Titans Hang On to Beat Chargers: The Who, What, How and Why

David Boclair

The Tennessee Titans’ first two victories this season were by comfortable margins.

Not so this one. The Titans outlasted the Los Angeles Chargers 23-20 on Sunday at Nissan Stadium in a contest that remained very much in doubt until a goal-line stand by the defense in the final seconds.

It was not always pretty but it was a much-needed result for a team that had lost four of its previous five and felt compelled to change quarterbacks.

“Hope we don’t have to be in anymore situations like that,” linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “But at the end of the day, a win is a win. And we’ll take it.”

How it happened

The Titans (3-4) endured a wild final 40 seconds and came out on top when linebacker Wesley Woodyard forced a fumble and defensive lineman Jurrell Casey recovered at the goal line with 15 seconds to play. Of course, it took the third video review in a span of four plays for officials to sort out what happened. Two earlier reviews overturned touchdowns that would have given the Chargers the lead. Both determined that the runner was down at or near the 1-yard line. There also was a false start against the Chargers (2-5) negated by pass interference in the end zone by Malcolm Butler on the next snap.

A failed fourth down attempt by Tennessee’s offense set up the frenetic finish. With a three-point lead and 2:39 remaining, coach Mike Vrabel opted not to punt on fourth-and-1 from the Chargers’ 49. L.A. was out of timeouts and a first down effectively would have ended the game, but Tannehill was stopped for no gain on a quarterback sneak.

That provided an opportunity for the Chargers’ offense, which had a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on its previous possession.

The score was 10-10 through three quarters before things shifted into hyperdrive over the final 15 minutes. The Chargers, in particular, found another gear with 173 yards on 17 plays in the final period after they had 192 yards in the first three quarters combined.

Still, they ended up a yard short.

Why it happened

Ryan Tannehill, in his first start at quarterback for Tennessee, took advantage of a Chargers defense (particularly the secondary) decimated by injuries. Through the first five weeks, opponents had completed 73.5 percent of their passes against that unit. Tannehill connected on 23 of 29 (79.3 percent) throws for 312 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. It was his first 300-yard game in more than three years.

Vrabel once again opened himself up to second-guessing with the decision to go for it on fourth down rather than let punter Brett Kern try to pin the Chargers deep (his only two punts forced L.A. to start drives inside its own 10). Plus, Vrabel opted not to challenge the spot, which seemed like a reasonable gamble, after officials ruled that Tannehill had been stopped short on the play.

Tennessee’s defense – so reliable through the first six weeks – got pushed around a little more than usual. The Chargers took the lead with a 14-play, 94-yard drive that used up 7:37 of the second quarter. When they fell behind by 10, they ripped through that defense in short order, capped by running back Austin Ekeler’s 41-yard touchdown reception with 5:09 to play.

Of course, that turned out to be the last time L.A. scored.

Who made it happen

Woodyard made his first start of the season in place of the injured Jayon Brown and was credited with six tackles. He was the one Ekeler beat for the long touchdown reception but he made the biggest play of the day when he stripped Melvin Gordon on what turned out to be the Chargers’ final offensive play. Coaches and teammates pointed to his performance as an example of how to forget a mistake and move on to the next play.

Jeffery Simmons, the Titans’ first-round draft pick, made his NFL debut and was credited with four tackles, most among the team’s defensive linemen. He notched the Titans’ only sack and two of their four tackles for loss. His last stop was on the play that preceded Woodyard’s forced fumble, a no gain by Gordon on first-and-goal from the 1 with 34 seconds to play.

Wide receiver Corey Davis had his best game of the season with six catches for 90 yards and a touchdown. His performance included a 38-yard catch-and-run on third-and-1, which led to Tennessee’s final (game-winning) touchdown.

Dennis Kelly and Jamil Douglas, the Titans’ only two reserve offensive linemen, were at right tackle and right guard, respectively, throughout the second half after starters Jack Conklin and Nate Davis were injured. The offense actually performed better with those two in there.

What happens next

The Titans play a second straight home game (a first this season) when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

At the start of the season, it figured to be the second matchup between Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, the first two picks in the 2015 NFL Draft. In their only previous matchup, the 2015 opener, Mariota dominated and easily got the best of things.

Tannehill’s performance against the Chargers, though, ensured that Tennessee won’t change quarterbacks again anytime soon and Mariota will be a spectator in that one.

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