Gridiron Grades: Titans Steal the Show in Los Angeles

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 passed their first sans Derrick Henry with flying colors, marching into Los Angeles and dominating the Rams at SoFi Stadium in impressive fashion. The Titans were well in control from the opening whistle, jumping out to a commanding 21-3 at the half. From there, the Titans weathered the storm and allowed the Rams to rack up yardage with little actual substance. Head coach Mike Vrabel and Co. proved a lot of doubters wrong on Monday night.

Let’s get into it.

Quarterbacks: C

Ryan Tannehill did not play his sharpest game. The Titans’ signal-caller threw a first half interception to Rams star defender Jalen Ramsey while targeting A.J. Brown. It was a poorly thrown ball, and a downright bad decision by Tannehill, who has already thrown more interceptions this season (8) than he did all of 2020 (7). Tannehill has made a habit of throwing these head-scratching interceptions in the first half this season. It’s a new-found habit that needs to stop sooner rather than later.

All in all, Tannehill finished 19-of-27 for 143 yards, one touchdown pass and one interception. Tannehill added an important rushing touchdown on an excellent fourth-down play call.

Tannehill will need to be better than this going forward.

Running backs: D-plus

Despite the dominant win, the Titans did not run the football at an efficient clip in their first game without Henry at the helm. Legendary running back Adrian Peterson was added to the fold virtually immediately in the wake of Henry’s injury, but failed to impress in his first showing as a Titan. The 36-year-old Peterson earned the start in Tennessee’s new-look backfield, but rushed for just 21 yards on 10 carries. The Titans could have done a better job providing rushing lanes for the future Canton-bound ball-carrier to run through, but Peterson missed some opportunities as well. It was sure nice to see him get into the end zone, though. Peterson should improve as he continues to get his legs under him in the weeks to come.

D’Onta Foreman was also added to the roster earlier this week, and the former Texas standout easily looked like Tennessee’s best running back on Sunday. Foreman rushed for 29 yards on just five carries, and appeared to have some juice and determination when carrying the football. Foreman ran the ball decisively, and should get more opportunities going forward.

Jeremy McNichols saw a slight increase in his usage as a pure runner, gaining 24 yards on seven carries. As far as early-down usage goes, McNichols appeared to be third best in Tennessee’s rotation. McNichols also caught three balls for 11 yards, and will maintain his role as the third-down back going forward.

This is a work in progress.

Wide receivers: C-minus

For the second time this season, A.J. Brown had a case of the yips. Tennessee’s No. 1 receiver finished with just 42 yards on five receptions, and actively hurt the team on two occasions. Brown dropped a wide open pass on a third-and-6 early in the second quarter, forcing the Titans to punt. Later in the second half, Brown dropped yet another third-down pass, and the Titans were forced to punt once again. It was relatively unusual for Brown, who will obviously be better going forward. This was not a great offensive performance by the Titans, but one has to wonder what could have been if Brown didn’t essentially kill two of their offensive drives.

Future Hall of Fame wide receiver Julio Jones made his long awaited return, and managed to play all four quarters. Jones didn’t seem to be on much of a snap count either, as he was on the field for 74% (43 plays) of the team’s offensive snaps. Jones made four catches for 35 yards. Jones made a big play with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Titans were protecting a 12-point lead, and Jones moved the chains on a key third-and-10. It allowed Tennessee to keep the ball as the precious minutes melted away. We hope to see more of Jones going forward.

Nick Westbrook continues to serve as an underrated asset. His highlight of the night came via his lone catch, a 14-yard quick hitter on a crisp slant route that moved the chains on third down.

No other Titans receiver recorded a catch. This group needs to be better against New Orleans in Week 10.

Tight ends: C

Geoff Swaim played his best game of the 2021 campaign. This website has been particularly hard on Swaim, with good reason, but he has really stepped up his game as of late. Swaim recorded four receptions for 29 yards, and got Tennessee on the board with this brilliantly designed play call.

Anthony Firkser caught a single ball for seven yards. MyCole Pruitt was held off the stat sheet.

Offensive line: C-plus

I had some struggles determining this grade. Tannehill was sacked three times and failed to consistently open up holes in the run game. On the positive side of things, interior offensive lineman Aaron Brewer was activated ahead of the game and started in Nate Davis’ place at right guard. The undersized Brewer faced a tremendous challenge in Aaron Donald on a healthy basis and rose to the occasion. Taylor Lewan was active on an emergency basis, and watched from the sidelines as backup tackle Bobby Hart struggled mightily in his absence. We witnessed several plays where Hunt served as a net negative. On a second-and-manageable, Hart badly whiffed on a running play which allowed the Rams to record a tackle for loss. Hart later held Donald on a play where Donald STILL wound up recording a sack. Hart was flagged for a false start later in the game. The Titans badly need Lewan or even Kendall Lamm back at left tackle for next weekend’s matchup with a difficult Saints defense.

Defensive line: A++++++

How many “plus” signs can we fit here? Not enough.

All kidding aside, this was as dominant of a performance as you’ve seen from a front four in the NFL this season. The trio of Denico Autry, Jeffery Simmons and Harold Landry were unblockable all night long. Per Pro Football Focus, Simmons recorded a team-high nine pressures and three sacks, all of which occurred in the first half. This bull rush may be the nastiest one you’ve ever witnessed. Simmons played his best game as a pro on Sunday.

On the first Rams possession, Denico Autry recorded a sack that forced the Rams into a second-and-19. Simmons recorded his first of three sacks on the very next play. Autry had the initial pressure. Autry was credited with six pressures and 1.5 sacks. On Los Angeles’ second offensive possession, Autry made an excellent tackle on the running back before batting a pass down on third down, which held the Rams to a field goal. Autry and Harold Landry shared a sack on the final play of the third quarter, a third-and-5 which became a fourth-and-11. It occured just when the Rams were beginning to build some momentum, and held them to a meaningless three points.

Naquan Jones made an excellent tackle on Rams running back Darrell Henderson in the third quarter.

The Titans blitzed Stafford on just four of his 53 dropbacks, via Next Gen Stats. They still managed to record 15 pressures when sending four (or fewer) rushers. All five of their sacks came with a four-man rush. All three of Simmons, Landry and Autry rank in the top 10 in the pressures category. This group is playing out of their damn mind right now.

Linebackers: A-plus

It was so refreshing to witness David Long Jr. and Jayon Brown start a game next to another. Long continues to serve as the team’s best inside linebacker, and once again played an excellent football game on Sunday. Long was all over the field and constantly around the ball. He was rewarded with an interception and near pick-six when Stafford made a Carson Wentz-esque throw out of his own end zone. As per usual, Simmons had the pressure.

Long left the game with 1:42 left in the fourth quarter with an apparent injury. The Titans will pray it’s not serious.

Brown marked his return from injury in his home state of California and seemingly played without limitations. He was credited with playing a healthy 55 snaps. The Titans need him to stay healthy down the stretch. Long and Brown should be this team’s starting duo at the inside linebacker position even when Rashaan Evans gets healthy.

Secondary: A-plus

Chris Jackson is playing some excellent football right now. He nearly recorded an interception on the Rams’ second possession following Tannehill’s turnover. It’s too bad Jackson didn’t get it, because he sure deserved it. The sophomore cover-man out of Marshall is really growing into his own right before our eyes. Matthew Stafford targeted Jackson 13 times, via PFF, but completed just six of those attempts for a mere 42 yards. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging just 4.8 yards per attempt when targeting Jackson in coverage this season.

Safety Kevin Byard is playing at an All-Pro level. There hasn’t been a better safety in the NFL in 2021. The Mayor of Murfreesboro recorded his first career pick-six with this beauty.

Byard was supposed to be “robbing” the middle of the field on this play, but he trusted his instincts and tape study on Stafford throughout the week to make a big play for his team. Byard is playing at an insane level right now. It’s what happens when a Pro Bowl player trusts his teammates both in the front seven and in the secondary. Tennessee’s defense is allowing Byard the freedom to play loose and free, and it’s leading to a ton of impact plays and takeaways.

Amani Hooker made an excellent tackle with seven minutes to play. It forced the Rams into a fourth down situation, which they failed to convert. It was an underrated play that all but iced it for the Titans. I don’t think I heard Jackrabbit Jenkins’ name called a single time on the broadcast. That’s typically an excellent sign for a corner.

This group is playing great football without their top cornerback, Kristian Fulton, who should return soon.

Special teams: B-plus

Chester Rogers had a solid 11-yard punt return at the end of the first quarter. Randy Bullock was a perfect 4-of-4 on extra point attempts. Brett Kern punted the football five times, three of which he placed inside Los Angeles’ 20. Kern’s best punt of the day was downed at LA’s 4-yard line. Just plays later, Stafford threw the boneheaded pick to David Long out of his own end zone. Kern’s fantastic punt directly led to the turnovers and the Titans’ ability to score seven points. One negative? Marcus Johnson should stop returning kicks out of the end zone and take the free 25 yards.

Coaching: A-plus

Mike Vrabel, Todd Downing and Shane Bowen thoroughly outcoached Sean McVay and Co. With four minutes left in the second quarter, and with the Titans nursing a 14-3 early lead, Vrabel opted to go for it instead of kicking for three points. Tannehill moved the chains with an effective QB sneak. Just a few plays later, the Titans were faced with a fourth-and-goal. Vrabel once again bypassed the field goal, and Tannehill scored seven with his legs. Vrabel made two gambles on the drive, both were converted, and the Titans busted the game open by taking a commanding 21-3 lead.

The Titans will look to make it an astounding six victories in a row when they return home to take on the New Orleans Saints in Week 10.

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