‘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 turned in their most impressive performance of the season on Sunday, dominating Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs to the imposing tune of 27-3. The Titans were well in control from the opening whistle, jumping out to a commanding 14-point in the first quarter. From there, the Titans never allowed the Chiefs to gain any sort of momentum. It was surprisingly routine, as the Titans gave a rambunctious crowd at Nissan Stadium plenty to cheer about. It was Tennessee’s second victory over a perceived AFC contender in the span of six days.
Let’s get into it.
Ryan Tannehill played his best game of the season. The Titans’ signal-caller rarely put a wrong foot forward on Sunday, completing 21-of-27 passes for 270 yards, a touchdown pass, an interception and a rushing score. Tannehill routinely took advantage of a horrid Chiefs secondary that can’t stop a nosebleed right now. Tannehill scored a touchdown with his legs for the second straight week.
It was refreshing to watch the offense move the ball methodically in the passing game. Tannehill’s lone interception of the game on a late third quarter screen attempt. It was a great play by the Chiefs’ defender, but it should have been wiped out by what appeared to be an egregious hands-to-the-face penalty on Tannehill. The refs missed an obvious one.
All in all, Tannehill and the passing game took a huge step forward here.
Running backs: B
The Chiefs’ did a solid job holding Derrick Henry in check. If you ask me, it was actually refreshing to watch the Titans dominate a game without needing Henry to rush for 150-plus and multiple scores. They showed some versatility in this victory. Henry ran for 86 yards on 29 carries, as the Chiefs held The King to three yards per carry and a long run of 11. Henry added 16 yards via two receptions. It’s typically impossible to hold Henry off of the scoresheet altogether. Henry opened the scoring with a touchdown pass of his own! It was an awfully familiar play to the one against the Ravens in the 2019 playoffs.
Jeremy McNichols did an excellent job moving the chains on a third-and-9 screen pass after the Titans’ offense was backed up. It was an underrated play that was made by McNichols’ effort, and helped catapult what wound up being a nine-play, 97-yard scoring drive. Darrynton Evans made his long-awaited return to the field. Evans rushed twice for seven yards and caught two passes for 11 yards. We expect to see him more involved in the offense going forward.
Wide receivers: B-plus
A.J. Brown followed up a great performance against the Bills on Monday night with an even more dominant showing against the Chiefs. Kansas City’s secondary had no answer for Brown, who totaled 133 receiving yards and a touchdown on eight grabs. Brown got involved from the get go. Tannehill found Brown on a play-action throw on the very first play of the game for a 10-yard gain. Julio Jones made his presence felt just two plays later with a 17-yard gain of his own. Jones would have had a bigger day if not for an Anthony Firkser offensive pass interference penalty. It wiped out a fairly large catch for Jones, who finished with 38 yards on two receptions.
Back to Brown, who was in peak form on Sunday. He made his biggest play of the game on a third-and-7 when Tannehill tossed up a 24-yard rainbow for a TD.
Brown made an astonishing 46-yard grab near the sideline earlier on the same drive. It was initially not ruled a catch, but Mike Vrabel made a great call to challenge it. Brown got three feet in bounds and secured the catch while going to the ground. It was nice to see Josh Reynolds involved, who caught three balls for 23 yards. Nick Westbrook and Marcus Johnson were held catchless, but the latter did create a pretty big defensive pass interference call on Tennessee’s first drive.
This group will look to keep things rolling against the Colts on Sunday.
Tight ends: B-minus
This group continues to do relatively little in the passing game. MyCole Pruitt opened the scoring by catching the TD pass from Henry in the wildcat formation that you saw under the ‘running backs’ heading. Pruitt made another big grab early in the second quarter on Tennessee’s third drive of the game. Pruitt took a shot to the back as he came down with the 22-yard gain. Firkser and Geoff Swaim recorded one catch each, for nine and eight yards respectively.
Offensive line: B-plus
This was an excellent performance given what the group had to deal with throughout the course of the game. Firstly, Taylor Lewan was ruled inactive. Backup tackle Kendall Lamm started in his place. Lamm went down with an injury and was replaced by Bobby Hart, who signed with the team just earlier this week. Rodger Saffold, who has been incredibly banged up this year, exited the game for a few series’ and was replaced by Dillon Radunz at left guard. It was the first time we’ve seen the rookie Radunz this season. Ben Jones was clearly banged up on several occasions but managed to stay in the game. Starting right guard Nate Davis left the game for a little bit as well. That means starting tackle David Quessenberry was the lone starting offensive lineman to make it out of this game unscathed.
Given all these issues, execution and communication remained impressive up front. The Titans rushed for 103 yards and Tannehill was sacked just once while rarely being under duress or pressure. This group badly needs to get healthy in the coming weeks.
Defensive line: A
Denico Autry was an excellent offseason addition. Autry was credited with a pair of sacks, and routinely made his presence felt in Kansas City’s backfield.
Autry continues to form an incredibly intimidating duo alongside his Mississippi State pal Jeffery Simmons. The Titans welcomed back Larrell Murchison from injured reserve, who was active ahead of Amani Bledsoe. Naquan Jones and Teair Tart helped hold the Chiefs’ run game in check. Starting running back Darrel Williams managed a pathetic 20 yards on just five carries as Andy Reid was forced to abandon the run game rather quickly due to game script and poor returns on their attempts. This group played an excellent game in all phases.
This entire group BALLED OUT. David Long Jr. continues to serve as the team’s best inside linebacker, and was a man possessed. Long was all over the field and constantly around the ball. He even enjoyed mocking Travis Kelce at one point!
Long made an impact play when he broke up a Mahomes pass that popped up into the air and was impressively intercepted by his running mate Rashaan Evans. It may have been the best play Evans has ever made in the passing game.
Bud Dupree played the best game of his young Titans career. The former Pittsburgh Steeler got his first sack as a Titan, and it was a timely one indeed. Dupree recorded a strip-sack on a third down that forced a Chiefs punt. It was the kind of pass rushing results the Titans hoped to receive from Dupree when they signed him to a lucrative contract in the offseason.
Harold Landry continues to show up every week in a major way. He’s playing like one of the best pass rushers in all of football right now, and will surely be paid like one this coming offseason. Landry now has 7.5 sacks through seven games after he took down Mahomes in the fourth quarter.
The trio of Landry, Autry and Dupree recorded a pressure on a third-and-11 on Kansas City’s second possession of the day. It forced a punt. Ola Adeniyi had a pressure in the second half. This front four is playing some great football right now.
The Titans’ secondary entered this game without Kristian Fulton, Amani Hooker, Chris Jackson and Caleb Farley. That represents four of their top seven back end players. That is typically suboptimal in a game against Mahomes and the Chiefs. The results? Tennessee’s secondary allowed two completions over 20 yards and held Mahomes under 250 passing yards and without a passing TD for the first time in his NFL career. Jackrabbit Jenkins quietly played a quality game. Dane Cruikshank played an excellent game while filling in for Hooker. He routinely played sticky coverage on Kelce, and led the team in tackles with seven. Kevin Byard is experiencing a wonderful bounce-back year, and forced a gorgeous fumble by punching the ball loose out of Mahomes’ grasp. Reserve safety Matthias Farley recovered the fumble. Greg Mabin shockingly played 100% of the team’s defensive snaps. It’s an incredible development given that Mabin rejoined the team just earlier this week. Chris Jones, who was called up from the practice squad, played 18 snaps. Breon Borders did not record a SINGLE snap on defense. It speaks volumes regarding how the staff currently feels about him. Mabin and Jones have surpassed him.
Special teams: A
Randy Bullock was a perfect 2-for-2 on field goals and 3-for-3 on extra points. Bullock impressively made a 51 yard kick, his longest of the season. He made it with plenty of room to spare. It was big for him to show the ability to make a kick from 50 yards or further. Brett Kern is back to usual self after a stint on the Covid-Reserve list. He placed both of his punts inside the opposition’s 20, including a beautiful coffin corner punt that landed inside Kansas City’s five-yard line. Evans handled kicked off duties. Mason Kinsey was the new punt returner, and made an error when he allowed a punt to sail over his head. Kansas City downed it inside Tennessee’s five.
Tennessee has started slow offensively at times this year, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday. Offensive coordinator Todd Downing drew up an excellent script to open the game as Tennessee’s offense was firing on all cylinders from the opening whistle. Mike Vrabel coached a great game and went 1-for-1 on challenges. His decision helped overturn a 46-yard passing play from Tannehill to Brown. For as excellent as Downing and Vrabel were, it was defensive coordinator Shane Bowen that stole the show. His banged up unit put forth an incredible performance against the best offense in the league.
The Titans will look to make it four victories in a row when they go on the road to take on the Colts in Week 8.