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Defense Batters, Befuddles Mahomes

The Tennessee Titans defense sacked the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback four times and kept him from directing a single touchdown drive.

NASHVILLE – After the last play of his long Sunday afternoon, Patrick Mahomes lay on the Nissan Stadium turf, looking up into the blue autumn sky.

Only seconds earlier, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback had taken yet another shot, wrapped up around the legs by defensive lineman Denico Autry and accidentally kneed in the helmet by defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons as he fell to the ground.

Wham, bam.

Mahomes eventually walked off the field under his own power, not so much hurt as – like the rest of his team – simply defeated. Half the fourth quarter remained at that point, but the Chiefs already were licking their wounds with the end of a 27-3 defeat, during which they were manhandled by a nasty Titans defense, not far off.

“I have full memory of the play,” Mahomes said after the contest. “You get hit pretty hard, sometimes you just want to lay there, and plus it was fourth down. I knew the game was at the end there, so it was a disappointing day and a disappointing way to end it.”

It was 21 months ago that these teams met in the AFC Championship, when the Chiefs earned a trip to the Super Bowl by scoring 28 straight points in a 35-24 victory. One of the last images of that frigid playoff contest was Mahomes dropping back in the pocket and waiting … and waiting … and waiting … for a receiver to spring free of coverage. He seemed to have an eternity to throw the ball on most occasions, which is why he eventually carved the Titans, completing 23-of-35 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns, posting a quarterback rating of 120.4.

Even when the Titans got after Mahomes in that contest, he found ways to remain productive, running eight times for 53 yards – a total that included a game-changing 27-yard touchdown scamper in the closing seconds of the first half.

Fast forward to Sunday, when Mahomes and his big guns – like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Mecole Hardman -- had to be salivating at the prospect of facing a Titans secondary that was without starting safety Amani Hooker, starting cornerback Kristian Fulton, and back-up cornerbacks Caleb Farley and Chris Jackson.

It didn’t take long for the Titans to knock the spit out of him.

That happened on Kansas City’s first possession when edge rusher Bud Dupree burst through the protection, threw Mahomes to the ground on third-and-seven and forcing a Chiefs punt from midfield. It was the first sack in a Titans uniform for Dupree, who signed a five-year, $82 million contract during the offseason.

Still recovering from the torn ACL, he suffered last December with Pittsburgh, Dupree has played in just four games this season. Even this past week, he managed one full practice. But he looked more impactful against the Chiefs than he had in any of his previous contests.

“Each week I feel like I am getting better and better,” Dupree said. “I just have to continue to get better in my strengthening each week. Trust the process, trust what the trainers are doing with me, don’t get too frustrated, and just know it is a marathon and not a sprint.”

A few possessions later – after a Rashaan Evans interception led to a Ryan Tannehill touchdown and a 24-0 Tennessee advantage – the Titans hounded Mahomes once more. He broke free of pressure and scrambled up the middle, only to be chased down by safety Kevin Byard, who purposefully hammered the football loose. Matthias Farley’s recovery set up a field goal that gave the Titans – incredibly – a 27-0 halftime advantage.

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“All the time I was running (toward Mahomes), I was seeing bad, poor ball security,” Byard said. “So, I was thinking I could get close enough to try and hammer it out. And honestly it is something I work on weekly, and finally an opportunity to hammer the ball out, make a play for the team.”

Just when the Chiefs looked like they might be trying to creep back into the contest, driving to the Tennessee 29-yard line late in the third quarter, the Titans’ ruthless pressure struck again. This time it was Autry dumping Mahomes for a 10-yard loss on third-and-11, forcing Kansas City to attempt a 57-yard field goal that missed.

For good measure, edge rusher Harold Landry dumped Mahomes on the Chiefs’ first fourth-quarter possession, helping stall another Kansas City drive.

“I feel like the back end was covering awesome and I feel like we were rushing relentlessly,” Landry said. “That was one of the keys of the game for us on defense was to rush relentless. Everyone just did their part and it worked out.”

Landy recorded his fifth sack in the last three games, which gives him 7.5 through seven contests. He was hardly a one-man show, though, as the defense’s four sacks overall were a season high. The Titans hit Mahomes nine times, led by Ola Adeniyi’s three.

Credit a makeshift secondary – that included starting cornerback Greg Mabin, freshly signed off Arizona’s practice squad last week – for forcing Mahomes to hold the ball longer than he wanted on occasion. But the reverse was true as well. The Titans’ ability to consistently get after Mahomes – who’d only been sacked 10 times in his first six games – helped a mixed bag of defensive backs.

Hard as it might be to believe – or maybe it’s not – the Titans’ 17 sacks in seven games are just two shy of the paltry 19 they totaled all last season.

“It’s incredible,” Byard said. “When I am back there playing deep, I am watching those (defensive-line stunts), watching (Autry, Landry and Simmons) and all those boys make plays,” Byard said. “It’s a great feeling. It’s the type of stuff you love to watch. I mean, obviously, you know, kind of the lack of pass rush we had last year … to see those guys go hunting, just hunting, obviously it’s a great feeling.”

When it was all over, the Mahomes-led offense – which entered the game second in overall yardage and fifth in scoring average – had taken it on the chin time and time again.

The Titans not only sacked Mahomes four times and forced the two turnovers, but they limited him to 20 completions in 35 attempts for 206 yards. His 62.3 rating was the lowest of his career.

The performance also marked the first time the Chiefs had been held without a touchdown since Mahomes took over as starter in 2018 and the first since Andy Reid became head coach in 2013. The last time the Chiefs hadn’t reached the end zone was Dec. 30, 2012, when Brady Quinn was quarterbacking the team.

“It is definitely an awesome accomplishment,” Landry said. “Mahomes is a great quarterback, and they are a great team. We are definitely going to celebrate this one tonight and then move on.”

Tennessee’s defense capped its day with just seconds left in the contest, when Matthias Farley caused a fumble that Evans recovered at the Tennessee 4-yard line.

On one sideline, the Titans roared in celebration, thrilled to keep the Chiefs out of the end zone for 60 minutes. On the other, a helmet-free Mahomes watched in dejection, looking more than a bit dazed and confused.