Gridiron Grades: Titans outlast Saints for sixth consecutive victory

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

It wasn’t particularly pretty, but the Tennessee Titans won their sixth game in a row with a 23-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints. Much like last Monday’s triumph over the Los Angeles Rams, the Titans received a solid performance from their defense en route to victory.

As per usual, we graded each position group’s performance.

Quarterbacks: C-plus

Ryan Tannehill overcame a stomach illness that mysteriously kept him out of practice on Friday to make the start. Tennessee’s offense largely struggled due to a variety of reasons (we’ll get into each one under that position’s heading). Tannehill finished 19-of-27 for 213 yards, a touchdown pass and a rushing TD.

New Orleans played a great game defensively, and gave Tennessee’s offense all they could handle. The Titans finished with just 264 total yards of offense, and routinely struggled to move the ball.

Tannehill was lucky to finish without an interception. He appeared to have thrown a costly one into the end zone, but New Orleans were flagged for a rather soft roughing the passer penalty, Tennessee was awarded a new set of downs from the one-yard line and would go on to score a touchdown.

The passing offense (offense in general, really) needs to be better than this going forward.

Running backs: D-plus

Mike Vrabel told Dianna Russini pre-game that he was hoping to see an improved rushing attack from the one that struggled in Los Angeles on Monday. He was likely disappointed by the output, which was arguably worse than it was in L.A.

After looking like the team’s best running back in Week 9, D’Onta Foreman carried the load, but was rarely effective. Foreman finished with just 30 yards on 11 carries. Adrian Peterson served as the 1A to Foreman’s 1B, rushing for 21 yards on eight carries. Peterson looked better than he did a week ago, but it still wasn’t good enough. Jeremy McNichols was third in the rotation, but gained seven yards on four carries. McNichols had a chance to make an excellent touchdown catch on a third down, but wasn’t able to complete the leaping grab as he went to the ground. It would have been an incredible catch in all fairness.

It was interesting to see Foreman get involved in the passing game with this excellent 39-yard catch-and-run.

All in all, Tennessee’s new-look three-headed backfield finished with 58 rushing yards on 23 carries, which equates to 2.5 yards per carry. That is #NotGood. It wasn’t all their fault, as Tennessee’s offensive line routinely struggled to create rushing lanes, and generally lost the line of scrimmage throughout the day.

This continues to be a work in progress, but the Titans’ offense misses Derrick Henry in a major way. Shocking, I know.

Wide receivers: C

If this was a Marcus Johnson grade, it would be an A, but the rest of the group unfortunately drags this down. We’ll start with the positive. Johnson was electric while working as the WR2 in Julio Jones’ absence. The former Texas standout finished with 100 yards on five receptions, including this 50-yard catch-and-run.

It was a big play when the Titans needed it most after a lackluster start on the offensive side of the ball. Johnson was routinely open and picked up crucial chunks of yardage every time Tannehill looked his way. He’ll look to carry over that momentum into what could be another big day for him against the Houston Texans in Week 11.

A.J. Brown struggled mightily for the second week in a row. On Tennessee’s first possession, Brown dropped a third-and-11 pass, and the Titans were forced to punt. It wasn’t realistically going to move the chains, but it was yet another drop for Brown, who has struggled to catch the football in recent weeks. Astoundingly, Brown caught just one pass for 16 yards, and it was on a trick play that saw Tannehill initially line up at receiver before taking a pitch from Peterson.

Tennessee’s offense needs Brown to carry the load with Henry and Jones on the mend, and the former Ole Miss receiver hasn’t done that in recent weeks. Nick Westbrook, Chester Rogers and Dez Fitzpatrick combined for three catches and just 19 yards. Johnson was Tennessee’s only receiver to record more than one catch on Sunday. This group needs to be better, and it starts with better outputs from their workhorse.

Tight ends: C-minus

This group continues to be well below average. Geoff Swaim caught four balls for 26 yards and appears to be their No. 1 passing tight end. MyCole Pruitt caught one pass for a two-yard touchdown.

Anthony Firkser caught one ball for two yards, and continues to serve as a net negative. On Tennessee’s first drive, Firkser was called for a false start that turned a third-and-manageable into a third-and-11, and an eventual punt. Firkser has been one of Tennessee’s most disappointing offensive players in 2021. Pruitt and Swaim continue to struggle as blockers, which is supposed to be a strong suit of both players. There just aren’t a lot of good things happening here right now.

Offensive line: C-minus

Vrabel was hoping that getting Taylor Lewan and Nate Davis back would lead to more consistent play up front. That was not the case on Sunday. Lewan continues to struggle with a knee injury, and was down on the field at one point. Kendall Lamm momentarily replaced him, and immediately gave up a crucial sack. Davis struggled mightily both in pass protection and as a run blocker, and left the game for a period as well. This group only gave up two sacks, but Tannehill was routinely pressured and knocked to the ground by a hard-nosed Saints defensive line. Things aren’t any better via the ground game. The running game is non-existent currently, and this group has unfortunately had a lot to do with that as of late.

This group is clearly banged up and needs the bye week sooner rather than later. They’ll have to play two more games before they get there.

Defensive line: B

Jeffery Simmons followed up last week’s monstrous performance with another huge showing here. Simmons had two sacks on the day, and the first one was a big one. The Saints were driving, and Simmons’ QB takedown forced a second-and-18 and eventual Saints punt.

Simmons is now up to 7.5 sacks on the season, which leads all interior defenders. It’s an incredible output for an interior defender, and Simmons has seven games to add to his already impressive totals. He has arguably performed like the best defensive lineman in all of football in 2021. Rookie undrafted free agent Naquan Jones earned his first career start with Teair Tart on the mend. Jones played a great game, and recorded his first career sack in rather impressive fashion.

Jones is an impressive rookie that continues to get better on a weekly basis. Nose tackle Kyle Peko was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster, and gave the team meaningful snaps up the middle. Denico Autry continues to be a workhorse and integral piece of this defense. With the Titans being incredibly short handed in the front seven, Autry moved all over the defensive line, playing both inside and out while handling a massive workload.

Linebackers: B-minus

This group entered the game incredibly banged up with both Rashaan Evans and David Long Jr. both on the sidelines. Rookie third-round pick Monty Rice out of Georgia earned the start (almost by default), and played a solid game of football by compiling a team-high 11 tackles.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Harold Landry recorded a sack! It was his eight consecutive game with at least half a sack. With this impressive streak, Landry has joined Titans legend Jevon Kearse (12 consecutive games from 1999-2000) as the franchise’s only players to accomplish such a feat. Landry now has a career-high 10 sacks in just 10 games, and still has seven more contests to add to his already impressive totals. Landry continues to ball out on a weekly basis, and is going to see a major payday in the offseason.

Dylan Cole, a fourth-year undrafted free agent out of Missouri State, was elevated to the gameday roster from the practice squad due to all the injuries at the position and came up with a BIG play when he forced a fumble on the Saints’ opening kickoff to start the third quarter. The Titans would take over and go on to score a touchdown, busting their lead open. It was a massive play by an unheralded defender. Tennessee continues to get massive contributions from their “next man up” mentality.

Bud Dupree exited the game in the first quarter with an abdomen injury and was quickly ruled out. We will now await word on how serious it is. Losing Dupree for an extended period of time would be a big blow for a thin outside linebacker group. Ola Adeniyi played a ton of snaps in Dupree’s absence, and gave the team some quality snaps. Adeniyi was banged up at one point, but managed to stay in the game.

Jayon Brown was a workhorse given all the injuries. He did give up a big reception to Saints veteran running back Mark Ingram on a wheel route in the fourth quarter, but otherwise played a solid game. Things went about as well as they could for this group given the injuries.

Secondary: C-minus

Chris Jackson had a game to forget. We’ve been praising him an awful lot as of late, and he came back down to earth a bit on Sunday. Jackson’s day started on the wrong foot when he gave up a 46-yard pass to Deonte Harris. It didn’t get better from there. Jackson was called for a third-down hold that wiped out a Landry sack, and awarded the Saints an automatic first down. In his defense, it appeared to be an extremely weak call. Just a few plays later, Jackrabbit Jenkins was embarrassingly fooled by a poor play action fake by receiver TreQuan Smith, who “sold” the block before beating Jenkins for an easy TD reception.

Jackson later gave up a touchdown to Saints receiver Marquez Callaway with under two minutes to play. The TD cut Tennessee’s lead to 23-21, and the Saints could have tied the game with a two-point conversion. They ultimately failed to convert, and Tennessee secured the win right then and there. Jackson played a poor game all around.

Kevin Byard was called for a defensive hold on third-and-goal late in the fourth quarter as New Orleans continued to mount their comeback. Byard was also called for a helmet-to-helmet on New Orleans’ last offensive drive. In Byard’s defense, both calls are awful.

Elijah Molden and Kristian Fulton were Tennessee’s best players in the secondary. It was great to get Fulton back. Both defenders played with excellent energy.

As a collective, this group struggled to contain one of the worst passing offenses in the league. Trevor Siemian completed 19-of-34 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns. You’d have liked to see them have a better day against a signal-caller like Siemian.

Special teams: A

Randy Bullock was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals with a long of just 36. He was also 2-for-2 on extra points. Bullock continues to surpass everyone’s expectations as this team’s kicker. Tennessee wouldn’t have won today without his ability to consistently make kicks. Brett Kern punted five times for a total of 205 yards, which equates to an average of 41 yards per punt. He placed just one punt inside New Orleans’ 20. Kern has had better days. Marcus Johnson returned three kicks for 54 yards, with a nice long of 27. Chester Rogers returned one punt for nine yards. Nick Westbrook iced the game by securing a last minute onside kick. We mentioned it under the linebacker heading, but this group forced a turnover on New Orleans’ opening second half kickoff. It led to a big seven points for the offense.

The Titans will look to make it seven victories in a row against Houston in Week 11.

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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