INGLEWOOD, Calif. (WTVF) — The Titans proved they could win without Derrick Henry with an impressive 28-16 victory over the Rams Sunday night in Los Angeles.
For those that thought the season was over when it was announced Henry had a broken foot and would be out for the foreseeable future on Monday, it’s time to think again. This team is more than just its MVP-caliber back, and it isn’t going to shrink away from the AFC race.
On a Sunday when many of the conference’s top contenders looked pedestrian — the Bills lost at Jacksonville, the Bengals lost at home to the Browns, the Ravens squeaked by the Vikings in overtime and the Chiefs offense struggled again — a team that had every reason to lose, playing without its best player and two starting offensive linemen against the 7-1 Rams, went out and won.
The Titans survived a slow offensive start in which Ryan Tannehill threw an interception before back to back three and outs thanks to a defense that wouldn’t allow the high-powered Rams to get going.
Denico Autry’s early sack ended L.A.‘s opening drive, and the D bent, but didn’t break while surrendering a late first quarter field goal. Then in the second quarter, the defense took over.
Helped by a terrific coffin-corner punt by Brett Kern that backed the Rams up inside their own five, Jeffery Simmons announced his presence with authority, stuffing a run and then surging right through the offensive line to hit Matthew Stafford on a drop back near the goalline. Stafford then seemingly channeled his inner-Carson Wentz, in shades of last week’s game-changing interception in Indy, flinging the ball to no one in particular as Simmons spun him towards the ground in the end zone. David Long intercepted it and tumbled forward to the two-yard line.
Tannehill hit tight end Geoff Swaim on a nifty misdirection pass for a touchdown on the next play that put the Titans up 7-3.
On the very next play from scrimmage the defense forced another Stafford error. This time it was Kevin Byard stepping in front of an out route for a 24-yard pick six, his fourth interception in the past five games. Two touchdowns in 11 seconds completely swing the tide of the game, both set up by a defense that was considered a liability early in the season.
By the time Tannehill cruised into the end zone to make it 21-3 before halftime, the Titans were in complete control. That drive went 64 yards in 14 plays, taking up more than 7:30 off the clock. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine caught a big third down conversion, and Mike Vrabel showed faith in his shorthanded offense going for it on fourth down twice, including the perfectly timed fourth and goal bootleg from Tannehill for the touchdown.
It was the type of complimentary football the Titans always preach, and have displayed with increasing frequency over the last month, coupled with an us against the world mentality that fuels this team, from Vrabel and the coaching staff on down.
A month ago it was fair to wonder, based on how the Titans we’re playing, if they could manage a win or maybe two in a stretch that featured the AFC leading Bills, the two-time conference champion Chiefs, and then the Colts and Rams on the road. Much to the surprise around the league, the Titans went out and won all four, looking very much like the AFC’s best team right now, even without Henry Sunday night and too many other injuries to mention over this run.
In what is now a five game winning streak, Tennessee’s defense has become a difference maker. They’ve recorded 16 sacks over the five games, including a season-high five Sunday, which is just 3.5 fewer sacks than the 19.5 they had all of last season in 16 games. They’ve also forced 11 turnovers during this stretch, three of which have been returned for touchdowns, after getting just one takeaway in the first four weeks of the season.
There was the game-clinching goalline stand against Josh Allen and Buffalo, the shut down effort against Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City and the late interceptions in the fourth quarter and overtime that set up last week’s win against Wentz and Indianapolis. On Sunday night it the Titans used their much-improved pass rush to get after Stafford, with mostly just their front four, and then disguised coverages on the back end to blanket L.A.’s explosive receivers.
Simmons was a force with three sacks and four QB hits. Denico Autry added a sack and a half, and continues to be the team’s most important offseason addition. Harold Landry added a half sack, giving him nine through the season’s first nine games. Long flew around the middle of the field, Byard continues to have an All-Pro caliber season and Chris Jackson has become a reliable man in coverage.
The offense managed just two sustained touchdown drives, but they capitalized on the positions the defense set them up with and did just enough to win, scoring 28 points despite being outgained 347-194.
Offensive coordinator Todd Downing mixed and matched Jeremy McNichols with the newly signed Adrian Peterson and D’Onta Foreman in the running game, got the tight ends involved in the passing game and welcomed Julio Jones back to the lineup opposite A.J. Brown.
The Titans will need to get more from the running game without Henry, and still hasn’t gotten Brown and Jones going the way many fans envisioned entering the season. But the defense no longer needs to be a worry. Nor should this team’s heart and determination.
If there’s a game to be played, the Titans believe they can win. And they can. They’ve proven that over the last month in becoming just the fourth team in 15 years to win four straight games against playoff teams from the previous season.
Now they’ll have to prove how they handle life as the hunted — the no. 1 seed in the AFC — with a schedule that’s about to ease up considerably.
There’s still a long ways to go, but the Titans deserve to be in the position they are. They’ve earned it the hard way.