NASHVILLE – In moves that electrified the team’s fan base during the offseason, the Tennessee Titans made significant additions to both the offense and defense.
The free-agent signing of edge rusher Bud Dupree – at a cost of $82.5 million over five years – figured to greatly improve a woeful pass rush. The trade for wide receiver Julio Jones – at a cost of second- and fourth-round draft picks – figured to turn an already offense into a particularly potent one.
In time, the highly touted pair may well make the kind of contributions that prove their worth. Jones already flashed his talent when he caught six passes for 128 yards in Week 2.
But the stars of Sunday’s 25-16 victory over Indianapolis were the far lesser names – players like wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and edge rusher Ola Adeniyi -- who stepped up in place of sidelined stars.
Who would have believed that Westbrook-Ikhine would have more touchdown catches than Jones through the first three weeks of the season? Or that Adeniyi, who totaled one sack in 32 games for Pittsburgh, would have a team-high two and a half through the first three contests?
“It was great to see,” running back Derrick Henry, who remained as steady and punishing as ever with 113 rushing yards and another 31 through the air, said. “That just shows their preparation throughout the week, coming out there and stepping in and making plays when we needed them. All the credit goes to them.”
Heading into Sunday’s contest, Westbrook-Ikhine, who made the Titans as an undrafted free agent last season, had five career catches for 49 yards. But with A.J. Brown out of the contest for the final three-plus quarters with a hamstring injury, Jones sidelined for reasons that were less clear (more on that later), and Chester Rogers responsible for a first-half interception, the Titans were desperate for help in the passing game.
It was Westbrook-Ikhine who took a quick slant from Tannehill and cruised 18 yards for a touchdowns that put the Titans up 14-7 midway through the second quarter. It was Westbrook-Ikhine who drew a 30-yard pass-interference penalty early in the fourth quarter, one that led to the final touchdown. And it was Westbrook-Ikhine who came through with a critical 13-yard catch one possession later, moving the offense into Indianapolis territory on a drive that eventually produced the game-clinching field goal.
It also was Westbrook-Ikhine who lost a fumble in the red zone at the end of a 13-yard reception in the third quarter. But the good far outweighed the bad as his 53 receiving yards topped his career total prior to the contest.
“It was huge,” Westbrook-Ikhine said. “It’s what we preach all the time. It’s our ‘Next man’ mentality. We say in the locker room, ‘You might not wake up tomorrow and have the opportunity to go make plays, so make the most of it.’”
Adeniyi’s contributions on defense have been just as surprising as were Westbrook-Ikhine’s accomplishments against the Colts. Consider that in three seasons with Pittsburgh, Adeniyi only played a total of 226 defensive snaps. He wasn’t needed as a pass-rusher, not with the kind of linebackers the Steelers routinely had getting after the quarterback.
The Titans signed him primarily as a special-team standout.
But there was Adeniyi near the end of the first half, taking down gimpy Colts quarterback Carson Wentz for a six-yard loss and forcing Indianapolis to burn a time out. There was Adeniyi in the third quarter, following up a Harold Landry hit by burying Wentz for a half-sack – on a third-and-10. Adeniyi actually took down Wentz again early in the fourth quarter, but the sack was nullified when Chris Jackson was flagged for pass interference. He did it all on a day when Dupree was in uniform but only was available as an emergency option.
So how did the special-teams specialist transform himself into a bona fide pass rusher?
“I came here, and they told me to create a role for myself,” Adeniyi, who signed for $1 million – or $81.5 million less than Dupree – during the offseason, said. “They brought me here for special teams, so that’s what I focus on. But Bud was down today, so guys had to step up … Vrabel said today, `I don’t care where (guys) come from as long as you produce, and that’s what you got to do.’”
Natural as it is to celebrate the accomplishments of underdogs like Westbrook-Ikhine and Adeniyi, there also has to be some level of concern that – with the game on the line – Dupree and Jones were standing next to one another on the sideline watching the contest.
Dupree played 48 snaps in Week One, 39 snaps in Week Two. He recorded two tackles, four quarterback pressures and zero sacks in those games. But Dupree hasn’t had a full practice since the first week of the season, still battling back from the ACL surgery he underwent last December. Last week, Dupree sat out two practices and was limited in the third.
It was expected that Dupree would need time to return to full strength, but it’s hard to imagine that sitting out Week 3 was part of the plan.
Jones’ situation is even murkier. He caught three first-half passes for 47 yards, including a 25-yard reception that fueled the Titans’ second scoring drive. But the seven-time Pro Bowler seldom was seen in the second half, and his day was done by the fourth quarter, when Westbrook-Ikhine and rookie Racey McMath got the bulk of snaps at receiver.
“Again, we’ve been through these with players and their health,” Vrabel said. “Trying to manage the season, the way the game was going, we felt it was best to do.”
However, it also sounded as if Vrabel might be disappointed in Jones’ run-blocking, something the coach emphasizes a great deal – especially because of the Titans’ ground-and-pound rushing attack.
“I think as this (game) played out, we tried to manage where (Jones) is at and understand the type of game we thought the end of the game was going to be,” Vrabel said. “Those (receivers that were in the game) were going in there trying to dig safeties out.”
So, does that mean Vrabel benched a seven-time Pro Bowl receiver because he wasn’t helping enough in the run game? Or does it mean that Jones – like Dupree – is going to have ups and downs on the way to returning to full health?
As of now, Titans fans should applaud the work of the lesser names like Westbrook-Ikhine and Adeniyi, whose contributions were huge in pushing the team into first place in the AFC South.
But it’s hard to push aside the angst about those who should be leading the way – like Jones and Dupree – as the season nears the end of the first quarter.