Gridiron Grades: Titans topple Bills in Nashville thriller

‘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 always pretty, but it damn sure was exciting. The Tennessee Titans claimed a thrilling victory over the Buffalo Bills to improve to 4-2 on the year.

Much was made about this game from both sides heading into it. The Bills brought their top-ranked scoring offense and defense on the road with them to Nashville, while the Titans were still doing some soul searching after a pair of ugly early-season losses.

The Titans were down 20-17 at the break after an electrifying second quarter of football saw the two teams combine for an astonishing 34 points. Tennessee entered the fourth quarter down seven, but managed to outscore the Bills 10-0 en route to a 34-31 win. The Bills were well positioned to win it late, but an excellent goal line stand in the dying seconds secured the victory.

Shall we?

Quarterback: B-minus

I struggled with this one and almost went with a C-plus. Ryan Tannehill was clutch and efficient when called upon down the stretch, but he didn’t play a great game overall. Tannehill started on the right foot. On Tennessee’s first possession, he made an excellent individual play on third-and-11 by escaping pressure and getting off a shuffle pass that moved the chains. The next few possessions contained some of Tannehill’s worst moments. He threw an interception on a third-and-2 late in the first quarter. It was a bad throw and decision, as Tannehill was late to target a receiver down the field. What made matters worse was that Tannehill checked into the play. On the next possession, Tannehill missed an easy third-and-6 completion well into Bills territory and the Titans had to settle for three instead of seven. It was a layup that Tannehill had to make.

It was mostly uphill from there. Tannehill gave the Titans a late second quarter lead when he found the end zone with his legs. Tannehill did a nice job fighting through a tackle to cross the goal line. It was the classic QB keeper near the goal line the Titans love to run with the fake to Henry. This play is damn near undefeated.

Tannehill made one of his best throws of the day on second down midway through the third quarter when he evaded pressure and found Geoff Swaim in the flat to set up a first-and-goal. The Titans would punch it in from there. Tannehill saved his best form for the fourth quarter. It started with a huge third down completion to A.J. Brown on an in-breaking route to the intermediate part of the field. Two plays later, Tannehill connected with Brown once again, this time for a 20 yard gain. It was a play-action pass, and Tannehill beautifully hit Brown in stride. On a second-and-10 with just over seven minutes to play, Tannehill rolled out to his right and found Nick Westbrook for a big chain moving grab. The very next play was yet another big play-action pass to Brown, this time for a gain of 22. A few players, Tannehill converted a third-and-6 to keep the Titans’ offense on the field. The Titans would score the winning TD on the drive. All in all, it was an eight-play, 70-yard scoring drive that took a little under five minutes.

Tannehill finished the game 18-of-29 with 216 passing yards, one rushing touchdown and a single interception. He showed up when his team needed him most.

Running backs: A-plus

What can I say about Henry that I don’t already say on a weekly basis? Henry (and the offense) entered this game with an enormous challenge on his hands. Prior to kickoff, the Bills were the owners of the second-ranked NFL rushing defense, allowing running backs to rush for under 80 yards per game. To hell with that, Henry said as he ripped off 143 rushing yards and three touchdowns on just 20 carries, his second lightest workload of the season.

It wasn’t always easy. Henry found little room to operate early. Buffalo’s front seven initially looked up to the challenge. But as we’ve seen countless times in the past, Henry wasn’t to be denied. He ripped off a 76-yard rushing TD that was just two yards shy of what Buffalo was allowing on a per game basis. It was a thing of beauty, as Henry reached a career-high 21.80 MPH on the run, via Next Gen Stats.

Just incredible. It’s worth pointing out Westbrook threw an incredible pancake block on the run. Henry was just getting started. He ripped off an excellent 20-yard run on a second-and-10 in the third quarter to get Tennessee into Bills territory. His second touchdown would soon follow, a three-yard scamper that saw The King fight through the tackle attempt of Bills 315-pound defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. It was a “Want to” TD run that Henry is so often known for. It gave the Titans a 24-23 lead, and capped a 12-play scoring drive that took nearly seven minutes. Henry’s final touchdown of the day was a 13-yard game winner that occurred with just a little over three minutes to play.

The King now has an astounding 783 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns through just six games. He’s off to the best start of his career, and is well on his way to achieving something major in 2021.

It was a special game for a player that routinely turns in special performances.

With Jeremy McNichols banged up and Darrynton Evans not yet quite ready to return, the Titans utilized both Khari Blasingame and Tory Carter in the backfield, but neither player touched the ball on Monday night.

Wide receivers: B

It was a weird day for the Titans’ receivers. A.J. Brown was held catchless throughout the first half. It was a worrying start given that Brown popped up on the injury report on Saturday with an “illness” designation that we later found out was due to a bad dish from Chipotle. Brown would then explode in the second half by recording all seven of his catches and 91 receiving yards in the final two quarters of play. Brown made several big plays in the fourth quarter, many of which came via the classic play-action looks that Brown has so often excelled at in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field. It was easily Brown’s best game of the season. We hope to see him stay healthy and turn in similar performances in the coming weeks.

Julio Jones was welcomed back into the lineup after missing the previous two and a half games, but unfortunately exited with yet another hamstring injury. Jones was seen on the sidelines pandering to get back into the game, but the coaching staff held him out. It’s extremely concerning for a player that struggled with a similar injury a year ago, but the Titans seem to be playing things incredibly safe with him in hopes of keeping him available down the crucial stretch. Jones didn’t leave the game before recording a jaw-dropping moment, however. The Titans were faced with a third-and-8 midway through the second quarter when Jones fought through pass interference to record a circus catch near the sidelines that popped up into the air off of the helmet of Bills safety Micah Hyde. It was an incredible display of focus and hand-eye coordination.

Nick Westbrook made several important catches in the second half and finished with 27 yards on three receptions. Westbrook also played a great game on special teams, and had an excellent day as a blocker in the run game. His overall effort likely earned him more snaps going forward. Chester Rogers caught a single ball for seven yards. It was an underrated play that turned a second-and-13 into a manageable third-and-6. Marcus Johnson didn’t record a catch, but should have moved the chains on a third-and-8 on Tennessee’s first possession. It was disappointing. Brown and Jones were both on the sidelines for the play, which was odd given that it was third down. Cameron Batson was active but unfortunately tore his ACL while returning a kick. He’s already been placed on season-ending injured reserve.

Tight ends: C

We don’t have much here. This group battled in the run game while having a quiet game in the passing offense. Anthony Firkser recorded the 11 yard reception we mentioned in the quarterback heading. It was his lone grab of the day while playing a measly 14 snaps. Swaim was also held to just one catch, an eight-yard gain in the flat that helped set up Henry’s second touchdown of the day. Swaim was easily Tennessee’s most utilized tight end, playing 36 snaps on the night.

MyCole Pruitt played just 14 snaps and was never targeted in the passing game.

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

Offensive line: A-plus

This was truly an excellent day for the big boys up front, and their most complete performance of the season thus far.

Tannehill was not sacked for the first time this season. Tennessee’s signal-caller had entered this game as the most sacked quarterback in the NFL. The Titans had to stop the bleeding, and this has been a huge area of focus in recent weeks. It was excellent to see the starting five hold up in pass protection all night long against a solid Bills front that features a ton of fearful QB hunters.

The results were equally as promising on the ground game as the offensive line routinely opened up holes for Henry to run through. The Titans scored all four of their touchdowns on the ground and finished with 146 rushing yards.

There was a scary moment when Taylor Lewan was knocked out conscious late in the second quarter. He appeared to have suffered a serious head injury and was carted off on a backboard. Lewan gave the crowd the acclaimed thumbs up on his way out and has since then tweeted a much welcomed update that insinuates he avoided a major scare. Reserve offensive tackle Kendall Lamm replaced Lewan and played a great game down the stretch. It was a big spot for Lamm, who was elevated to the backup role following the mid-week retirement of Ty Sambrailo. Lamm handled the moment with poise and played a great game at left tackle.

This group will hope for a similar performance next week.

Defensive line: B-plus

We have to start with the man of the hour, Jeffery Simmons. The former Mississippi State standout first made a splash by combining to secure an excellent tackle on second down in the red zone that forced Buffalo into a third-and-goal and ultimately led to a field goal instead of a touchdown. On the very first play after Henry’s 76-yard TD run, Simmons recorded a run stop for no gain. On the very first play of the third quarter, Simmons sniffed out a screen and helped kill it for a one-yard gain. All this to say Simmons was playing an excellent game before he made the game-winning play on the goal line. The Bills possessed the ball inside the Titans’ five-yard line while trailing by three with 22 seconds left to play. Head coach Sean McDermott opted to go for the win on a fourth-and-1 as opposed to kicking the field goal and forcing overtime. It was a good call by McDermott, who put his trust in his 6-foot-5, 240 pound quarterback to run the QB sneak. Simmons got excellent penetration on the play, met a desperate Allen in the backfield and stuffed his attempt for no gain, ultimately securing the win in the process. It was an unbelievable play by one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league.

The rest of the Titans’ defensive linemen took turns making plays. Amani Bledsoe played 14 snaps and batted a pass down early in the second quarter. Denico Autry made a big play when he hit Allen’s arm on a throwing attempt. Autry’s pressure directly resulted in an interception. He played 60% of snaps, and continues to perform at a high level. Teair Tart recorded a pressure by beating Buffalo’s right guard in pass protection late in the second quarter. Allen was forced to throw the ball in the dirt. Rookie UDFA Naquan Jones played 23 snaps and continues to earn the trust of this coaching staff.

This group played a solid game.

Inside linebackers: B

David Long Jr. played an excellent game as he continues to perform as Tennessee’s best inside linebacker. He made an excellent second down tackle in Tennessee’s half of the field to force a third-and-5. He later made a big-time shoestring tackle on Gabriel Davis to force another third down with 2:44 left in the second quarter. This website has often criticized the play of Rashaan Evans, but he played a fine game on Monday night. Evans combined with Elijah Molden to record a crucial tackle for loss of three yards to force the Bills into a third-and-10.

Long did make a major mistake when he hit Allen late with the crown of his helmet and gave the Bills a first down when they were well backed up against the sticks. I thought it was a terrible error and judgment and a well deserved penalty.

If I have one more minor complaint about this group, it’s that Evans and Long often played soft on short crossers but may be coached that way.

All in all, Evans and Lon rarely put a wrong foot forward.

Outside linebackers: B-plus

Harold Landry continues to play his butt off. He started off by making an excellent open field tackle in the red zone during a first quarter stand that forced the Bills to settle for a field goal. Landry then recorded his sixth and a half sack on a third-and-10 that led to a Bills punt. Landry was standing up above the center and beat his man with power and effort en route to the takedown.

Landry then had his would-be second sack of the day wiped out by Long’s illegal hit to the head penalty. He’s playing himself into a massive payday right now.

Bud Dupree made his return after sitting out the last two contests and had a rather quiet showing overall. He did record a big pass bat down in the fourth quarter which nearly led to a turnover. It forced the Bills into a third-down situation. Dupree is still getting his legs under him. It would be nice to see him turn in a bigger performance sooner rather than later.

Ola Adeniyi played just four snaps.

Defensive backs: C

There’s a lot to cover here.

Starting with Caleb Farley, the rookie first-round pick made his first career start and it unfortunately ended in tragedy for the former Virginia Tech standout. Farley left the game on two separate occasions with injury, the second of which was later diagnosed as a season-ending knee injury. It’s a tough break for a talented player that’s been through a lot over the past few seasons. Farley will now look to get healthy and bounce back in his sophomore season next September.

His running mate Jackrabbit Jenkins didn’t have a great night. He was called for a defensive pass interference inside Tennessee’s five-yard line but the majority of us thought it was a particularly weak call. Jenkins would later give up a 14-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs midway through the second quarter. The ball placement was excellent and I thought it would have been tough to assign any blame to Jenkins for allowing the completion. He played it about as well as a corner can play it. It was a great play call, and an even better throw. Jenkins’ biggest error of the day occurred on Buffalo’s biggest play. Allen flushed to his right on a third-and-13 late in the second quarter before finding a wide open (and I do mean wide open) Cole Beasley for a go-ahead TD. It was yet another breakdown in Tennessee’s secondary and Jenkins was at fault. These big off-script plays due to miscommunication have been a constant problem on the back end. Jenkins will have better days.

Kevin Byard played a great game. He made an excellent tackle in the red zone on second down. Tart had the initial penetration and Byard finished the play. Byard would later record a big-time interception with five minutes left in the second quarter after Autry impacted the play by hitting Allen’s arm. It was Byard’s second straight week with a takeaway.

Chris Jackson played a ton of snaps on the outside following the injury to Farley. Jackson was in on 36 plays altogether and gave them some decent snaps on the outside. Jackson took his bumps, especially when tasked with covering a player like Diggs, but for a guy that was thrusted into an outside role despite predominantly playing the nickel, I thought he performed rather admirably before exiting with a foot injury. The highlight of Jackson’s night was a deep ball PBU on Emmauel Sanders late in the third quarter. The Titans will hope to have him start on the outside opposite Jenkins next week.

The Titans preferred Jackson to Breon Borders early and it was easy to see why. Borders came in and almost immediately gave up a 31-yard pass on Buffalo’s final possession to Sanders. He was also the recipient of a well deserved deep DPI penalty while attempting to cover Diggs. Borders never had a chance on the play and committed as obvious of a penalty as you’ll see. It wasn’t a good showing for him, but credit him for making a pair of big plays on Buffalo’s final possession. He had a solid PBU in the end zone on Buffalo’s final possession and was IN on the third down stop (alongside Amani Hooker) in which Allen dove for the first down but failed to get it. That effort by Borders and Hooker indirectly led to the game-winning Simmons stop on fourth down.

Speaking of Hooker, it was nice to see him back in the lineup. He handled his regular workload, playing 66 snaps, which represented 86% of the team’s defensive plays. Elijah Molden played a whopping 72 plays, or 94% of the team’s defensive snaps. The Titans often used him to blitz and apply pressure to Allen. It’s nice to see the third-round rookie earning the trust of the coaching staff. Dane Cruikshank logged 23 snaps.

Special teams: B-plus

Randy Bullock was a perfect 2-for-2 on field goal attempts from 43 and 38 yards out. He was also a perfect 4-of-4 on extra points. They were crucial kicks, especially his final extra point that gave the Titans a three-point lead in the dying minutes.

This grade would have been a lot worse if not for a penalty. The Bills had a touchdown return wiped out by a penalty. There isn’t much to talk about here, as it was a clear hold.

Johnny Townsend punted twice for a solid average of 53.5 yards per punt, but was released from the roster following the game. It means Brett Kern is ready to return to action.

Batson was injured on a kickoff as mentioned earlier. Marcus Johnson took his spot and returned two kicks for 52 yards with a long of 31. Chester Rogers also returned a kick for 21 yards.

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