Broncos Country: still not riding.
The Titans won an ugly one (everyone take a drink) on Sunday, besting the Broncos by a touchdown at Nissan Stadium.
They played one of their ugliest halves of the season out of the gate, trailing 10-0 nearing halftime. A two-minute touchdown drive got them on the board before the break, and they came out in the second half with some more juice. Ultimately, their 17 unanswered points were too much to overcome for the struggling Denver offense to match.
A whole lot went wrong for Tennessee in this one, but as we’ve grown accustomed to, they had just enough go right to secure the win. Let’s explore the many specifics in this XL edition of Winners and Losers:
Winner: Defensive Front Depth
Sometimes the Titans feel like two different teams: the defensive front, and everybody else.
While Tennessee has spent all season struggling with razor-thin depth at many positions, their pass-rush personnel has taken a lickin’ and kept on tickin’.
Dylan Cole, Mario Edwards, and Naquan Jones all got themselves a sack, and DeMarcus Walker and Rashad Weaver had 1.5 each. All told, the Titans got home to Russell Wilson for 6 sacks and 18 QB hits.
And the truly amazing part is how they did it without 2 of their 4 leading pass rushers available.
Tennessee’s personnel department and coaching staff clearly have a knack for finding and developing more-than-serviceable depth on the defensive front. They deserve to be commended for how they consistently find guys off the street to coach up and play good ball when needed. If only that ability translated to some other positions on the team…
Loser: Defensive Health
The injuries will continue until morale improves.
Things were already terrible for Tennessee on the injury front coming into Sunday’s competition. Including players on IR, the Titans’ defense was missing the following 6 starters:
- DT Jeffrey Simmons
- OLB Bud Dupree
- OLB Harold Landry
- CB Kristian Fulton
- S Amani Hooker
- ILB Zach Cunningham
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s more than half of the starters on that side of the ball.
But the nightmare didn’t end there, oh no. Things stayed awful all game for the training staff. Here is a brief synopsis of all the injuries sustained during this game:
- S Lonnie Johnson was carted into the locker room with a hamstring and was quickly ruled OUT
- DT Kevin Strong went down and spent time in the medical tent
- CB Caleb Farley was ruled OUT with a back injury sustained on special teams
- LB David Long Jr. got banged up and spent some time on the sideline with training staff (another starter)
- CB Elijah Molden was ruled OUT with a groin in the second half (another starter)
It is truly a miracle this defense played so well in this game despite their injuries.
Playing on a short week ahead of TNF this week, Tennessee’s weekly schedule is accelerated. that means the first injury report will come out on Monday, and it’s sure to be a few positions shy of a complete roster…
Winner: Winning Through the Air
This Titans’ win is a rare one, in which they relied more on the arm of Tannehill than the legs of Henry.
You would never have guessed it would come against the NFL’s best passing defense, but somehow it did.
Tannehill went 19/36 for 255 yards and 2 TDs, while Tennessee only ran the ball 19 times with Henry and managed just 63 yards on the ground as a team. Ryan completed passes to 7 different receivers, the most since Week 5 at Washington.
While Tennessee is certainly built to be a ground-and-pound offense, demonstrating that they can get it done through the air is essential to proving they’ll be able to contend in the postseason. I count this performance, far from full strength, as a passing grade (pun intended).
Loser: Derrick Henry
I contemplated giving this loser title to Henry and the offensive line, but if Derrick gets the praise when he’s elite, he’s got to wear the criticism on an off-day.
Henry had a pedestrian 53 yards on 19 carries, which is good for a very poor 2.8 yards per carry. While it’s only fair to point out that the Broncos’ defense is one of the top-3 units in the league, they were missing some key parts that should have meant Henry was at an advantage.
That wasn’t the case, and Henry had one of his worst rushing days in a win we’ve ever seen from him.
Winner: Nick Westbrook-Ikhine
NWI has had a rollercoaster week.
After the Titans’ WRs had perhaps the worst performance the league has seen all year against Kansas City on Sunday Night Football, Westbrook-Ikhine took some heat in the press for his play as well as his comments defending the Titans’ receivers after the game.
In Week 10, he got out to a similarly poor start, prompting this tweet:
Well, Nick clearly saw it and decided to symbolically stuff me into a locker with the rest of his play, because he was outstanding in the final three quarters.
Finishing the day with 5 catches for 119 yards and 2 TDs, Westbrook-Ikhine became the Titans’ first 100-yard receiver in 2022. Averaging 23.8 yards per reception, it was his 63-yard touchdown catch on the flea-flicker that was the most memorable. He also made a spectacular toe-tapping catch in the endzone to secure the Titans’ first TD of the game.
If NWI can expertly find the soft spots of zones and turn upfield for nice YAC like this on a consistent basis, Tennessee might have a real passing game on their hands. I’ll wait and see if he can keep this level of play up before we jump to any grand conclusions…
Loser: Malik Willis
The Malik Willis gadget plays are, um, super not working.
Willis lost a fumble on his sole play of the game, just as he did a couple of weeks ago on a failed end-around attempt. It quickly became a blame-game situation, with some fans angry with Todd Downing for getting too cute and some angry at Willis for not securing the ball.
The correct party to blame is both of them.
This is clearly not working. Willis playing actual QB snaps is another discussion entirely, but in the gadget role, he’s been a disaster. Downing has to resist the urge to call these cutesie plays, especially when Tennessee is in control of the game.
On the other hand, Willis is an athlete. It’s far from outrageous to expect him to be able to handle snaps, handoffs, and other basic ball-security tasks. He has the physical traits to excel in this role, but he’s achieving the opposite of the desired outcome by handing out footballs like Halloween candy. He has got to figure it out and fix whatever the problem is.
Winner: Austin Hooper
How about Austin Hooper quietly being a key contributor in this Titans passing game?
Ever since he joined the party in Nashville against Indianapolis, Hooper has come up big in key spots for Tennessee. Against Denver, Hooper managed 5 receptions on 7 targets for 41 yards and picked up a pair of key first downs for an offense that needs all the playmaking it can get.
Hooper started the year as a disappointment but has blossomed into a nice receiving option, one that Tennessee should continue to use more and more down the stretch.
Loser: Robert Woods
Robert Woods is either washed or not quite right.
Woods had yet another disappointing day, catching only 2 of his 7 targets for a measly 10 yards. Tannehill was clearly interested in getting him the rock, but Woods could not make a contested catch.
And that’s the crux of the issue: Woods is constantly trying to make contested catches because he can’t get separation. I’ve recently wondered aloud if Woods is perhaps still hampered by his ACL injury last season, the kind of injury that often keeps players from regaining their top gear immediately upon return.
If that isn’t the case and this is just who he is now, he’s not nearly the player the Titans signed up for this summer.
Winner: Terrance Mitchell
It’s officially time to forgive Terrance Mitchell for his horrific debut and welcome him into the fold.
I railed against Mitchell after that Raiders game, in which he allowed roughly 7,000 yards through the air to relative no-name WR Mack Hollins. That week he joined the team with only a couple of days to prepare and was a nightmare on short notice. His failures were particularly highlighted by the fact that Caleb Farley was on the sideline (we didn’t know just how raw he was yet).
Since then, he’s quietly been a very nice borderline starter at CB for Tennessee, and he had a great showing in Week 10.
Leading the defense with 8 combined tackles, Mitchell also managed a team-high 3 passes defended and an interception to seal the game (don’t take a knee at the 1-yard line though, c’mon man). Mitchell’s interception extended the Titans’ streak of 1 or more in each of the past 7 games.
Mitchell’s emergence as a viable option has softened the blow when starters such as Kristian Fulton and Elijah Molden aren’t available.
Loser: Penalty Discipline
The downside to playing so many young and inexperienced players is that they do stupid things sometimes.
The Titans had an uncharacteristically bad day in the penalties department, giving up 60 yards on 9 flags. Three of those calls gave the Broncos a fresh set of downs.
Among the chief perpetrators was DE Sam Okuayinonu, who had a rough day at the office. He got called for being offsides twice, which is among the stupidest ways you can penalize your own team. He also awkwardly failed to come up with a Russell Wilson fumble at the very end of the game, giving the Broncos one last chance to tie it up.
Between bad holding penalties, lining up offsides, or jumping before the snap, the Titans had the kind of undisciplined day that results in a loss against a better opponent.
Winner: C.J. Board
Where were you during the C.J. Board special teams game?
Board was such a late and random addition to the Titans’ roster on Sunday, he didn’t even make the rosters handed out in the press box.
Board joined the Titans practice squad in October, and in his first elevation to the active roster on Sunday he made a splash on special teams. He gained 51 yards on 4 punt returns as well as downing a Ryan Stonehouse punt inside the 5-yard line.
Board looked like he was easily the best punt returner the Titans have had since Kyle Philips at the beginning of the season. As long as Philips remains hurt, Board has carved out a role for himself on this team.
I tweeted that today’s officials wouldn’t escape the list this week, and I’m a man of my word.
The officiating in the NFL generally lacks a sterling reputation, and in this game it was at times unbearable.
First of all, the refs were far too involved. Nobody is here to see you, fellas. There were a handful of penalties called that were outrageous, including a pathetic roughing the passer call and a verifiably-insane defensive holding call (the replay showed zero contact, let alone a hold).
Get it together, NFL. We can do a much better job than we currently are on the officiating front. Make it happen.
Easton Freeze is the Director of Published Content at Broadway Sports Media, covering the Titans and the NFL
Get more Titans coverage from Easton on Twitter @eastonfreeze