NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The Titans didn’t look much like the AFC’s best team on the field Sunday. But make no mistake, the way they pieced together a sixth straight win, this time hanging on for dear life 23-21 against the Saints, despite the continuing onslaught of injuries has made this team more than worthy of its position.
Through 10 games the Titans have had to use a NFL-high 82 players after rookie receiver Dez Fitzpatrick and defensive tackle Kyle Peko joined the fun against New Orleans. That is not a category a team wants to lead. But the Titans now stand 8-2 and with a game and a half lead for the no. 1 seed in the AFC with seven games left to play in the regular season.
They’ve done it by taking the “next man up” approach that’s long been a league-wide saying and making it the team motto. It doesn’t matter who goes down, whoever shows up on Sunday believes they are going to get the job done.
On Saturday future Hall of Fame receiver Julio Jones was placed on Injured Reserve, shutting him down at least through the team’s early December bye due to his lingering hamstring issues. On Sunday with Jones out and the Saints double-teaming A.J. Brown, Marcus Johnson became the star of the game. The 27-year-old wide out jump-started the offense with a 50-yard reception that led to a field goal that started the day’s scoring. He also set up two more scores with key catches, and grabbed five balls in all for his third career 100-yard receiving game.
The game’s biggest play came courtesy of two even more unlikely heroes. With the Titans leading 13-6, Dylan Cole, who was signed to the team’s practice squad just a month ago and elevated to the active roster Saturday, popped Deonte Harris on the opening kickoff of the second half. Harris fumbled and it was recovered by Tory Carter, another practice squad call-up.
Four plays later Ryan Tannehill, who said he still felt bad when he woke up Sunday after battling a stomach bug that caused him to miss practice late in the week, hit MyCole Pruitt for a two-yard touchdown and a 20-6 lead. Tannehill battled through feeling crummy to complete 19 of 27 passes for 213 yards on the way to his 26th win as the Titans’ QB in 36 regular season starts.
They defense bent plenty, allowing 298 yards passing to Trevor Siemian, the replacement for the injured Jameis Winston and a guy who lost the backup competition here in Tennessee last year, but came up with two big holds late.
First, with the Saints first and goal trailing 23-12, the defense forced two incompletions sandwiched around a run stuff and forced a field goal. Then after the Saints got the ball back and scored on a 15-yard touchdown from Siemian to former Vol Marquez Callaway, the defense stopped the New Orleans two-point try when Siemian’s pass towards Mark Ingram fell harmlessly to the turf as both Jayon Brown and Jackrabbit Jenkins converged in coverage near the pylon.
Of course the Saints only needed the two-point conversion because it can’t kicks straight. Brian Johnson, the team’s fourth kicker used this year, shanked his first two extra points, which ultimately provided the Titans their final margin of victory. They also benefitted from a weak roughing the passer penalty that wiped away a bad Tannehill interception in the end zone and set up his QB sneak touchdown late in the first half.
The Titans were fortunate, yes, but they continue to get the job done no matter who’s in or who’s out. And they’ve done it in large part thanks to that defense that played Sunday without linebackers Rashaan Evans and David Long, safety Dane Cruikshank, lineman Teair Tart, and lost pass rusher Bud Dupree to an abdominal injury early.
While the growing injury reports has not slowed this team down yet, it has to be a concern. The running game is non-existant without Derrick Henry, averaging 79 yards less per game the last two weeks with the three-man rotation of Adrian Peterson, D’Onta Foreman and Jeremy McNichols. Jones’ absence in the passing game will be felt, as well as the inconsistencies of an offensive line that’s nicked up. Even in the six game winning streak, the Titans have actually been outgained by their opponents four times.
One has to wonder if the “next man up” recipe is sustainable over the long haul if the team’s health fortune doesn’t turn. The good news is that the Titans get the first of two meetings with the 1-9 Texans next week, and have the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL the rest of the way. The bad news is it’s hard to see any significant postseason run without Henry back and Jones factoring in.
But count this team out at your own peril. They keep proving the doubters wrong. And they keep on winning.