Gridiron Grades: Titans get back to winning ways

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

The Tennessee Titans got back into the win column with a 24-17 victory over the Chicago Bears. Jon Robinson sent a midweek message heading into this game by releasing Vic Beasley, Johnathan Joseph, and Beau Brinkley. The team responded with a good performance.

The victory pushes the Titans’ record to 6-2 following Week 9. It wasn’t pretty, but it was an important win after suffering back-to-back losses. The Bears made it close with a bunch of garbage points, but it never felt like they were really in this game.

Mike Vrabel and company will probably be disappointed by all the fourth quarter points given up by the defense. They’ll preach about maintaining focus and keeping your foot on the gas. There’s no time to dwell. It’s a quick turnaround as the Indianapolis Colts are already headed to Nashville for some Thursday Night Football.

Let’s get into it. The grades are a lot better on defense this time around.

Quarterback: C

The Titans asked very little of Ryan Tannehill in this game. He attempted a season-low 21 passes and completed just 10 of them. This marks the third subpar performance in a row for Tannehill after disappointing showings versus the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.

He managed to throw for two touchdowns and didn’t turn the ball over. It was enough to win a game against an offense as bad as Chicago’s. However, the offense averaged a pathetic 4.1 yards per play and looked out of sync for much of this game. Unlike the Bengals defense that Tannehill saw last week, the Bears unit is a very good one. Most quarterbacks have had a tough time against Chicago this year.

Tannehill was sacked a season-high three times in this game, and he had plenty of time to throw on two of them.

Tannehill’s 158 passing yards represents his lowest total in a regular season game since he took over as the starting quarterback in Tennessee. The offense started slow in general. They had four three-and-outs on their first five possessions. Tannehill had a few shaky moments throughout.

Tannehill was lucky to avoid an interception on the team’s first third down of the game. On the second possession, he missed A.J. Brown deep on third down. It’s worth noting that Brown didn’t play it perfectly, either. He may have looked back for the ball a little early and slowed his stride, which disrupted the timing.

The offense didn’t make a noteworthy play until midway through the first quarter when Tannehill hit Brown for a 38-yard gain that looked familiar. It was a quick play action throw and Brown did the rest with his incredible ability to break tackles in the open field. It was a big play that led to the first points of the game.

The Tannehill-to-Brown connection popped up again on the team’s best offensive play and drive of the game. The Titans took over the ball inside their own 10-yard line while nursing a 3-0 lead midway through the second quarter. The drive began with five straight Henry runs before Tannehill found Brown for a 17-yard completion. The drive eventually culminated in a 40-yard Brown touchdown. It was a beautiful play, one of the nicest of the season for Tennessee. Tannehill’s ball placement was sublime, and Brown’s ability to track the ball over his shoulder and finish the play was jaw-dropping:

It gave the Titans a crucial 10-0 lead.

Tannehill and the offense started the third quarter a little wobbly. Tannehill was lucky to avoid another interception when Jaylon Johnson out-muscled Corey Davis on a third-down rep.

After the Bears cut the lead down to 17-3, Tannehill and the offense put the game away with a great fourth quarter drive. It was Tannehill’s best drive of the game. It ended with a Jonnu Smith touchdown:

You can get by with a performance like this when the opponent’s offense is as bad as Chicago’s, but Tannehill will need to be better than this going forward.

Running backs: C-minus

Derrick Henry found little to no running room versus a tough Bears front. Henry finished the game with 68 yards on 22 carries. He gained just 25 yards on his first 11 touches. Henry was routinely met by several defenders at the line of scrimmage.

Arthur Smith did his best to get Henry going, but it simply didn’t happen. The Titans benefited from playing with a lead for the majority of this game. The rushing attack should have prospered from this, but it didn’t.

It’s rare to see two additional running backs involved in this offense, but that’s what’s happened in Tennessee as of late. D’Onta Foreman was very impressive in his debut last week, but he totaled just 11 yards on five carries in this one. Despite the disappointing output, I thought that Foreman continued to show some good traits while toting the rock.

Jeremy McNichols carried the ball twice for a total of 10 yards. McNichols has been really good in pass protection this year, but he had a bad whiff that lead to Chicago’s second sack of the game.

This group will face another tough test against the Colts this Thursday.

Wide receivers: B

Brown is a superstar. That’s it, that’s all. I could have written this entire section about Brown alone since he was the only Titans receiver that did anything of note. I would give him an “A” for his performance, but the rest of the group drags this grade down a notch.

You read quite a bit about Brown under the quarterback heading. He finished the game with 101 receiving yards on just four catches. His 25.3 yards per catch is a ridiculous mark, but it’s not that crazy when it comes to Brown, who averaged a ridiculous 17.8 yards per catch for his career heading into this contest. He’s a machine in the open field. As our own Mike Herndon pointed out, his score was his NFL-best 6th 40-plus-yard touchdown catch since the start of 2019. That is really something.

Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Brown’s yards after catch on his touchdown was 26 – which was 18 yards more than expected.

Brown and Davis seem to be taking turns when it comes to standout performances. Brown was the star against the Steelers a few weeks ago, Davis did the heavy lifting against the Bengals last week and now it was Brown’s turn to show out again this week.

Speaking of Davis, he had a game to forget. He dropped a wide open pass near the end of the first quarter and it was a sign of things to come. He had a chance to make a huge grab in the fourth quarter, but Bears linebacker Danny Trevethan did a great job to get his hand in there and break it up. Davis was held off the stat sheet altogether.

In fact, Cameron Batson was the only other Titans receiver to make a catch, and it was a modest seven yard gain. The Titans didn’t throw it much, but they’ll need a more consistent effort from this group the next time out.

Tight ends: C

This group was dangerously close to a third straight anonymous performance when Jonnu Smith reminded everyone that he exists in the fourth quarter of this contest.

Smith has been oddly quiet as of late and he wasn’t even targeted until the fourth quarter. Smith thankfully caught both of his targets which actually occurred on back-to-back plays, the first of which went for 30 yards and the second for a touchdown.

Smith is too good to be involved as little as he’s been over the past several weeks. He’s a matchup nightmare and they need to figure out a way to recapture his early season form.

Anthony Firkser dropped his first two targets and wound up catching three balls for 19 yards. Two of his catches came on third down and ensured the Titans offense remained on the field. He’ll be disappointed with the two drops, but he somewhat redeemed himself by moving the chains on two occasions.

MyCole Pruitt left the game with an injury in the first quarter and never returned. It didn’t look great, but Tom Pelissero reports that it’s just a sprain. It’s the best case scenario because he got rolled up on and spent a few minutes down on the field. He was eventually helped off the field but avoided the assistance of the medical cart. He’ll miss Thursday’s game.

Offensive line: C-plus

This was mostly a mixed bag. I’m of the opinion that the starting five continue to play some pretty good football, though. It could have been better, it could have been worse. This was a tough matchup.

Tannehill was sacked a season-high three times, but you’d be incorrect to put any of them directly at the feet of the O-line. The first was a coverage sack that saw Tannehill hold onto the ball for longer than the play was designed for. The second, as mentioned under the running back heading, was a blitz on third-and-10 and whiff in pass protection by McNichols. The third and final sack could be blamed on Ty Sambrailo, but Tannehill had enough time to release the ball.

They struggled to consistently create room in the ground game. Khalil Mack and Mario Edwards presented a unique challenge on the D-line. Both players made their presence felt.

Rodger Saffold left the game for the second week in a row. He walked off the field holding his left shoulder and went straight into the medical tent. Unlike last week, he didn’t return. Losing Saffold for any extended period of time would be disastrous. Saffold is one of the best guards in football and is the best healthy member of this unit. With Taylor Lewan already out for the season, the Titans could ill-afford to lose Saffold. The good news is that Saffold was listed on Monday’s walkthrough report as “limited.” That would seem to insinuate that he didn’t suffer a serious injury, but I’d say he’s a long shot to play this Thursday.

Saffold was replaced by Jamil Douglas, who was badly beaten by former Titan Brent Urban on his first snap. Douglas had a rough outing. He could be in for a long day if he draws a start on Thursday. He’d likely see a lot of DeForest Buckner.

Dennis Kelly and Nate Davis continue to play some good football. The Titans should run right more often.

This group didn’t commit a single penalty the entire day. They continue to play very clean football in that department.

Defensive line: B-plus

Jeffery Simmons is a monster. He continues to play like a top-5 interior defensive linemen in the league. Simmons had a tough week of practice while nursing an injury. He was seen noticeably limping at times throughout the game. It apparently didn’t matter.

He recorded a pressure in the first quarter that forced a throwaway. In the third quarter, he did an excellent job forcing a fumble that new Titan Desmond King recovered and returned for a touchdown:

Simmons wasn’t done there. He later recovered a fumble that was forced by Jayon Brown:

Simmons nearly made an interception late on a tipped ball. It would have been the third turnover he was directly involved in. What a day it was for the Titans’ best defender.

DaQuan Jones was also a monster in this one. I’ve complained that Jones has been quiet in recent weeks, but he was terrific in this contest. He had three tackles for loss in the first half alone. He was dominant in the run game.

Speaking of the run game, the Bears ran for just 56 measly yards on 20 attempts. David Montgomery found no room to operate throughout the day. He averaged 2.1 yards per carry. This is a testament to the job done by the entire D-line.

Jack Crawford came up huge in the first quarter when he recorded a run stop on fourth down. It resulted in a turnover on downs. Rookie undrafted free agent Teair Tart also did some nice work on the play. Tart had a pretty nice debut game. He was quite disruptive. I imagine we’ll see more of him next week. Larrell Murchison also had some bright moments. Crawford was called for roughing the passer late, but it was a soft call.

This was an excellent team effort with the star of the group shining especially bright. The Colts and their physical O-line are coming to town. It should be a fun battle in the trenches.

Inside linebackers: B-minus

Jayon Brown has now strung together three solid performances in a row. It’s a decent sign that his poor early season form may be behind him. He was flying all over the field. He was very active and disruptive.

Brown made a couple of big plays. He recorded a sack in the first half. You saw the late-game fumble he forced that was recovered by Simmons under the defensive line heading. He also led the team in tackles with 10. It was overall a very solid day for Brown. They’re going to need him to keep this up.

Rashaan Evans played a role on the fourth down stop in the first quarter. He also split a sack with Jones. Outside of that, he was pretty anonymous. He did some good things in the run game. He was beat a few times in coverage. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t great either.

Outside linebackers: B-minus

This was a huge improvement compared to last week’s disaster. This was a new look group following the release of Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney injury.

The Titans badly needed a big game from Harold Landry and that’s exactly what they got. Landry recorded a sack, forced an intentional grounding penalty and hit Bears QB Nick Foles several times.

It was Landry’s best performance of the season. He was on the field for all but five defensive snaps. He continues to be their workhorse. A strong second half showing would be huge for him and this defense.

Derick Roberson played a career high 50 snaps and was very disruptive throughout the day. He graded out as a Top 5 defender, according to PFF:

With Clowney on the mend for who knows how long and Beasley no longer in the picture, the Titans will be relying on Roberson to play some good football. He’s going to get an opportunity. They must feel encouraged by what they saw. Roberson is a toolsy pass rusher. This type of performance going forward would be huge.

Wyatt Ray was the third pass rusher and played 13 snaps. He’ll continue to get a chance to showcase what he can do.

Cornerbacks: B-plus

This was more like it. This new-look group was terrific. It would be silly if we didn’t provide some honest context. The Bears offense is pathetic. They entered this game 31st in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (29.8%). On the flip side, the Titans came into this game allowing opponents to convert at a league worst 61.9% rate and had given up at least ten third-down conversions in three of their last four games.

Something had to give. The Titans came out on top as the Bears managed just a 2-of-15 (13.3%) conversion rate. The pass rush deserves a lot of praise as well, but the coverage was much tighter than we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Malcolm Butler continues to play some excellent football. He recorded two pass breakups which brings his total to 10 on the season. The Titans choose to use Butler to shadow an opposing receiver for the third week in a row. He held Chase Claypool to one catch (that went for negative yards) three weeks ago and A.J. Green to two catches for just 19 yards last week. Butler drew a much tougher matchup on Sunday in the form of Allen Robinson, who made seven catches for 81 yards. 

Robinson got the best of Butler a couple times but Butler played him well overall. He’s playing some excellent football right now.

How about the debut of King? He was terrific outside of one play where he was beaten for a 33-yard gain by Anthony Miller. He scored the defensive touchdown you saw under the defensive line heading. Scoring a touchdown in your debut is something special.

He was great in coverage and represents a huge upgrade for this unit. What a steal he’s going to be for this team down the stretch.

Breon Borders was promoted from the practice squad and was required to start on the outside. What a tough ask that is for any player, especially a cornerback. Borders responded tremendously. He played tough and tight coverage all day long. He was also a sure tackler in the run game. He was on the field for every single defensive snap. I can’t say enough good things about Borders’ performance.

Getting good football out of players like the newly-acquired King and Borders is huge as this team still hopes to get Adoree Jackson and Kristian Fulton back shortly.

Chris Jackson was active but played just nine snaps.

Don’t look now, but this group could see a huge second half improvement.

Safeties: C

Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro continue to play modest football. Byard just hasn’t looked like himself this year. The coaching staff needs to figure out how to get more out of him going forward.

Vaccaro allowed Jimmy Graham to get behind him for a pretty decent gain on the Bears’ second play from scrimmage. He should have made an interception on a play where Byard recorded a pressure. Both of these guys need to make more plays going forward.

Amani Hooker is outplaying both of these guys right now. Hooker played 38 snaps and he deserves to play more.

Special teams: B-plus

What a difference a week and some new faces make.

A new-look group showed up in a major way. Special teams has been a sore spot as of late but that wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The Titans signed three-time Super Bowl winner Ryan Allen to replace All-Pro punter Brett Kern, who went to IR with a wrist injury. Allen was terrific in his first game in Tennessee. He averaged 50.5 yards per punt with a long of 65. You’d take those numbers every week.

He also did a nice job in his role as holder for Stephen Gostkowski. Gostkowski wasn’t asked to do much, but he converted his lone attempt from 40 yards and connected on all three extra points.

Allen wasn’t the only new face. Matt Overton was the new long snapper and it was was a successful showing for him. He was busy, snapping for eight punts and four kicks, and all 12 snaps went off without a hitch.

Kalif Raymond also had a really nice day. It was his best performance as the team’s punt returner. He totaled 49 yards on just three returns, good for an impressive average of 16.3 per return.

The Titans are 6-2 at the midway point. They’re in a great place. This was an excellent performance when you consider the Titans piled up nearly 20 transactions over six days. Talk about rare.

The next three games will be huge in shaking out the AFC playoff picture. They’ll see the Colts twice in three weeks with the Baltimore Ravens sandwiched in-between them.

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