One thing that has always stood out about Mike Vrabel is his attention to detail. You’ll be hard pressed to find another NFL coach that knows the ins and outs of the rule book better than the Titans boss and how to take advantage of them when an opportunity arises.
We famously saw it last year in the playoffs when Vrabel used Bill Belichick’s own clock loophole against him, draining one minute and 49 seconds off the clock without taking a snap by intentionally taking multiple offensive penalties outside of 4:00.
We also saw it in 2018, when Vrabel sent a 12th man onto the field intentionally against the Jets with just over two minutes remaining on a 2nd and 2 in order to stop the clock and trade the first down for time, as Paul Kuharsky noted at the time.
If a fishy “too many men” penalty late in a game sounds eerily familiar right now, it’s because it just happened. Again. And it saved the Titans bacon, setting them up for Ryan Tannehill’s fourth game-winning drive of the season (which, oh by the way, featured more great situational football from the Titans, but we are staying on topic here).
Allow me to set the scene so you can understand exactly how and why this worked.
Tennessee is trailing 30-29 with just over 3:00 remaining in the game. The Texans have the ball on the Titans 25-yard line and are methodically moving down the field as they had for most of the second half.
The previous play, a 1st and 10 pass to Brandin Cooks for 9 yards, has Houston set up with 2nd and 1. A run likely gives them another new set of downs just inside the 25. They’re already in field goal range.
So Mike Vrabel sends out Josh Kalu to take an intentional 12-men on the field penalty. How do we know it’s intentional? Well, first, Kalu had played 10 snaps on defense so far in 2020, with 7 of those coming in mop up duty during the Titans blowout of the Bills earlier in the week. Now he’s suddenly getting some run on a critical drive (he’d played zero defensive snaps in this game prior to stepping foot on the field here).
Second, just take a look at the video, specifically the interaction between Vrabel and Johnathan Joseph, followed by Joseph’s body language at the snap (he knows a play isn’t going to happen).
Johnathan Joseph gives Vrabel the “WTF” look when Kalu comes on and Vrabel assures him it’s okay and then makes a show of trying to get him back off to make sure the ref sees it and — crucially — to keep Romeo Crennel from suspecting something is up and declining the penalty.
Why not just use a timeout? After all, the Titans had three of them left and the two minute warning at the time. Well, it’s not about time, it’s about downs.
Each snap that the Texans take between 2nd and 1 and the end zone represents 40 seconds of time off the board or a Titans timeout. If the Texans run the ball on 2nd and 1 — a virtual certainty — and get the first down, they get to tick off another 40 precious seconds and can still potentially get two more first downs before reaching the end zone (assuming the run gains between 1 and 4 yards, which again, is pretty likely). Worst case scenario is the Titans actually stop them on 2nd and 1 and then give up the first on 3rd and 1. That runs off another 80 seconds or takes two Tennessee timeouts.
It is far more likely that the Titans can stop the Texans starting from 1st and 10 than it is that they can starting from 2nd and 1. Plus, given the position of the ball, moving it to the 20-yard line via penalty means that the Texans can get just one more first down before the end zone unless they get an automatic first down via penalty.
Here’s how things played out. Texans throw an incomplete pass, bringing up 2nd and 10 (already a much better spot than they were in before and just 9 seconds had come off the clock). Then an 11-yard David Johnson run puts them in 1st and goal at the 9. They run it three more times and finally throw it in for a touchdown on 4th and goal at the 1.
During that stretch, the Titans use two of their timeouts, but just 1:13 comes off the clock, in large part, because of the penalty that effectively stole a down from the Texans and gave the Titans back either 40 seconds or a timeout (and possibly more).
The Titans, of course, would drive the length of the field following Houston’s missed 2-point try, score a game-tying touchdown with 4 seconds left in regulation, and then win the game on the first possession of overtime. None of that likely happens without a detail oriented coach who bought them an extra timeout by understanding the game at an extremely high level.
Consider this Mike Vrabel’s official entry into the Coach of the Year race.