NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — For much of this season it’s been the Titans offense that has carried them. Led by the NFL’s leading rusher Derrick Henry Tennessee ranks in the top five in the NFL, averaging more than 400 yards and nearly 30 points per game. But facing a must win Sunday it was the defense that stepped up to help the Titans overcome an off day from the offense to capture a 24-17 win against the Bears.
Jeffery Simmons showed why the Titans drafted him 19th overall a year ago despite the fact he was in the early stages of rehab for a torn ACL which sidelined him for much of the first half of his rookie season. A year later Simmons is fully healthy and is a disruptive force in the trenches. Against Chicago he tallied three tackles, helped blow up the line on a fourth down stop, had a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and nearly had an interception.
The forced fumble came on a third quarter third and long situation in which he fended off his blocker to get to the flat and knock the ball loose from David Montgomery. New cornerback Desmond King scooped the ball up and ran it back 63 yards for a touchdown and a 17-0 lead for a Tennessee team that bounced back from consecutive losses.
King, who cleared COVID protocols only in time to join the Titans at St. Thomas Sports Park on Saturday, was active on the defense Sunday despite zero practice time this week.
King arrived just in time. As did newly activated practice squad member Breon Borders, who played every defensive snap at cornerback and finished second on the team with nine tackles. Even long snapper Matt Overton and punter/holder Ryan Allen, who had a 50.5-yard average on eight punts, stepped into their new roles admirably after being signed this week.
Simmons’ recovered fumble came late in the fourth quarter when he hustled downfield after a short completion to Anthony Miller and was able to fall on the ball after it was punched free by Jayon Brown. It was the second turnover of the day forced by the Titans who are now plus-10 on the season after entering the day ranked second in the league in turnover margin.
It was also the latest big play from Brown. His 10 tackles Sunday runs his season total to a team-high 65. He also notched a sack as the Titans got to Nick Foles three teams after recording just seven sacks through the first seven games this season.
Most importantly, the Titans were able to get off the field on third down against Chicago. The defense had been historically bad on third downs, allowing conversions 62 percent of the time, the highest percentage allowed by any NFL defense through seven games since 1991. But against the Bears the Titans got stops on 13 of 15 third downs, the fifth best percentage by any defense in the league this year. And they did it without Jadeveon Clowney, who was out with a knee injury, or Vic Beasley who was released Wednesday.
Many, including yours truly, will remain skeptical the Titans will be able to continue Sunday’s defensive successes against better offenses than the anemic Bears. But the defense rose to the occasion Sunday when the team needed it.
The Titans offense managed just 224 total yards against the stingy Bears, barely more than half their season average. In fact, 136 of those yards came on just four plays Sunday.
Ryan Tannehill completed only 10 of 21 passes, but connected with A.J. Brown four times for 101 yards including a beautiful 40-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Brown also set up a first quarter field goal with a 38-yard catch and run.
Derrick Henry ran for only 68 yards, but had a key 29-yard jaunt in the fourth quarter as the Titans drove 76 yards in eight plays for an insurance TD. Tannehill found Jonnu Smith later on the drive for a 30-yard gain down to the two, then went back to Smith on the next play for his sixth touchdown catch of the season.
The offense will have better days, but the Titans need this defense to show up more often, starting Thursday night as they take on the Colts in a showdown of the top two teams in the AFC South.
Indianapolis lost 24-10 to Baltimore Sunday, dropping a game back of Tennessee in the standings. But with the two rivals scheduled to square off twice in the next three weeks this division race is just beginning.
And with both teams beat up and facing a week of short rest, they’ll be asking for all hands on deck again Thursday. It worked Sunday for the Titans when they needed a desperate effort in the worst way.