Break It Down: Titans' big-play day
Week 3's Detroit-Tennessee matchup, which the Titans won 44-41 in overtime, may go down as one of the season's more entertaining games. The teams combined for more than 1,000 total yards, 800-plus passing yards and 46 points in the fourth quarter alone.
The Titans, en route to their first victory of the season, scored five -- five! -- touchdowns of longer than 60 yards, an NFL record. How'd they pull that incredible feat off? We take a look in this week's Break It Down:
Tennessee's first big home-run play came late in the first quarter and, if not for the insanity that ensued at the end of regulation and in overtime, might have been the most memorable highlight from this game.
With the Lions punting up 6-3, the Titans dug into their bag of tricks and pulled out the "Music City Miracle" play for a punt return.
It was Frank Wycheck who threw the controversial cross-field lateral to Kevin Dyson in that famous postseason play that gave the Titans a win over Buffalo. Sunday's reenactment came on a punt (Dyson's TD was on a kick return), but it worked for the same reason, as Darius Reynaud tossed it over to Tommie Campbell. Namely, that Detroit's coverage team completely ran itself out of the picture, setting up the throwback.
That red bracket above gives you an idea of why Detroit had such a hard time recovering once Campbell got the ball -- every Lions' coverage man is inside that box, save for punter Ben Graham, who suffered a season-ending calf injury kicking the ball away.
Campbell started the play helping block one of Detroit's gunners out wide. While that Detroit defender turned inside and broke toward Reynaud, Campbell peeled off (without any Lions noticing) to set up for Reynaud's lateral.
It was a perfectly executed trick play that took advantage of Detroit's penchant for getting caught out of position on special teams -- a problem the Lions have had often in the past and had on multiple occasions Sunday.
To wit: Reynaud later took a kickoff back 105 yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 27 right after Detroit had grabbed a 27-20 lead. Once again, the Lions hemmed themselves in, allowing Tennessee to seal the edge for Reynaud.
Reynaud enjoyed a convoy up the right sideline, as Taylor Thompson (just ahead of Reynaud in the photo below) cleaned out Jonte Greene with a magnificent block and Campbell, breaking to his right at the 30, took both Jason Hanson and Amari Spievey out of the picture as Reynaud neared midfield.
No other Lions defender had a shot.
This was sort of a theme all Sunday in this game: Tennessee taking advantage of whatever opening Detroit left. The Titans did an amazing job capitalizing on those shots, hitting big time and again.
The Titans' three players go vertical on this play -- one wide receiver up each sideline, plus Cook on a very deep post pattern. A third wide receiver ran a curl to the 50-yard line. Detroit basically rolled out a Tampa-2 defense against the Titans' look -- dropping their two safeties deep and wide, while linebacker Stephen Tulloch played coverage across the middle.
The problem for Detroit, whether it was the fault of Tulloch or the safeties, was that it got caught somewhere between that Tampa-2 look and a normal Cover-2 (where the safeties were each responsible for one half of the field deep. Tulloch did not drop far enough to stay with Cook, and the safeties did not close quickly enough to get there either.
Locker made a great pass, both Detroit safeties whiffed on the tackle, and Cook raced home for a touchdown.
You'll notice Tulloch in the shot below staring down Jake Locker, and that picture highlights two problems Detroit had ...
... 1. The defensive line struggled to generate any consistent pressure all game long; on this play, Locker simply slid to his left while the Titans closed off the pass rush.
2. Locker's mobility was a concern for Detroit, and he later ripped off a 31-yard scramble. He only rushed four times on the day, but the Lions clearly were worried about that aspect of his game.
Detroit's tackling in the secondary became an issue again in the fourth quarter, as Locker and Nate Washington hooked up on a highlight-reel 71-yard TD bomb. The Titans used an unusual formation here, with Locker lined up almost in a pistol set, flanked by an offset tight end on each side of the line.
Again, though, the basic premise of this play was the same as the one Cook scored on: Three pass-catchers running vertical routes, with Locker looking for the one closest to the middle of the field.
Sometimes in football, you just get beat. That's what Detroit CB Jacob Lacey had to swallow following this play. His coverage on Washington was pretty solid, but not solid enough to prevent Washington from leaping over him and catching the ball on Lacey's back, then turning and running to the end zone.
The bigger culprit for Detroit there was safety John Wendling. He tried to get over to provide Lacey deep help but, as on the Cook TD, not only was he late arriving, but also he failed to make the tackle.
Tennessee's final huge play of Sunday's game came from the defense. After Washington's TD put the Titans up 34-27, Detroit drove into Tennessee territory. On 2nd-and-10 from the 34, Matthew Stafford completed a pass to Brandon Pettigrew.
And that's where things went south for the Lions.
Pettigrew was covered by a linebacker, Akeem Ayers, on the play, but the Lions' tight end still managed to make a catch and turn upfield. But there, waiting for him, was Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner, who ripped the ball from Pettigrew's hands and raced 70 yards for a TD.
Where did Verner come from?
Well, rather incredibly, Verner paid enough attention on this play to break off his coverage of Calvin Johnson to dive down on Pettigrew. It was a split-second decision that only could have come from Verner being totally aware of everything on this play -- when Stafford released the ball, where Pettigrew was and where the rest of the defense was.
Had Verner stuck with Johnson, Pettigrew would have had a chance to pick up a first down. And had Verner vacated Johnson too soon, there was no one within 15 yards behind him to help cover Detroit's No. 1 receiver.
Five separate times during Sunday's game, the Titans had the chance to burn the Lions with a home-run play ... and all five times, they produced results.
You can blame a lot of that on Detroit, from the poor coverage on the kicks to the struggling safeties on deep balls to Brandon Pettigrew not taking care of the football. The Titans, though, executed each time the Lions made a mistake. Even more astonishing was that Tennessee hit Detroit in all three phases: offense, defense and special teams. The Titans needed every single point they scored on Sunday to grab their overtime victory, but they certainly earned their five touchdowns.