Gridiron Grades: Titans inch closer to AFC South crown with blowout victory in Jacksonville

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 took care of business. They visited Jacksonville as heavy favorites in Week 14 and were well in control the entire way as they cruised to a 31-10 victory.

The win keeps the Titans in first place in the AFC South. The pesky Colts have matched the Titans’ record at 9-4 so far, but Tennessee currently holds the tiebreaker thanks to a 4-1 divisional record.

A lot has changed since the last meeting between these two teams. Such is life in the NFL. Both franchises entered Week 2 with a 1-0 record. Little did the Jaguars know that they would soon embark on a losing streak that currently stands at 12 games.

Much has been made of the Derrick Henry vs. Jaguars narrative, but you may be shocked to learn that Henry had never rushed for 100 yards on the road in Jacksonville. That strange fact was no more by the time the whistle blew for halftime as Henry put in another truly dominant performance.

The defense also played a terrific game after being embarrassed by the Cleveland Browns last week. Say what you will of the opponent, but this was an encouraging performance on that side of the ball and something to build on moving forward.

Let’s get into this week’s grades…

Quarterback: A

It doesn’t get more efficient than this. Ryan Tannehill picked his spots to perfection as Henry did the heavy lifting. This performance has been typical of the Tannehill era. The offense didn’t require him to light up the box score, but he was surgical when he needed to be. He completed 19 of 24 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns.

Tannehill was sharp early and remained that way for all four quarters. He threw his first of two touchdowns on a 37-yard flea flicker. It was the opening score of the game and got the Titans off on the right foot. They never let up from there on out.

Tannehill would throw his next touchdown pass to tight end Geoff Swaim to increase the lead to 24-3 during the early portion of the third quarter. It felt like the game-clinching score despite there being ample time left on the clock.

Overall, he played mistake-free football while shredding the Jaguars’ secondary when afforded the opportunity. Tannehill and this offense are firing on all cylinders right now.

You know things are going well when Logan Woodside gets to play in garbage time. He had a huge (and hilarious) gain on a bootleg:

Tannehill will look to keep it rolling against a porous Detroit Lions secondary next week.

Running backs: A-plus

King Henry went out there and did King Henry things. The Titans rode his back to a blowout victory. The Jags defense clearly set out to slow him down, but they failed miserably. Henry hit the ground running and never stopped.

His first half numbers read as such: 15 carries, 122 rushing yards and touchdown. That’s good for a ridiculous 8.1 yards per carry. What’s crazy is that Henry actually improved on his halftime YPC. He finished the game with an 8.3 clip. Henry’s impressive first half was capped off by this 36-yard touchdown:

The long touchdown run featured some gorgeous blocking by Cameron Batson and MyCole Pruitt.

Henry wasn’t done there. He started the third quarter on the right foot with yet another big gain:

Henry would later score his second touchdown of the day. It was a short run at the goal line and increased the lead to 31-3.

Henry finished the game with 215 yards on 26 carries. It was just another day at the office for the best running back in the league. The 26-year-old is now the only back in NFL history to rush for 200+ yards and 2 TDs in the same game four different times. Sunday’s performance places Henry alongside some special company through 14 weeks:

Last year’s rushing champ now sits at 1,532 yards on the ground through 13 games, only eight yards short of the 1,540 he totaled last year. Just when you think he’s reached his ceiling, Henry finds a way to get better. This offense needs to continue riding him down the stretch.

D’Onta Foreman and Darrynton Evans were both inactive. It’s potentially a sign that Jeremy McNichols has a stranglehold on the backup RB job. Speaking of McNichols, he ran for just nine yards on 11 carries. He unfortunately had a big gain wiped out by a penalty.

In what may be the lone black eye on this game, McNichols failed to convert a fourth-and-two during the first half. It was an odd play call and decision by the coaching staff. The Titans had driven the ball deep into Jaguars territory while nursing a 7-0 lead. McNichols was in the game for a third-and-obvious passing play, as he usually is. After completing the pass, the offense was faced with the aforementioned fourth-and-short. Instead of taking a breather and getting Henry back into the game, they decided to go tempo and handed it off to McNichols. It failed miserably.

Wide receivers: B-plus

Welcome to the A.J. Brown show. The sophomore receiver donned the jersey of his hero Julio Jones during pregame warmups and proceeded to play like his doppelganger.

Brown continued his journey to superstardom with an electric performance that saw him total 112 yards on seven catches. The highlight of Brown’s day came in the first quarter when he caught this 37-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill:

Let’s take a closer look at that over-the-shoulder one handed beauty:

Per Next Gen Stats, the 37-yard touchdown pass to Brown had just a 22.3% chance of completion.

It wasn’t all roses, though. I would feel particularly biased if I didn’t mention that Brown dropped a third-down pass on the next possession. It should have been an easy catch. Instead, it was Brown’s seventh drop in his last five games. He made up for it some by converting a third down on the very next possession.

Brown is, simply put, a superstar. Let’s look at the highlights from his big day:

As for the Titans’ No. 2 receiver, Corey Davis had a disappointing day. He recorded just 34 yards on three catches. He also had an uncharacteristic fumble in his own territory during the dying minutes of the second quarter. The defense let Davis off the hook by holding to just three points on the ensuing Jaguars possession, but it was a poor mistake nonetheless.

Davis has a prime bounce back opportunity against the Lions next week.

No other Titans receiver recorded a catch.

Tight ends: B-minus

Is Swaim this team’s new TE1? All kidding aside, Swaim nearly had himself a two-touchdown day. He finished the game with 34 yards on three catches to lead the tight ends. He found the end zone once and fell just one-yard short of a second score. Swaim has seen an increase in opportunities in the passing game as of late and he’s making the most of it. Let’s take a look at his touchdown:

It was an interesting play design with all three tight ends bunched up in a similar area of the field. Swaim did well to secure and finish the grab as he went to the ground.

Jonnu Smith finished with just two catches for 20 yards. Anthony Firkser caught a single pass. Pruitt was not targeted.

All four tight ends did some great work in the blocking game. This group continues to contribute a ton to the ground game. They helped the offensive line open up giant running lanes for Henry on what felt like a snap-by-snap basis.

Offensive line: A-minus

You can’t go with less than an “A” when your stud running back finishes with 215 yards. The big guys up front did their job and then some. It wasn’t perfect, and we’ll get to that, but what a performance this was.

The starting five were terrific as run blockers. They continuously won the line of scrimmage and opened up gaping holes for Henry to run through.

The pass protection left some to be desired. Tannehill was only sacked once, but went through a stretch where it felt like the pressure was constant. Penalties were also an issue.

David Quessenberry was the culprit that gave up the lone sack of the day. He also lost his footing on the very next play. It lead to Tannehill getting absolutely leveled as he released the ball. He was the worst member of this unit Sunday, but he wasn’t a disaster, either. Uneven performances such as this one are probably what we should expect from him going forward. After all, he is the third-string left tackle.

A Rodger Saffold hold wiped out a big gain on a screen pass to Henry early. It was a rare penalty for Tennessee’s stud left guard. He was later replaced by Aaron Brewer due to injury.

Nate Davis was called for a third quarter hold that eliminated an 18-yard gain by Henry. Ben Jones was replaced by Jamil Douglas for a single play. It was an injury scare, but Jones quickly returned. Dennis Kelly was excellent at right tackle and eventually gave way to Marshall Newhouse in garbage time, when Jones and Saffold were also spotted on the sidelines.

It was a rare game where every single active offensive linemen played on offense at some point.

It wasn’t perfect, but this game qualifies as a huge success for the offensive line.

Defensive line: B-plus

This group did a great job holding James Robinson in check. The undrafted rookie has been one of few bright spots on the Jacksonville offense this season. He’s performed like one of the better running backs in the league in 2020, going over 1,000 yards on the season in this game. The Titans defense was up to the challenge though, as he managed just 81 total yards on 16 touches.

DaQuan Jones was his usual disruptive self. He made a terrific tackle in the run game early and constantly reset the line of scrimmage all day long. He also got his hands up to block a field goal, although the Jags’ kicker slipped midway through the attempt. Jack Crawford gave the team 35 valuable snaps and was also a menace against the run. Jeffery Simmons showed flashes, but it’s been a few weeks since we’ve seen him truly dominate a game.

Matt Dickerson and Larrell Murchison contributed with 22 and 20 snaps respectively. Both linemen played well as Teair Tart served his one-game suspension.

Inside linebackers: B-plus

Rashaan Evans was all over the field in this one. He played a great game and was routinely around the football. It’s rare to see him make a play in coverage, but he actually made several on Sunday. It’s too bad he missed a golden opportunity to score when he dropped a sure pick-six in the first quarter. At least he was in the throwing lane and made a play on the ball. It was a great defensive call. Evans faked the blitz before dropping back into coverage. It was a critical third down at that point in the game and forced a punt. Evans was terrific against the run as well.

David Long Jr. has established himself as the clear replacement for the injured Jayon Brown. He was on the field for every single defensive snap in this one. Long played a clean game of football. He was routinely in the right spots and made the plays he was asked to make.

Nick Dzunbar, Will Compton and Daren Bates were limited to special teams.

This position group collectively played a really good game.

Outside linebackers: C-plus

This was the one disappointing group of the defense. They continue to play the run game well while struggling to generate any pressure on the quarterback. Harold Landry came unblocked on a third-and-14 and forced a throwaway. It resulted in a punt, but the fact that a clear path to the QB failed to result in a sack sums up this season perfectly for these edge rushers.

Landry and Derick Roberson recorded a few pressures, but as has happened far too often this season, the Titans didn’t record a single sack here.

Landry and Roberson continue to be the workhorses. They played 61 and 35 snaps respectively. The Titans barely have anyone rosterable behind those two. Tuzar Skipper once again worked as the third outside linebacker but exited with an elbow injury and was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game. We may see Wyatt Ray next week.

Cornerbacks: A

There are few cornerbacks playing better football than Malcolm Butler right now. Per our own Mike Herndon, Butler shadowed D.J. Chark and basically shoved him deep into his pocket:

Butler played tight, physical coverage on Chark all day long. Chark is a speedy receiver so it was especially impressive to see Butler stay right on Chark’s hip on a consistent basis. Butler’s great play was rewarded with a second-half interception, his third pick of the year. It was a lovely leaping effort:

The Titans entered this game with some injury concerns opposite Butler. Breon Borders, who has been starting as of late, went on injured reserve with a hip injury. Adoree Jackson had a good week of practice but isn’t ready yet. Kristian Fulton is still working his way back from injury.

All of that meant Tye Smith was the de facto choice to start on the outside. He responded to the challenge with a terrific game. Smith’s early season struggles were marred by off-coverage routines that led to easy completions. That was not the version of Smith we saw on Sunday.

He immediately started on the right foot and never let up. He recorded an excellent tackle-for-loss that forced a third-and-long and eventually led to a missed field goal (more on that later). On Jacksonville’s second possession, Smith had an impressive pass break-up that lead to another third-and-long and eventual punt. He consistently played tight, physical coverage. It was a very impressive performance.

Desmond King continues to play some good football in the slot. He played 62 of 69 defensive snaps. He continues to see a heavy workload at the nickel spot.

Chris Jackson was on the field for 10 plays. Chris Milton and Kareem Orr played exclusively on special teams.

Safeties: B-minus

This group didn’t stand out but they weren’t actively bad either. Kevin Byard was beat a couple of times in coverage but it mostly occurred in garbage time.

Kenny Vaccaro missed this game with an “illness.” Amani Hooker started in his place and was solid. He made a great tackle for loss on the second play of the game. Hooker is an asset both in coverage and near the line of scrimmage.

It’s worth noting that Byard and Hooker were on the field for all 69 plays on defense.

Joshua Kalu was on the field for 30 plays in addition to his regular special teams workload.

Special teams: A

It’s nice when you don’t have anything bad to say here.

Stephen Gostkowski made his lone attempt from 53 yards out. It was a terrific and aggressive piece of coaching that led to him even getting a chance to make this kick. He was also a perfect four-for-four on extra points. Don’t look now, but Gostkowski has been in a nice groove as of late.

Brett Kern punted just four times. The MVPunter had a long of 50 yards. The offense is keeping him on the sidelines more often than not these days.

As mentioned above, DaQuan Jones blocked a field goal in the first quarter after Jaguars kicker Aldrick Rosas slipped and failed to get the proper trajectory on the ball:

The Titans will look to reach the double-digit win mark next week for the first time since 2008.

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