Gridiron Grades: Titans reclaim the AFC South with impressive win in Indianapolis

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 played like a team that had revenge on their mind. After the Indianapolis Colts took the first of two games by a score of 34-17 in Nashville just two weeks ago, the Titans went on the road and repaid the favor with a 45-26 beatdown.

The win puts the Titans back in first place in the AFC South, a position they had lost after being embarrassed by the same Colts team two weeks ago.

Much like they did in the first game between these two rivals, the Titans took a quick lead after putting together a 75-yard scoring drive that lasted under six minutes. The Colts also got off to a fast start offensively. The two teams exchanged blows until it was tied at 14-14 in the second quarter.

It appeared we had an old fashioned shootout on our hands, but it was not to be. The Titans’ defense tightened their belts, and the offense would score the next 24 points to take a commanding 35-14 lead into the fourth quarter.

The Colts scored a couple of garbage time touchdowns to make the game appear closer than it was.

We have mostly good things to say.

Quarterback: A-minus

Ryan Tannehill played his most complete game in weeks. He was terrific in the second half against Baltimore last Sunday, but this was a better overall performance. It was nice to see him carry that momentum over into this week. The offense didn’t require him to do the heavy lifting, but he made several key plays throughout.

Tannehill was sharp on the first drive of the game, a 10-play, 75-yard affair that saw the Titans take a quick lead. On the next possession, he found A.J. Brown on a shallow crossing route. Brown would do the rest:

Tannehill wasn’t done there. After a pair of rushing touchdowns put the Titans up 28-14, the Titans found themselves in an excellent position to put their foot on the gas before halftime. That’s exactly what they did. The drive started with a pair of uninspiring runs by Jeremy McNichols. Facing a fourth-and-4 with just 31 seconds left to play in the second quarter, the Titans elected to go for it. Tannehill delivered a beauty of a downfield pass that was only outdone by the terrific effort put forth by a sliding Corey Davis to haul it in:

It was a 37-yard gain that set the Titans up at the goal line. Tannehill would go on to find the end zone with his legs. *Cue the finger roll*

It was a terrific playcall by Arthur Smith. I also loved the aggressive decision to go for it on fourth down. The game was pretty much killed off right then and there.

Tannehill completed just 13 of 22 attempts for 221 passing yards while accounting for two touchdowns. The numbers don’t sound like much, but he was extremely efficient. Tannehill will look to keep it rolling against the Cleveland Browns next week.

Running backs: A-plus

What can I say about Henry? I wrote something similar last week. I’m running out of ways to compliment the best running back in the league. The Titans entered this game with an obvious gameplan: To run Henry again and again. With several key defensive linemen missing for the Colts, it was the correct call.

Unlike last week when he started slow and finished strong, Henry hit the ground running and never stopped.

His first half numbers were humorous: 17 carries, 140 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The Colts simply had no answer for Henry. Let’s take a look at his first touchdown of the day, which was ruled a rushing TD due to the fact that the “pass” was actually a backwards lateral:

It was a creative play design.

Henry found the end zone again to retake the lead at 21-14 after a Jacoby Brissett touchdown leveled things up. A pair of crucial penalties on Colts CB Rock Ya-Sin set the Titans up at the goal line, which is Henry territory:

Henry would get the next possession rolling with a 31-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage. It was a special play that saw Henry eclipse 5,000 career rushing yards:

He finished the drive with his third rushing TD of the first half:

Henry didn’t do much in the second half. It didn’t matter. He did everything and more in the opening 30 minutes. He finished with 178 yards and 3 touchdowns on 28 carries. That equates to a ridiculous 6.6 yards per carry.

Henry is the best running back in the league and we’ll officially be in D-Henber when the Titans take the field next week. Brace yourselves.

D’Onta Foreman looked good while gaining 28 yards on just four carries. McNichols touched the ball eight times, but only totaled 20 yards. Khari Blasingame was his usual self as a blocker, clearing the way for Henry on multiple big gains. He also caught a pass that went for 16 yards. Senorise Perry was limited to special teams.

This offense needs to continue riding Henry down the stretch.

Wide receivers: A-minus

This group continues to be top heavy with Adam Humphries still out with an injury. Brown and Davis continue to produce at impressive clips. You saw Brown’s incredible catch-and-run touchdown under the quarterback heading. He did something similar against the Ravens last week, but he didn’t have to break any tackles this time. It was yet another example of his unbelievable ability to make special things happen in the open field after the catch. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find new ways to describe his yards after catch prowess. I feel like I write about this every week. It’s a good problem to have.

Per Next Gen Stats, 60 of Brown’s 69 yards on his touchdown catch came after the catch – which was 42 yards above what was expected on the play. It was Brown’s NFL-best 8th score of at least 40 yards over the past two seasons.

Brown finished the game with 98 yards and a touchdown on four catches. He reached the end zone for a second time when he housed an onside kick for a late score.

As for the Titans’ No. 2 receiver, Davis continues to make the most of his opportunities. It’s not every day that a receiver turns just three targets into three catches and 70 receiving yards, but that’s what Davis did here. Davis continues to put up the best numbers of his career.

Cameron Batson was once again involved in the game plan. He lined up in a wildcat position on a critical third-and-1 late in the second quarter. Batson took the direct snap and picked up the first down himself. It was an incredible vote of confidence from the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Smith was feeling himself. You feel good about calling plays such as that one when the offense is humming along in the fashion that it was.

Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Kalif Raymond failed to record a catch.

Tight ends: B-minus

Their efforts won’t jump out at you on the stat sheet, but this group contributed a lot on the ground. They helped the offensive line open up giant running lanes for Henry on what felt like a snap-by-snap basis. For that, they are forgiven for the lack of production in the passing game.

Jonnu Smith was held off the stat sheet completely. It’s a bit of an anomaly given the 449 total yards of offense and 45 points. Anthony Firkser also failed to record a catch.

Geoff Swaim caught three passes for 30 yards. It was a bit of a surprise to see Swaim this involved in the passing game. It was a nice addition to the playbook. When you have studs like Henry, Brown and Davis doing the heavy lifting, players like Swaim aren’t going to receive much attention from the defense. The Titans and Swaim did a good job of taking advantage of that. Swaim played just six less snaps (44) than Smith (50). Swaim was also called for a few pre-snap penalties. It was unlike him. He’ll have to clean that up going forward.

Offensive line: A-plus

This unit put on an absolute clinic. This was their best game of the season. It’s tough to play better than this. Henry gave all of the credit to his offensive line during a postgame interview. It’s something he routinely does, but they really do deserve every ounce of praise.

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

David Quessenberry deserves a round of applause. It’s a terrific story. I thought he looked great in limited action last week. He got the start at left tackle this week following the season-ending injury to Ty Sambrailo. We wish nothing but the best to Sambrailo, but we are also convinced that Quessenberry is a better player. He pitched a shutout in pass protection while being a big contributor to the success of the ground game. The coaching staff absolutely made the right decision by thrusting him into the starting line up.

It was great to have Rodger Saffold back in the lineup. He was his usual dominant self. Dennis Kelly continues to play excellent football. So does Ben Jones.

I must say more about Nate Davis. Davis’ play seems to be flying under the radar. He’s grown tremendously in his second campaign. He’s playing like a Pro Bowl lineman right now. He’s come a long way from a small school guard with an awkward stance. When we discuss some of Jon Robinson’s best draft picks, Davis’ name doesn’t come up enough. I expect that to change soon.

This group also gave Tannehill a comfortable pocket to operate from. The Titans quarterback was sacked just once all game.

This game qualifies as a huge success for the Titans offensive line. This group will look to keep things rolling against a tough Browns front in Week 13.

Defensive line: B-plus

This group did a great job stifling the Colts’ rushing attack. With starter Jonathan Taylor on the COVID/reserve list, the Colts entered this game with Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins at running back. The two of them combined for just 51 total rushing yards on 16 carries. Hines did account for another 66 yards through the air, but that hardly falls at the feet of the D-line.

DaQuan Jones was his usual disruptive self around the line of scrimmage. Jack Crawford gave the team 41 valuable snaps. Jeffery Simmons didn’t pop as much as he usually does, but he absolutely smoked All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson on a passing play:

Simmons would record a sack on third down just a few plays later:

Teair Tart continues to play some good football. The undrafted free agent out of FIU has been a bit of a revelation in recent weeks. He just keeps showing up. He delivered a huge hit on Philip Rivers midway through the second quarter. Tart later blew the center a good three yards off the ball on a failed two-point conversion attempt. He’s a big body in the middle that’s making his presence felt. Matt Dickerson contributed with 18 snaps.

Inside linebackers: B-minus

This position group had their struggles early but tightened things up in the second half. Hines was the Titans killer two weeks ago and he made a few plays in the passing game once again here. The majority of that blame lands on the linebackers, but it was nothing like what he did 18 days ago.

As expected, Will Compton got the start and wore the green dot in place of Jayon Brown after he was lost for the season last week. Compton made a tackle on the first defensive snap of the game. He started well but later had some struggles while operating as the weakside linebacker.

David Long Jr. also played a fair bit. That makes me happy. He played the game the only way he knows how and that’s fast, physical and aggressive. He has the mentality the Titans need more of on defense.

The best way to try to replace Brown is to let Compton and Long split snaps depending on what look the defense needs in that moment and that’s what happened here. Long played 31 snaps while Compton was on the field for 29 defensive plays. They are very different players with different skillsets. Long gives the team more speed than Compton does. I thought the defense did a good job managing that and their workloads. We hope that remains the case going forward.

Rashaan Evans played a good game and was routinely around the football. It’s rare to see him make a play in coverage, but he nearly came away with an interception in this one.

Nick Dzunbar and Daren Bates were limited to special teams.

Outside linebackers: C

The edge rushers were relatively quiet. I thought Rivers often had way too much time on his dropbacks, especially when the game was still close.

The Titans got some pressure, but it was the more the result of creative packages than it was the edge rushers winning their individual battles. Harold Landry had a few moments. With the game tied at 14 apiece, Landry had a nice pressure on second down. It forced an errant throw and the Titans would get off the field a play later. Landry also made a nice play in coverage in the second half. He would go on to record a sack in garbage time. He was also his usual reliable self in the run game. It was a nice, albeit quiet day for Landry. He continues to be this group’s workhorse.

Derick Roberson continues to receive snaps (25) in Jadeveon Clowney’s absence. He didn’t do much with those opportunities. Tuzar Skipper was the third outside linebacker but was on the field for just six plays.

Cornerbacks: B-plus

That was more like it. After letting Rivers dice them up in Week 10, this group was better on Sunday. Rivers still threw for 295 yards but a lot of his success came when the game had already been decided. The Colts’ leading receiver was 90-year-old T.Y. Hilton (who actually had a nice day).

Breon Borders has received a lot of praise for his play as of late and it’s well deserved. He’s played like a quality starting cornerback since being promoted from the practice squad. He dropped a sure Pick 6 prior to halftime. That unfortunate moment made his third quarter interception that much sweeter:

It was both a desperate and pathetic heave from Rivers. Borders did a great job contorting his body in midair while laying out to complete the takeaway. He continues to play tough and tight coverage. He was beat by Hilton for a big gain downfield in the second half, but it was lone sore spot on his resume. He was on the field for every single defensive play. Borders continues to make Adoree Jackson’s absence hardly felt.

Malcolm Butler continues to play great football. He nearly made a highlight reel worthy interception when he appeared to come down with a 50-50 ball. The review took several minutes, and the referees ultimately decided that possession was truly 50-50 between Butler and Colts receiver Zach Pascal. The letter of the rule on those plays allows the ball to stay with the offense. It was still a terrific play and effort by Butler. Butler is this team’s best cornerback. Like Borders, he was on the field for every snap. He’s been incredibly consistent this season.

Desmond King continues to prove that Robinson’s decision to acquire him via trade was an excellent one. He was called for a pass interference on a third-and-10 that kept the Colts offense on the field in the third quarter, but he had a great day otherwise. He routinely battles in coverage and is a great tackler around the line of scrimmage. He played 64 of 67 defensive snaps.

Chris Milton and Tye Smith were both active. They played exclusively on special teams.

Safeties: C-plus

Kevin Byard had some ugly moments early. He was beaten in coverage by tight end Trey Burton for a touchdown on the Colts’ first possession of the game. It’s worth noting that it was a well thrown ball. On the Colts’ second possession, Byard was called for a pass interference in the end zone that gifted the Colts a new set downs at the 1-yard line. Yikes. They were two crucial mistakes. He recovered decently well from there. He later tackled Hines short of the sticks on a third down that would force the Colts to punt for the first time. Byard hasn’t played good football this year.

Kenny Vaccaro was used in some different ways. I spotted him playing the inside linebacker position on a few occasions in the dime package. It’s another interesting way the team can look to replace to Jayon Brown. It also allows another defensive back to get on the field. I like that.

Amani Hooker returned to his role as a situational player with Vaccaro back healthy. He had a really nice pass break-up on Burton on the Colts’ first possession of the second half. It came on third down and forced a quick punt. Hooker continues to play good football when afforded opportunities. Joshua Kalu was on the field for nine defensive plays in addition to his regular special teams workload.

Special teams: A

Ah, it’s so nice to have Brett Kern back. TheMVPunter returned after a month-long battle with a wrist injury. He punted the ball just four times and was his regular self. The box score numbers don’t look great (an average of 40 yards per punt), but Kern pinned the Colts inside their own 15 on every single one of his punts. No punter in the league works the angles like Kern does.

Stephen Gostkowski made his lone attempt from 49 yards out. He was also a perfect 6 for 6 on extra points. You can’t ask for more than that. It’s always nice to see him have a perfect day.

A.J. Brown added insult to injury when he recovered an onside kick and took it to the house. It ended any faint hope the Colts had of making an unlikely comeback:

The end result was a dominant victory that sees the Titans rightfully take back the AFC South crown. The Titans return home to take on the 8-3 Cleveland Browns next week.

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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