Gridiron Grades: Titans overcome mistakes to hold onto crucial Week 3 win

‘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 pretty, but it was enough.

The Titans entered Sunday’s crucial Week 3 contest against the Colts looking to build upon the momentum gained from last week’s wild overtime win in Seattle. Instead, they played a sloppy and uneven game, but did enough to secure a victory.

The Titans never trailed in this one despite being -3 in the turnover department. The offense scored when they needed to and the defense got stops when they needed to. It resulted in a 25-16 home win.

Vrabel was seemingly disappointed with his team’s performance during his post-game press conference. It’s not a surprise, as Vrabel is the type of coach that will harp on the turnovers. There’s a lot to clean up going forward.

Let’s get into it.

Quarterback: B

Ryan Tannehill was quite good in this one. He was largely efficient and precise. Tannehill made excellent decisions on nearly every single one of his drop backs. Two of Tannehill’s three touchdown passes came on third-and-goal and were the result of good decision-making by the Titans’ quarterback.

Tannehill finished the game 18-of-27 with 197 passing yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The volume wasn’t there as it was a week ago when the Titans trailed Seattle by 15 points at halftime and 14 points in the fourth quarter.

Tannehill’s largest impact may have been what he did with his legs as opposed to his arm. Tannehill rushed for 56 yards on five carries. Every single one of his scrambles went for a first down. On Tennessee’s second possession of the day, Tannehill picked up 17 yards with his legs on a third-and-3. Late in the third quarter, Tannehill electrified with a 28 yard run.

Late in the fourth quarter, Tannehill ran for a first down on second-and-11, all but clinching the victory in that moment. It was as good of a game as Tannehill has ever played in a Titans uniform from a rushing perspective. Let’s take a look at the play:

Now let’s discuss Tannehill’s two interceptions. The first one was a puzzling decision on a third-and-long late in the first quarter. Tannehill had a long time in the pocket but made a poor choice with the ball and was punished by Darious Leonard who made the pick. The Colts would turn the turnover into seven points, tying the game early in the second quarter.

Tannehill’s second interception wasn’t on him. The Titans were in field goal range with one minute left in the second quarter when a Tanny toss went off of Chester Rogers’ shoulder pads (sigh) and bounced into the air. It was a bad break for Tannehill, a Rogers error and a swing of points. The Colts would take over the ball and hit a field goal as time expired on the half.

All in all, it was a precise and important performance by Tannehill, who picked his spots to perfection while taking advantage of an outmatched Seahawks secondary. It was just another day at the office for one of the more consistent quarterbacks in the NFL.

It was a good day at the office for Tannehill. He’ll look to keep it rolling in next week’s divisional showdown with the Colts.

Running backs: A-minus

Derrick Henry didn’t get much of a breather after touching the ball a career-high 41 times a week ago. The King punished the Colts by rushing for 112 yards on 28 carries. After catching a career-high six balls a week ago, Henry was once again involved in the passing game by recording three receptions for 31 yards. Henry’s new-found usage in the passing game has been a pleasant surprise.

Henry averaged four yards per carry and had a long run of just 19 yards. The Colts’ defense battled and played a tough football game. They loaded the box on a relatively consistent basis and showed good toughness and a willingness to tackle. They limited Henry from having a bigger day, and forced him to be consistently good as opposed to occasionally great. All in all, they could only do so much as Henry still totaled an impressive 144 yards.

Henry sure made Leonard feel him by lowering the shoulder there! Henry didn’t score on Sunday after scoring three times a week ago, but still played an excellent game. He did convert a crucial two-point conversion attempt that gave the Titans a two-score lead.

Jeremy McNichols carried the ball two times for six yards, and caught a single pass for this solid 10- yard touchdown. McNichols made a smooth play coming out of the backfield.

McNichols will continue to operate as the team’s third-down running back. Rookie undrafted free agent Mekhi Sargent carried the ball a single time for a two yard gain.

Wide receivers: C-plus

It was a weird day for the Titans’ receivers. Julio Jones followed up last weekend’s monstrous performance (six catches for 128 yards) with a quieter showing, catching three balls for 47 yards. Jones made his biggest play of the game when he gained 16 yards on a fourth-and-4 early in the first quarter. It was a surprising roll of the dice by Vrabel that paid off. Jones would then make a lovely 25-yard grab in the second quarter. He showed beautiful body control while making a lovely leaping grab. Jones looked set for a big day, but his reps were limited late into the game. It seemed like an odd occurrence that became even odder when Vrabel declined to admit Jones suffered an injury, rather saying they were managing his reps. Firstly, why would the Titans do that in a close ball game? Secondly, they certainly aren’t managing Henry’s reps, but it would seem odd to do it with Jones in this situation. This was just downright odd.

Continuing the theme of bad news here, A.J. Brown pulled up a bit lame on a first quarter deep ball attempt. Brown would then nurse a hamstring injury on the sidelines while sporting a towel over his head. Brown eventually changed out of his uniform into street clothes and never returned to the game. We will monitor his status going forward.

Second-year undrafted free agent Nick Westbrook-Ikhine led the Titans by catching four balls for 53 yards and a TD. Westbrook’s first career touchdown catch was the result of a miscommunication in Indianapolis’ secondary. It led to this easy catch-and-run score for Westbrook.

You have to love Westbrook hitting the Billy “White Shoes” Johnson TD celebration there. What you don’t love is the error Westbrook would later make. While trying to keep his big day going, Westbrook fumbled on the five-yard line late in the third quarter while the Titans were trying to extend what was just a one-point (14-13) lead at the time. It was a crucial error so close to the end zone. Later in the game, Westbrook drew a big pass interference call on Colts corner Xavier Rhodes. It was a big 30-yard spot foul, and helped the Titans ice the game.

Westbrook wasn’t the only Titans receiver to giveth and taketh away on Sunday. Chester Rogers started his day nicely by beating the excellent Kenny Moore for the opening score on a third-and-goal.

It wasn’t all perfect for Rogers against his former team. Later in the half, Rogers would see a Tannehill fastball go off of his shoulder pads and pop into the air. Moore intercepted it.

Both Westbrook and Rogers scored touchdowns on Sunday, and they were both responsible for individual turnovers as well.

Cameron Batson was active over Josh Reynolds, and made a single catch for a 13-yard gain.

Tight ends: C-plus

This group battled in the run game but had a quiet game overall. Anthony Firkser was inactive with an injury for the second game in a row. Geoff Swaim played a lot of snaps and started poorly. Swaim had a first quarter drop on a first-and-10. Swaim would later make up for it by gaining 26 yards on a well designed misdirection play. Swaim came free underneath and Tannehill made the easy decision to pitch him the ball. Swaim has played disappointingly through three games.

It was a bit of a surprise to see MyCole Pruitt hardly involved in the passing game after he stepped up to the plate last week by recording three catches for 43 yards. He was held to just one catch and seven yards on Sunday. Pruitt is the vocal leader of this group right now, and will have bigger days going forward.

Tommy Hudson was added to the active roster in time for this game and caught a single ball for three yards.

This group did some nice work outside of what translates to the box score.

Offensive line: A-minus

All in all, this was an excellent day for the big boys up front.

Tannehill was sacked just once and the Titans rushed for 180 yards. You can’t have too many complaints when the facts are what they are.

It was especially nice to see left tackle Taylor Lewan bounce back for his first steady performance of the game. Lewan had a nightmare against the Cardinals in Week 1, and tweaked his knee in warmups and was ruled out of Week 2. Lewan recovered in time and played a great game. You hope for more of this going forward.

David Quessenberry continues to put in solid shifts at right tackle, although he was blocking grass on the Colts’ line sack of the game. Starting left guard Rodger Saffold also recovered from an injury in time to start, and was his usual productive self. left the game on two occasions and couldn’t return to the game in the end. As he did at times last year, Aaron Brewer took over at left guard and performed admirably, minus a false start he was called for in overtime.

At the end of the day, this unit cleared the way for nearly 200 rushing yards, held up mostly well in pass pro and weren’t called for a single penalty. You’ll take that all day long.

Defensive line: B

This group played a decent game. The Colts ran the ball 18 times with little success and the Titans’ front had a lot to do with that. Denico Autry played a quality game against his former team. Autry applied a ton of pressure on Wentz. When you go back and watch this game, pay close attention to all of Wentz’s throwaways. Autry blew up several designed quick hitters by creating pressure immediately off the snap. It was nice to see Autry follow up last Sunday’s 1.5 sack performance with another good showing.

Big Jeff Simmons had a quality pass bat-down on a second-and-10 late in the third quarter. It put the Colts behind the sticks. Wentz would be sacked on the very next play, leading to a fourth-down punt.

Woodrow Hamilton was active for the first time after being called up from the practice squad. Teair Tart played his usual run-stopping role.

There wasn’t much here in terms of splash plays, but these guys did their job more often than not on Sunday.

Inside linebackers: B

Jayon Brown sat out his second straight game with an injury. David Long Jr. took his place in the starting lineup once again and played a hell of a football game. Long especially had a nice drive late in the second quarter. He all but single handedly killed a Colts drive by himself. Firstly, Long made a tackle for a big loss on a jet sweep after Harold Landry had first contact in the backfield. On the next play, Long met Colts receiver Parris Campbell with violence at the catch point after a short gain. These back-to-back plays forced the Colts into third-and-13. They failed to convert and punted on fourth-and-long. It was a great possession for Long. Long was later called for an illegal contact penalty with 40 seconds left in the second quarter. It was a mistake by Long, who turned third-and-16 into a first down.

Rashaan Evans played a solid game, but was also called for an early fourth quarter penalty on third down that resulted in an automatic first down. Evans didn’t make any splash plays, but he routinely battled with Indianapolis’ tough offensive line on a snap-by-snap basis. It was a quiet, but positive day for Evans.

This was the second good performance in a row by the tandem of Evans and Long, who rarely put a wrong foot forward.

Outside linebackers: B-plus

Bud Dupree earned the “questionable” tag throughout the week leading up to this one. He seemingly looked good during a pregame workout, but the events that followed were puzzling. Dupree was active, but didn’t play a snap and was seen icing his knee on the sidelines. It’s a bad sign for the Titans’ $80 million man who is still recovering from last year’s torn ACL.

For the third week in a row, Landry played a great football game, even if the box score doesn’t indicate it. Landry generated a career-high 12 (!) pressures on Sunday, per Next Gen Stats. Landry’s 37.5% pressure rate is tied for the third-highest in a game during the Next Gen Stats era. Landry routinely applied pressure, and shared this sack with fellow pass rusher Ola Adeniyi. Landry is in a contract year, and is off to a great start in 2021.

Speaking of Adeniyi, he continues to impress as he’s given more snaps as a pass rusher. He shared that sack with Landry above, but recorded his own sack late in the second quarter. It was the first play after an interception set the Colts up in a good position.

Adeniyi had another late game sack ruled out by a Chris Jackson penalty. All in all, Adeniyi finished with 1.5 sacks. He continues to emerge as a positive surprise for this defense.

Rashad Weaver was active over Derick Roberson but left the game with an injury.

Defensive backs: B-plus

This group played a good game despite my issues with the game plan (more on that below).

Starting with Kristian Fulton, I was especially looking forward to his showdown with fellow second-year player Michael Pittman. I wish we saw Fulton shadow Pittman on a more consistent basis. Fulton had a great pass breakup against Pittman on a third-and-10 in the first quarter. Wentz had a lot of time to throw, which always puts the defensive backs in a tough spot. Fulton maintained great coverage throughout the long developing rep. Fulton continues to play some great football.

Dane Cruikshank started his first game on Sunday following the release of Bradley McDougald. He played an excellent contest in a starring role. Cruikshank had a blitz on a third-and-long that looked like he was shot out of a cannon. Cruikshank didn’t get home, but forced a throwaway and ensuing punt. Cruikshank later combined with his safety partner Kevin Byard to force an incompletion to Colts receiver Zach Pascal on a crucial third-and-goal. The Colts had to settle for a field goal, and the Titans maintained their lead (14-13) at the time.

Breon Borders made his first contributions of the season. He had a big pass breakup on a first-and-goal early in the fourth quarter. Just two plays later, Borders was in coverage on a third-and-goal stop, forcing an incompletion to Pascal. It was dangerously close to pass interference as Borders didn’t get his head turned around, but the refs didn’t call it. I thought it was the right non-call, but wouldn’t have been shocked if they called it.

Jackrabbit Jenkins played a good game. You rarely noticed him, and that’s usually a great sign for a corner.

I did take an issue with the game plan, but that’s not on the players. The Titans played a surprising amount of off coverage given the opponent. I would think you’d want to press a bit more when you’re facing a hobbled quarterback that wants to get the ball out in a hurry. That wasn’t the case, and it was a bit of a head scratcher. The Colts had some success with their quick hitting plays, and the Titans’ approach in coverage didn’t help.

At the end of the day, this group didn’t allow a passing touchdown, Wentz threw for just 194 yards and they fixed the miscommunication issues that plagued them against Seattle a week ago.

Special teams: B

There isn’t much to see here. Randy Bullock was 1-of-1 on field goal attempts, making his lone kick from just 32 yards out. It was a crucial kick that all but clinched the victory because it extended the Titans’ lead to nine points with just a few minutes left. Bullock was also a perfect 2-of-2 on extra points.

Brett Kern punted just once for 42 yards.

Rogers was on punt return duty once again, returning three for 42 yards with a nice long of 18. Jeremy McNichols returned kicks for the first time but failed to impress by averaging just 15.5 yards per return.

The Titans take on the winless (and hopeless) Jets next Sunday.

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