Gridiron Grades: Titans survive circus-like second half to remain undefeated

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

Wow. It’s been nearly 24 hours since this game came to an end, and there’s a good chance that you’re still catching your breath. The Titans have played in some intense, close games over the past few years (and a few this season) but that one ranks near the top of the list. It was mostly a tale of two halves, but the Titans survived a second half surge from the Texans to improve to a perfect 5-0 large in part thanks to a legendary 601-yard offensive performance.

The Titans appeared to be en route to a second straight blowout victory when things became unhinged in the third quarter. There were many times when it appeared that Tennessee was going to lose this one, but as good teams often do, they overcame their own mistakes and rallied to pick up the win.

We have mostly good things to say, but there are some things that the Titans need to clean up.

Quarterback: A

When does the MVP chatter for Ryan Tannehill officially begin? This week? Next? Seriously, Russell Wilson has my vote as of now, but Tannehill should be in the conversation at this point. He turned in yet another near-perfect performance and we’re giving Tannehill an “A” for the second week in a row.

The Titans have now scored at least 31 points in four straight games and Tannehill is obviously at the center of that. He started off hot Sunday with two first-quarter touchdown passes. It was yet another multi-TD game for Tannehill.

After failing to reach 200 passing yards last week in what was still an excellent performance, Tannehill completed 28 of 37 passes and exploded for 335 yards and four touchdown passes. Tannehill was his usual efficient self while taking advantage of some excellent blocking up front to scan the field and find his stable of weapons as they became open.

The blocking was mostly great in this one, but there were several instances where Tannehill remained calm under pressure and made the right play. Tannehill’s ability to feel pressure and get the ball out to his pass catchers has been excellent the entire time he’s been in Tennessee, but it was especially good against Houston. There is no better example than one of Tannehill’s finest throws in two-tone blue, a needle threader to Firkser on second-and-20 that went for 45 yards. Tannehill took a lick while releasing the pass:

The only thing that stopped me from giving Tannehill a perfect A-plus rating was a bad fourth quarter interception that could have cost the Titans the game. I loved the play call to immediately target Kalif Raymond downfield. It was the first play of the drive after the Texans just answered Derrick Henry’s 94-yard house call with an explosive touchdown of their own. Tannehill had Raymond deep, and it could have gone for a long completion (or touchdown) if Tannehill took advantage of the middle of the field. Raymond had the separation necessary for a big play, but Tannehill failed to lead Raymond where he should have, and it was a crucial mistake at that point in the game.

It was just Tannehill’s second interception and third turnover of the season. I’m not sure you can find a second bad decision from Tannehill in this game. He’s now found the end zone 14 times in just five games. Tannehill is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Running backs: A-plus

The wait for the Henry breakout game is over. We were spot on when we pointed to this game as a potential Henry-centric game in the Bills article.

Henry had been suffering from a lack of running room in most games this season, but that certainly wasn’t the case in this game. After accounting for just 63 yards in Tuesday’s win over Buffalo, Henry exploded on Sunday for a career-best 264 all-purpose yards. Henry has had some massive games in his career, so the fact that he had a career day really speaks for itself when analyzing how incredible this performance was. There were so many highlight-reel worthy plays from No. 22, but we’d feel silly if we didn’t start with his incredible 94-yard touchdown run:

It was one of the finest runs of his career. We don’t talk enough about Henry’s uncanny ability to run away from defenders in the open field, but luckily Next Gen Stats is here to further showcase how amazing that run was:

Unbelievable. Henry rushed for an incredible 212 yards on just 22 carries, good for a ridiculous 9.6 yards per carry. The 94-yard rush obviously helped inflate those numbers some, but it’s not like it was Henry’s only good run of the day. Henry started the day with an 18-yard carry and it was a sign of things to come. He also had a 34-yard rush that was beautifully blocked up front.

Henry also made a huge play in the passing game. Henry has often been criticized for his lack of pass-catching production, but he looked like a natural on his 52-yard catch in overtime:

Of course, that play set up the game winner, this five-yard Henry touchdown out of the wildcat formation:

What a risky play call that was from Arthur Smith. It speaks to the level of confidence everyone involved has in this offense. King Henry will be looking to keep things going against a tough Steelers defense in Week 7.

As for the other Titans running back, Jeremy McNichols was once again impressive in this one. McNichols ran for 51 yards on just 5 carries, including two crucial runs late in the game. McNichols also added 11 yards as a receiver. He continues to impress in pass protection as well. Darrynton Evans may have a tough time unseating McNichols as the No. 2 running back when he returns from injury. There’s just no reason to replace the limited but important role McNichols is playing right now.

Wide receivers: B+

The Titans were once again without Corey Davis, but efficient performances from A.J. Brown and a returning Adam Humphries more than made up for his absence.

Brown hauled in just 5 catches for 56 yards, but two of those went for touchdowns, including this incredible last-second grab that sent the game to overtime:

The play was reviewed for what felt like an eternity, but the officials correctly ruled that Brown made the catch in bounds. We loved the decision from the entire offense to run another play there instead of clocking it. It was yet another incredible moment in Brown’s young career. He continues to display an alpha-dog mentality. Brown shows up for the big moments, and he truly feels like he should come down with every ball thrown his away. It’s a mental trait that helps separate the great receivers from the good ones, and Brown is a great receiver.

Brown and that catch will receive a lot of the attention throughout the week, but Humphries deserves a ton of praise for his performance as well. Humphries returned to the lineup to catch 6 passes for 64 yards and this touchdown:

It was a well-designed play that confused Texans safety Lonnie Johnson. Humphries also made three crucial catches on the final drive of the fourth quarter. Humphries has been one of the unsung heroes in this explosive offense all season long, and it was more of the same in this one.

Kalif Raymond caught 3 balls for 32 yards. Cameron Batson was back from the reserve/COVID list and had a nice 13 yard catch. Even Nick Westbrook-Ikhine got in on the action by securing a 2-point conversion pass from Tannehill.

The Titans will hope to get Corey Davis back for next week’s showdown with the undefeated Steelers.

Tight ends: A

Truthfully, this “A” grade is basically an Anthony Firkser grade. Firkser had been quiet over the past few weeks, but that was not the case on Sunday. Firkser was having an incredible game even before starting tight end Jonnu Smith exited the game with an ankle injury. More on that later.

Firkser got off to a hot start by catching Tannehill’s first touchdown pass of the day and remained hot throughout the entire game. It was a nice catch in traffic on 2nd-and-goal:

Firkser finished the game with a team-high 8 grabs for 113 yards. It was a career day for Firkser. He’s an underrated pass catcher, and some games are going to be Firkser games. This was one of those games.

Smith hauled in just one pass for 13 yards before exiting the contest in the second quarter with an ankle injury. It was a big play that converted a third-and-12 on an excellent individual effort by Smith, who rarely goes down on first contact. Smith remained on the sidelines to watch the rest of the game following his injury, and the injury does not appear to be serious, per Adam Schefter.

Geoff Swaim was also active Sunday. He played in MyCole Pruitt’s place who remains on the reserve/COVID list for now. Swaim caught two passes for 10 yards, and also did some good work as a blocker.

The Titans will hope that Smith can be ready to go for Week 7.

Offensive line: A

This may have been this unit’s best game of the season so far. I have to reevaluate the tape before I firmly make that statement, because they were also really good in Minnesota during Week 3, but this was a helluva performance up front.

After they struggled to open up rush lanes for Henry last week, this group aided their star running back en route to a career day. Henry has been hit at or behind the line of scrimmage far too often this season, but that was not an issue on Sunday. The Titans O-line routinely blew the Texans defensive line off the ball in the run game. The 94-yard touchdown will obviously receive its praises, but this Henry run was beautifully blocked and deserves to also be showcased:

Just look at the work done up front by Dennis Kelly, Nate Davis and Smith to open up a massive lane on that play. That is downright beautiful. Davis also threw the key block on Henry’s 94-yard touchdown.

The pass protection was once again mostly stout. Tannehill was sacked just twice and was rarely under pressure. Tannehill has been sacked just five times through four games. One of those sacks was a strip-sack by J.J. Watt (who played a great game for Houston). The Texans smartly matched up Watt across from Ty Sambrailo, who once again replaced an injured Taylor Lewan. More on that below. The strip-sack came on just the second play after Lewan made his exit. I would have liked to see the Titans offensive staff avoid any and all 1-v-1 opportunities for Watt versus Sambrailo. Watt’s strip-sack resulted in a huge turnover. The Texans took over the ball inside the Titans 10-yard line and would take their first lead of the day on the ensuing drive.

The injury to Lewan could put a bit of a damper over this performance. Lewan himself confirmed the ACL tear on Monday morning via Twitter:

The silver lining is that the injury is clean aside from the ACL tear, no other structural damage. Our own Mike Herndon wrote on the impact of this injury earlier Monday:

Outside of the Watt-Sambrailo kerfuffle, the Titans O-line played a near perfect game. It may be a little harsh of me to withhold the A-plus rating for this group, but there were a few other minor mistakes. Ben Jones was called for a false start on the first play of the game. He was also flagged for a holding penalty later on. Nate Davis was also called for a hold. Rodger Saffold was beat for a sack by Texans linebacker Tyrell Adams. Offensive line coach Keith Carter will point to these plays when he preaches about the opportunity to improve throughout the week.

Outside of those errors, this unit showcased why they’re one of the best in the NFL, but the long-term injury to Lewan is pretty devastating. Fans will call for Isaiah Wilson to play, and it could happen at some point, but I expect Sambrailo to get the first crack at it. Remember that Wilson hasn’t practiced much after spending so much time on the Reserve/COVID list.

Defensive line: B-plus

Jeffery Simmons was an absolute game-wrecker. I was anxious to see how Simmons would perform in this one being that it was his first game back since being activated off the Reserve/COVID list. You never really know what type of issues a player is going to deal with after battling COVID-19, but Simmons turned in his best performance of the season, and that’s saying something because he was really good the last time he was on the field as well.

Simmons made his presence felt right off the bat with an excellent tackle for loss on the first defensive snap of the game. On the second defensive play, a Simmons pressure lead to this shared sack by Harold Landry and DaQuan Jones:

Simmons recorded a crucial third-down sack in the third quarter as the Texans were in Titans territory and threatening to extend the two-point lead they had at the time:

It was yet another example of the sheer power and determination Simmons routinely showcased throughout his time at Mississippi State. Simmons wasn’t done there. After a Brandin Cooks touchdown made it 36-29 Texans with under two minutes to play, Romeo Crennel opted for a two-point conversion attempt with the hopes of taking a 9-point lead, and effectively ending the game. Simmons made his final big play of the day by batting the attempt down. It won’t get written about, but it was a huge play, and gave the Titans offense the chance they were looking for. Simmons had some interesting things to say about the bat-down after the game:

It was the perfect way to cap off an incredible day for Simmons, who continues to progress beautifully in his second season. He’s well on his way to becoming one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league.

DaQuan Jones was his usual impressive self. He recorded the half-sack you saw above. He also combined with Simmons for a really nice tackle for loss midway through the first quarter. He continues to be a leader and key cog in what’s been a pretty good Titans defensive line. The Texans were held to just 92 yards on the ground, and that includes 26 yards from Watson. Jones was a big part of that. Houston’s longest rush of the day went for just 11 yards. You’re never going to complain about that.

Isaiah Mack, Larrell Murchison and Jack Crawford were also active for this one and did some good work in the run game. Mack showed excellent effort to chase down Watson on a run-play option that saw Watson keep it. It was the type of effort that will get Mack more snaps.

All in all, this was an excellent performance from the defensive line.

Inside Linebackers: C

This group has graded near the bottom of all position groups for several weeks in a row, and that tradition unfortunately continues with this one. I’m not sure what’s going on, but Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown haven’t quite been themselves this season. Perhaps the position coach change (from Tyrone McKenzie to Jim Haslett) has had a negative impact on them? It’s tough to pinpoint the exact reasons why this group has regressed, but they have.

I’m not quite sure what Brown was doing on this Darren Fells touchdown catch:

Kevin Byard is primarily responsible for this one, but Brown could have certainly done something. It’s worth noting that Brown did come up with a pretty big pass breakup late in the second half.

The Titans defense has been bad on third down all season long and the linebackers have been a big part of that. It was no different Sunday as the Texans also converted 7 of 14 tries. Simply put, the Texans offense often found way too much room up the middle of the field.

Evans wasn’t better than Brown. He continues to do his best work at the goal line. He made a highlight reel run stop when he met a leaping David Johnson on third-and-goal from the one-yard line. The Texans unfortunately scored a touchdown on the very next play, but it was a valiant effort by Evans nonetheless.

Daren Bates was elevated from the practice squad and was interestingly active instead of Will Compton. Nick Dzubnar was his usual self on special teams. David Long continues to hardly be a factor as he played just three snaps in this one. With Brown and Evans struggling, you have to wonder how close this coaching staff is to giving Long more snaps. At this point, I think it’s worth a try.

Outside linebackers: B-minus

It was more of the same from this unit. This group continues to apply pressure while struggling to finish plays. I did think that Landry played his most consistent game of the season. You saw the sack he shared with Jones under the defensive line header above. He continued to make several nice plays throughout the day. In the second quarter, he had a solid tackle-for-loss after the Texans had some miscommunication up front. Later in the same quarter, he showed excellent effort to chase Watson down from behind for a short gain after he escaped a sack. Landry continues to be the workhorse of this group as he was on the field for 88% of the snaps on defense. It was a really nice performance by Landry.

Jadeveon Clowney continues to be a pressure king. I wrote last week that disruption is production. Clowney must hang onto that as he continues to struggle to finish plays. He’s yet to record a sack through five games now despite the fact that he’s spent an awful lot of time around the quarterback. One would have to think that the sacks will start to come if Clowney keeps doing what he’s doing.

Vic Beasley played a depressing 11 snaps and has yet to pop in a Titans jersey. What a disappointment he’s been. The Titans have to hope he’ll eventually make some plays. The Titans finally had four outside linebackers active as Derick Roberson made his season debut. He played just five snaps, however. Roberson is a toolsy pass rusher that will likely make a splash play or two at some point.

Cornerbacks: C

Anytime the opposing quarterback throws for 335 yards, this group isn’t going to grade out particularly well.

Malcolm Butler had a bad day as he failed to build on the momentum of last Tuesday’s two-interception performance against the Bills. The lowlight of his poor game was a 53-yard Will Fuller touchdown that quickly helped the Texans regain the lead after Henry’s 94-yard scamper:

Quite frankly, I’m not sure what exactly Butler was doing on this play. He came off the field and immediately had a discussion with Mike Vrabel. Butler acted like he was expecting to have help on the play, but I don’t understand why he would he think that. The Titans appeared to be playing invert Cover-2. He’s also playing as the deep man on this snap. There’s no reason for him to have, or expect help on that play from what I can see. It appeared to me as if he was freelancing, which is a big no-no as the deep man. It was truly an odd play. Butler was also in coverage on the final Texans touchdown of the day. Butler will want to burn this tape and move onto the next one.

Kristian Fulton also had a rough day. He played a ton in this one with Chris Jackson being inactive. He had a defensive pass interference on a deep ball in the end zone that gifted the ball to the Texans at the 1-yard line. I thought Fulton had pretty good positioning on the play and got unnecessarily physical. Fulton was also in coverage on a Randall Cobb touchdown on a critical 3rd-and-goal. To be fair, it was an excellent play by Cobb and Watson had way too much time to scan the field and roll out. Fulton will have better days than this one.

Johnathan Joseph totaled a whopping 68 snaps, good for 94% of the plays on defense. I didn’t notice him much, which is usually a good sign for a cornerback. Tye Smith and Kareem Orr were also active. Joshua Kalu was credited with a single snap, and I’m pretty sure it was this moment of brilliance from Vrabel that everyone is talking about. Hilarious.

Safeties: C-plus

I thought Kenny Vaccaro quietly played some good football in this one. He didn’t pop up on the stat sheet much, but he was routinely in the right place. It was Vaccaro’s second straight good performance. It’s good to see him string together a couple of good performances in a row after he struggled in Minnesota. Kevin Byard hasn’t popped much this season (yet) and this was more of the same. He had poor coverage on Fells’s 1-yard TD grab (the play was embedded under the inside linebacker heading above). I wouldn’t worry about him, but you’d like to see him start making the impact plays we’re used to seeing from him.

Amani Hooker played 16 snaps and didn’t make much of an impact according to the broadcast tape.

Special teams: C-minus

I gave out an A-plus to the special teams unit for last week’s excellent performance. This was a serious step back for all involved. Raymond had a nice 16-yard punt return in the first quarter, and Bates made an excellent tackle at some point. Raymond would have had another decent return if not for a Brown hold.

The kicking game woes reared its ugly head once again. It was in hiding the past few weeks, but it made a sad appearance on two instances in this one. Stephen Gostkowski had his first field goal attempt of the day blocked. It was a missed assignment that allowed the Texans to send pressure off the edge that went unchecked. Blocked field goals seem to mess with Gostkowski’s timing, because just like we saw in Denver during Week 1, he missed his second attempt. The snap and hold seemed fine. Gostkowski simply pushed it wide. It was a crucial miss at the time, and a missed opportunity to regain the lead. It played a role in what was mostly a poor second half for the Titans.

Brett Kern punted just once thanks to an explosive offensive performance. It was a good 54-yard punt.

The Titans are now 5-0 after surviving what felt like a rollercoaster. They remain the top seed in the AFC for now, a spot which will be up for grabs in next week’s must-watch game versus the fellow undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers.

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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