NASHVILLE – So, if you’re a Tennessee Titans fan wondering just how excited you should feel about Sunday’s 20-0 shutout over Jacksonville, that’s understandable.
Jacksonville is one God-awful football team.
Even before the Jags’ spectacularly brutal offensive performance in Nissan Stadium, Jacksonville had been swirling around the toilet bowl for much of this season. They’d lost four straight games, five of their last six and 10 of 12 overall this season coming into this contest. They’ve now scored 10 or fewer points in five of their last seven, a mind-blowing statistic in today’s offense-oriented NFL.
But before we throw too big a wet blanket on Tennessee’s first shutout victory since December of 2018, let’s think back to two games this season – the ones against the Jets and Texans.
The Titans were favored by a touchdown on the road in Week 4 at New York, and by a whopping 10 at home against Houston in Week 11. Cakewalks, right? Needless to say, the Titans fell flat on both occasions. The Jets’ 27-24 overtime win was one of just three they’ve totaled all season while the Texans’ 22-13 triumph was one of just two they’ve posted in 2021.
So, if we’ve hammered the Titans (9-4) this season for losing to inferior teams – and we certainly have – then let’s give them some credit for taking care of business as they should have against the Jaguars (2-11).
There was obviously more to like about the Titans’ defensive performance than the other side of the ball:
• Most impressive – even more so than picking off mistake-prone quarterback Trevor Lawrence four times – was the ability to stifle the Jaguars’ running game. Jacksonville ran all over the Titans in Week 5, piling up 198 yards on the ground. The run game was one of their few strengths entering this contest with an average of 4.74 yards per carry, the fourth-best figure in the NFL.
But the Titans’ defense – despite playing without starting nose tackle Teair Tart – smothered Jacksonville’s ground game. James Robinson, who burned the Titans for 149 yards on 18 carries in Week 5, was held to four yards – four – on six carries. That included a five-yard run, meaning Robinson’s other five carries went for a combined minus one yard. Granted, the Jaguars rushed just eight times overall, but part of the reason for that is because the Titans gave Jacksonville no belief that the run game would work.
“I think seeing some quotes and stuff earlier in the week about (Jaguars coach) Urban Meyer saying they feel like they were able to run the ball, so (they) felt pretty good going into the game,” safety Kevin Byard said. "We went out there and handled our business, handled the keys we knew we were going to have to to win, which was stopping the run." safety Kevin Byard said.
• It’s impossible to overlook the four interceptions, of course, especially considering that total came with one starting cornerback (Jackrabbit Jenkins) injured, replaced by another (Buster Skrine) who was playing just his second game for the Titans. Tennessee hadn’t posted a single interception over the past three games and hadn’t produced a takeaway of any kind for the past two. But the Titans baffled Lawrence, totaling their most interceptions in a single contest since 2012. Skrine snared one, along with Kristian Fulton, Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown.
Those interceptions were a huge reason Jacksonville crossed midfield just four times, and never took a snap in the Titans’ red zone.
The plus-4 finish on the turnover front was quite a change from the last two games – both losses – when the Titans finished minus nine.
“It was great,” Brown said. “(Titans coach Mike Vrabel) challenged us to get the ball out. I had told you earlier this week that turnovers would come in bunches, and we got bunches today. It was a great week of practice. Great execution on our side of the ball today. When the plays came, guys made them.”
• The Titans never let Lawrence get comfortable. Denico Autry sacked Lawrence on the Jaguars’ first play from scrimmage, and Harold Landry added another just five plays later. The Titans got just one more sack in the contest, but the three were still more than in their last two games combined. Lawrence also spent plenty of time running from pressure, which contributed to the interceptions he tossed around like so much confetti.
“You put Lawrence under pressure, and he makes mistakes. And you can only throw it out of bounds so many times,” Vrabel said. “It's about the ability to be able to affect the quarterback and make them make bad decisions.”
Can you put together a similar laundry list of superlatives for the Titans’ offense against the Jaguars? No, you cannot. It simply was not an overwhelming performance.
On the plus side, the Titans topped 100 yards in the run game for the third straight week after they failed to hit triple-digits in the three games prior to that. But an average of just just three yards per carry took a little shine off that stat.
On the plus side, quarterback Ryan Tannehill – who’d thrown five interceptions over the past two games – did not throw any. But the return of Julio Jones didn’t make much of an impact as the seven-time Pro Bowler caught four passes for 33 yards.
There were also concerns about pass protection. Tannehill was sacked four times, the most the Titans had allowed since that Week 4 loss to the Jets.
And finally, the offense didn’t do its part to reward the defense. The four interceptions led to just three points.
“Obviously we wanted to score and wanted to extend that lead and get going a little bit more,” Tannehill said. “I had a couple opportunities down in the red zone … (and we) kicked field goals or attempted field goals. Want to be able to put those drives in the end zone.”
But in the spirit of the holiday season, let’s concentrate more on giving praise than picking out flaws following the victory.
Again, think how low the Titans stooped to play to the level of two opponents earlier this season, losing to both the Jets and the Texans. A similar loss to Jacksonville on Sunday would have been a massive blow to the confidence of a team that’s all but sewn up a playoff berth with four games left in the season.
Instead, we pat the Titans on the back for a workmanlike performance in what could have been a trap game and give them credit for recording just the seventh shutout in the NFL this season. From scoring a touchdown on their opening drive and burying Lawrence twice on the Jags’ first possession, the Titans never gave Jacksonville a reason to believe.
Was the win a thing of beauty? Hardly.
But it’s a heck of a lot easier to feel good about an ugly win than it is an embarrassing upset loss.