing the passer. Jones and Bud Dupree combined for a pressure early in the second quarter to force a third-and-10 and eventual field goal. Denico Autry combined with Harold Landry for a pressure on a third-and-8 that forced a bad throw and eventual punt. Kyle Peko forced a Tua fumble early in the fourth and final quarter, but Miami were lucky to recover.

Tennessee’s front lived around the football and in the backfield while overwhelming the pocket. Tua never got comfortable and was consistently forced to rush throws or escape pressure. It was a great showing by these men.

Linebackers: B-plus

Landry had the aforementioned pressure (alongside Autry) on Miami’s second possession that forced a punt. Landry later recorded his 12th sack of the season on a third down late in the third quarter. It forced a 53-yard field goal attempt by Miami, which was no good. Landry continues to experience a career-year. He’s a big-time pass rusher that’s making an impact on a weekly basis.

Zach Cunningham had an excellent run stop in the first quarter. He met the running back with violence in the hole. It went for no gain and forced a second-and-10. Don’t look now, but Dupree is beginning to string some performances together. Sunday was his third consecutive impressive showing after he played great games against Pittsburgh and San Francisco as well. Dupree has at least one sack in three straight.

David Long Jr. made his return after a six-game absence. It was great to see him back in action. He made an excellent open field tackle early in the fourth quarter to force a third-and-three. Long capped his return off with a late game interception. He was visibly excited as he leaped into the seats at Nissan Stadium to celebrate with the fans.

Rashaan Evans got the start next to Cunningham, but we expect Long to replace Evans now that he’s back in game shape after getting this one under his belt. Miami went after Evans a bit in the passing game early, and had success. I don’t think there’s any denying that Cunningham and Long make up the best duo here, with a healthy Jayon Brown mixing in on passing downs. Still, it’s all a great problem to have. This group is suddenly very deep.

Secondary: A

This group made a bunch of big plays and didn’t give up much. Amani Hooker made a great tackle for no gain on a Jaylen Waddle jet sweep early in the first quarter to force a third-and-10. On that third down, Dupree and Autry combined for a sack, but it was more of a coverage sack than anything. Hooker did unfortunately drop an easy would-be-interception late in the second quarter. He also allowed Waddle to get behind him for a 45-yard reception on a switch release in the fourth quarter. It might have been Miami’s only big play of the game.

Kristian Fulton had an excellent pass breakup on Devanate Parker midway through the second frame to force a third-and-long. Fulton was excellent all day long while playing sticky man coverage. Late in the second quarter, he recorded another eye-opening pass breakup on tight end Mike Gesicki, who’s a large man with a very large catch radius. It was super impressive on Fulton’s part.

Tagovailoa had a fumble due to the weather conditions, and Elijah Molden recovered inside Miami’s 15.

It was a big turnover at the time, and occurred just plays after Tennessee took a 7-0 lead. Tennessee capitalized on Molden’s heads up play by tacking on three points. Molden later had a great pass defended that batted up into the air and almost resulted in an interception. Molden is constantly around the ball and making plays when on the field. The Titans got an absolute steal.

Jackrabbit Jenkins and Kevin Byard rarely put a wrong foot forward. Jenkins played sticky coverage on the outside all day long. He replaced Buster Skrine on the outside, reclaiming his place in Tennessee’s starting lineup. It may have been Jenkins’ best game of the season. Skrine, Dane Cruikshank and Chris Jackson give this secondary the type of depth they haven’t had in a long time.

This group is BALLING and will be a real threat in the playoffs.

Special teams: A

Chris Jackson made a great special teams tackle on the opening kickoff that held Miami short of the 20-yard line. Chester Rogers had a solid 13-yard punt return that helped set Tennessee up in great field position. Cruikshank seemed to have injured himself on the hands team but he did return.

Randy Bullock went 2-for-2 on field goals and 4-for-4 on extra point attempts, which is great given the less-than-ideal weather conditions. Bullock’s longest make of the day came from 44 yards out. He continues to be extremely reliable in the kicking game. Brett Kern had an excellent day punting the ball. Three of his four punts were placed inside Miami’s 20 with a respectable net average of 44.3.

The Titans are 11-5 and just clinched the AFC South while moving into the conference’s top seed. They now control their own destiny and should earn a first-round bye along with home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. That’s huge.

Enjoy this, Titans fans.

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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