NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It wasn’t easy. It never is against the Colts. But Sunday at Nissan Stadium a Titans team that entered shorthanded due to injury and finished practically with one hand tied behind its back offensively found a way to win. And the 25-16 victory over the Colts puts them in the driver’s seat in the AFC South at the end of September.
Just as we thought. Except it didn’t look anything like what we expected. The offense went three and out again on the opening possession, lost A.J. Brown on the second series to a bum hamstring and saw Julio Jones standing next to him on the sideline for the entire fourth quarter with what we can only assume is an injury of his own.
Derrick Henry did run for 113 yards on 27 carries to extend his NFL rushing lead, but there were no highlight reel runs on this day. In fact, the big plays were few and far between for an offense known as one of the most explosive in football. The longest play of the day was a 28-yard scramble by quarterback Ryan Tannehill in which he chose not to slide, running away from one defender and then lowering his shoulder into another to finish off the run.
It epitomized Tannehill’s day. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done and, along with a cast of unusual suspects, helped the Titans beat the rival Colts at home for just the second time in the last 10 years.
Tannehill has now won 20 of his 29 starts since taking over as Tennessee’s QB in week seven of the 2019 season. Many of those wins have been pretty; the product of an efficient quarterback and an offense that finishes as well as any in the league. On Sunday Tannehill had to battle through the struggles, some of his own doing while others were the mistakes of teammates.
He threw two interceptions, one a forced throw into tight traffic on third down, somewhere in the vicinity of backup running back Jeremy McNichols and recent practice squad call up Tommy Hudson, that was picked off by Indy All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard. The other was a ball that bounded off the hands of Chester Rogers and was intercepted by Kenny Moore with the Titans threatening to build on a 14-7 lead late in the first half.
Instead Moore’s 32-yard return gave the Colts the ball in Titans territory and led to what was likely at least a six point swing with the Titans failing to get points and Indy pulling within 14-10 on Rodrigo Blankenship’s field goal at the first half horn. It felt eerily similar to last year when a Blankenship field goal on the final play of the half turned momentum. In that game, the Colts drove for a third quarter touchdown, and then blocked a punt for a touchdown following a three and out on the ensuing drive to take control of the game.
But unlike a year ago, the Titans absorbed Indianapolis’s best punch on Sunday. The defense buckled down. The momentum changing special teams play went Tennessee’s direction. And Tannehill made sure the Titans offense would do enough to win.
Indianapolis drove 17 plays into the red zone to start the third quarter, but the Titans D stood tall and forced a field goal. One of two red zone holds in the second half as they gave up just six points after halftime for the second straight week.
When the Colts went all out to block another punt this time, Zaire Franklin arrived a fraction of a second late, roughing punter Brett Kern instead of getting the block. Even though the Titans failed to capitalize when Nick Westbrook-Ikhine fumbled fighting for extra yards following a first down catch inside the Indy 10-yard line, the Titans were able to flip field position when the defense got a quick stop.
Harold Landry’s delayed blitz forcing Wentz into the arms of Ola Adeniyi for a shared sack. Adeniyi had 1.5 sacks Sunday and has 2.5 over the last two weeks, becoming perhaps the biggest, and most important, revelation for this team three weeks into the season as Bud Dupree still works his way back into form.
From there it was up to Tannehill and the offense. Not with the eye-popping explosive plays from the star players that we’ve become accustomed to seeing from the Titans, but rather with a QB that showed trust in his supporting cast and a will to get the job done.
Tannehill threw three touchdowns to three different receivers. He hit Rogers on a crossing route for the game’s first score on a third and goal shortly after Brown departed with an injury. Westbrook-Ikhine saw the greatest increase in reps and targets with Brown out, catching his first career touchdown on a well run slant that led to an 18-yard catch and run. He celebrated with his own version of Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s famous dance on the day the Titans honored their Oilers history.
Then early in the fourth quarter with Brown and Jones out and Henry subbed to the sideline, Tannehill found Jeremy McNichols out of the backfield for a 10-yard touchdown on third and goal. Mike Vrabel followed the analytics book and went for two and the opportunity to make it a two possession game, and Henry made the gamble pay off by plowing into the end zone to make it 22-13.
The Colts, who deserve their own credit for battling through all the injuries that have plagued them in their 0-3 start, battled back to get a field goal, but Tannehill and the offense were able to put the game away.
It started, as almost all the Titans’ late game drives do when they’re leading, with Henry churning out yards. But with Indy stacking the box to stop the rum, Tannehill trusted he’s unproven receiving targets to make some big catches. First, he hit Westbrook-Ikhine on a 13-yard completion tight along the sideline. Then he connected with MyCole Pruitt on a big third and four conversion, as Pruitt once again provided a spark from the tight end position with Anthony Firkser missing a second straight game due to injury.
But even more importantly Tannehill wasn’t going to be denied with his legs. He scrambled five times for 56 yards, none bigger than his 13-yard scramble late in the fourth quarter when managed to tightrope the sideline to get the first down and stay inbounds to keep the clock running. The heady play set up a Randy Bulluck field goal to put the game away.
Tannehill threw for just 197 yards and the two interceptions now give him six turnovers through three weeks. But unless you’re just a Fantasy Football fan, the only number that really matters is how many wins you have. And a week after rallying the Titans back for an overtime win in Seattle, Tannehill willed them to another big win Sunday as he continues to put his stamp on this offense and team.
Now the Titans have a two game lead on the team considered to be their only real competition in the division just three weeks into the season. And they have a real opportunity to get to 4-1 with trips to the winless Jets and Jaguars on tap.
Hopefully they can get healthy in that time as well, because if the Titans remain shorthanded it’s going to require more of these gutsy efforts. Fortunately, they’ve got the right quarterback to lead them.