No one can say that things have not been exciting at Nissan Stadium this season.
The Tennessee Titans reached the halfway point of the 2019 season Sunday with a 27-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game that featured lead changes in the first, third and fourth quarters. A.J. Brown’s 8-yard touchdown reception with 6:55 to play swung things the Titans’ way for good.
It was Tennessee’s fourth home game of the season and all four have been decided by seven points or fewer (three by four points or fewer). By comparison, the final margin in the four road games (two wins, two losses) was 13 points or more.
“We knew what type of game this was going to be,” wide receiver Tajaé Sharpe said. “… We were aware of everything we were going to see.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
For the second week in row the defense preserved the victory with some fourth-quarter heroics. Jurrell Casey and Kenny Vaccaro led the charge when the Buccaneers – down by four – went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Tennessee 36 coming out of the two-minute warning. Running back Peyton Barber was stopped for a loss of one yard. Tampa Bay got the ball back with 42 seconds to play, but the desperation drive ended with a Logan Ryan interception with 18 seconds remaining.
Also, for the second week in a row coach Mike Vrabel made a head-scratching decision. This time he called for a fake field goal with 3:45 to play. Rather than have Cody Parkey attempt a 46-yard field goal that would have extended the lead to seven points. Brett Kern ran to the left side but was stopped for no gain (he took a big hit to boot), and the Buccaneers had hope.
The Titans actually trailed at the end of the third quarter – it was 23-20 – but took the lead on Brown’s touchdown, which turned out to be the only points of the fourth quarter.
WHY IT HAPPENED
The defense did more than deliver at the end. It set up the offense with a short field twice in the first quarter. Tampa Bay’s second offensive series ended with a fumble recovery at the Buccaneers’ 10-yard line and the fourth ended with an interception, which Malcolm Butler returned to the 6. Tennessee’s offense scored touchdowns after each and the 14 first-quarter points matched a season-high.
What the defense did not do well was cover Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans, who finished with 11 receptions for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Evans actually accounted for 82 yards (on four receptions) on a 72-yard touchdown drive that ended on his 9-yard reception with 15 seconds to play in the first half. Tampa’s first play of the third quarter was a 43-yard completion to Evans, who scored on a 2-yard catch three plays later. At that point, the Titans had no choice but to double-cover him.
Give the defense credit for holding the Buccaneers to field goals throughout most of the first half.
Most of the day the Tennessee offense struggled to extend drives. That changed early in the fourth quarter when that unit went 90 yards in 12 plays capped by Brown’s touchdown catch. It was the longest touchdown drive of the season, in terms of yards, and to complete it the Titans overcame a holding penalty that negated a 42-yard Derrick Henry run.
“(Sunday) was ugly at times,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “Defense played their tails off, really came away with the huge takeaways, put us in great position. Offense was able to make the plays to capitalize, to get in the end zone once we got down there.”
WHO MADE IT HAPPEN
In addition to his interception at the end, Ryan had a sack a forced fumble and was credited with eight tackles, which ranked second on the team. It was the second time this season he had a sack and in interception in the same game (he thought he had another interception, but video review revealed he did not catch the ball cleanly). He now has three and a half sacks, second on the team and half a sack short of his career-high set in 2018.
Tight end Jonnu Smith set a career-high with 78 receiving yards, matched his career-best with six receptions and scored the Titans’ first touchdown. His performance was critical with Delanie Walker sidelined by an ankle injury.
Casey was his typically disruptive self. In addition to his stop on the critical fourth-down play, he was the only member of Tennessee’s first seven to register a quarterback hit – and he had two.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
The Titans start the second half of the season with a trip to Carolina and a chance to extend its winning streak against NFC opponents. They are 6-0 under Vrabel against non-conference competition, including 2-0 this season. The Panthers already have played two of the other three AFC South teams (Houston and Jacksonville) and won both. Somebody is going to come out of that one with an unfamiliar feeling.