One team looked like they hadn’t practiced in over 16 days, the other team looked like the new darlings of the AFC.
One quarterback looked like a fringe MVP candidate, the other quarterback looked like regression was starting to hit.
That’s the narrative that everyone expected coming into this game, but it turns out everyone just got the teams mixed up. The Titans, despite all the drama and distractions of the last two weeks, and despite being without starters Corey Davis, Adam Humphries, Adoree’ Jackson, and Jeffery Simmons, put together one of the most impressive performance of the 2020 NFL season.
The field that hosted the Music City Miracle just over 20 years ago, saw a Music City Massacre tonight in Nashville. Now the Titans move to 4-0, joining the Seahawks, Steelers, and Packers as the NFL’s last remaining undefeated teams.
Let’s jump into winners and losers from Titans 42, Bills 16.
Winner: Mike Vrabel
The Titans coaching staff deserves huge credit for having their team extremely well-prepared despite having just two walk throughs since their last game against Minnesota. Tennessee executed their game plan perfectly and you would never guess that they’d faced any adversity at all.
They won the turnover battle, avoided penalties, and played virtually mistake-free football for 60 minutes against a very good Bills team. That would have been impressive without having been restricted to essentially practicing on Zoom for two weeks.
Mike Vrabel has always talked about wanting this to be a player-led team and I think it’s clear that it is now. According to the CBS broadcast, Ryan Tannehill and other Titans had a group chat that was used to hold each other accountable about working out while they were away from each other. Ben Jones was apparently holding three-hour simulated games by himself in his backyard.
Winner: Arthur Smith
The Titans offensive playcaller was excellent in this game. Tennessee didn’t get any big chunk plays — their longest gain of the night was a 23-yard run by Ryan Tannehill — but that didn’t matter. They were highly efficient and balanced throughout, a perfect 6-for-6 in the red zone, and they protected the ball.
The drive of the game was their last attack before halftime, when the Titans went 90 yards in 12 plays, leaving the Bills with just 16 seconds left. It was masterful clock management by the Titans offensive coordinator.
Tennessee has now scored at least 30 points in three straight games and eight of their last eleven regular season contests. Arthur Smith has this offense absolutely humming right now.
Winner: Shane Bowen
It wasn’t always pretty — and I’m sure there will be some long discussions about the 13-of-17 performance on third downs — but the Titans defense held one of the top scoring offenses in the league to just 16 points on Tuesday night and forced two massive interceptions.
Without Adoree’ Jackson, Kristian Fulton, and Jeffery Simmons, the Titans defense bent, but never broke in this one. The game plan was smart and well-executed, forcing Josh Allen to nickel and dime his way down the field and never letting Stefon Diggs get in behind them for a big chunk gain.
There are still problems on the defense — tackling, third downs, and inconsistent pressure being chief among them — but this was much better from Bowen and Vrabel’s crew against a red hot quarterback.
Winner: Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill was playing with a receiving corps that featured Kalif Raymond and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine as two of his top three options, but still put together a strong game. His final line — 21-of-28 for 195 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions — was solid, but the performance was even better than the numbers show, especially when you throw in another 42 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
That brings his season long stats to 91-of-132 (68.9%) for 1,004 yards (7.6 YPA), 9 touchdowns, and 1 interception. He’s now at 31 touchdowns in 14 regular season starts as the Titans quarterback. That’s borderline MVP territory.
Winner: A.J. Brown
Brown’s return was successful. The Titans star receiver looked like himself again, posting 7 catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. He showed the contested catch ability and his touchdown set the tone for the Tennessee offense early on.
Getting Brown back was a huge lift for the Titans offense and it was good to see him get back to the kind of performances that we’ve come to expect from the second-year star.
Winner: Jeremy McNichols
McNichols had a decent enough showing as a ball carrier, rushing for 28 yards on 9 carries, but his real contribution was as a pass protector. Playing mostly on third downs, he made several key blocks picking up Bills blitzers throughout the game. Underrated big time contribution from a guy who has earned a role on this team, even with Darrynton Evans active.
Winner: Titans pass protection
Speaking of pass blocking, the Titans pass protection was outstanding once again. Ryan Tannehill wasn’t sacked and was rarely under duress throughout the game. Through four weeks, Tennessee has allowed just 3 sacks (compared to 17 at this time last year).
Some of that credit should go to Tannehill, who is calling protections at the line of scrimmage — a role that Ben Jones had mostly handled previously — and doing a much better job of getting the ball out quickly and understanding where to dump it when pressure does arrive.
However, the offensive line has also been outstanding. Even when Ty Sambrailo came in at left tackle for an injured Taylor Lewan, Tennessee was stingy in pass protection. Dennis Kelly’s play at right tackle has been really good and Nate Davis has gone from liability to strength at right guard. Sure, you’d like to see the run game start to generate more of the explosive runs that we’ve grown accustomed to, but the Titans line is playing at a really high level overall right now.
Winner: Derrick Henry’s stiff arm
I would stop short of calling Henry himself a winner on the night. His 19-carry, 57-yard performance isn’t up to his lofty standards, but he did produce one of the most vicious stiff arms that I’ve ever seen on poor Josh Norman.
There have been satellites that spent less time in orbit than Norman on this play. My goodness.
Winner: Chris Milton
Another underappreciated player, Milton produced some absolutely outstanding special teams plays as a gunner on the Titans excellent punt cover unit.
It’s easy to overlook a spot like gunner when you’re looking at a team’s roster, but plays like this absolutely make an impact in games and Milton has a knack for producing them.
Winner: Jonnu Smith
Jonnu Smith caught 5 passes for 40 yards and 2 touchdowns, continuing his breakout season. His 5 touchdowns through the first four games are already a career high. This slant in the red zone illustrates one of the biggest areas of improvement in his game over the past couple years. His ability to use his body to shield the ball and make catches through contact is a major weapon in these types of situations and it’s a skill that he’s developed at the NFL level.
Smith is one of the hardest workers on the team and each touchdown grab probably sounds like a cash register to him as he plays out the final year of his rookie contract.
Winner: Malcolm Butler
Saving one of the best for last, Butler had a massive game. The Titans corner picked off two Josh Allen passes, setting up two of Tennessee’s six touchdowns on the night.
With Adoree’ Jackson and Kristian Fulton both missing this game, Butler had to come up big, and that’s exactly what he did.