By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – September 30, 2018)
Looking back three Sundays ago, who saw this coming? If you say, “I did,” you’re either the biggest homer on the planet or you’re kidding yourself. Miami was disastrous with the injuries and the delays and the mistakes and letting a winnable game go by the wayside. Perusing the schedule going forward made the season outlook seem ominous to say the least, especially with a rookie head coach patrolling the sidelines.
But a funny thing happened on the way to 0-4 didn’t it?
It morphed into 3-1.
Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from the Titans thrilling 26-23 grit-filled overtime victory over the defending World Champion Philadelphia Eagles in Nashville.
BATTLE-TESTED LAFLEUR GETTING SOME OF HIS ARSENAL BACK
This is often an up-and-down league, and certainly we’ll see plenty to dislike given enough time, but right now, offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is showing himself to be the right selection for that job. His play calling was far more aggressive today, showing he believed Marcus Mariota’s arm was back to form and the team had trust in both Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, among others.
LaFleur didn’t play conservatively against the Jim Schwartz defense, instead challenging them to stop the Titans PASSING attack. He also finally gave us some 21 personnel looks, where we got to see both Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis on the field together, something many have anticipated since Lewis was acquired this summer. The Titans couldn’t run the ball at all, but once LaFleur realized it, he didn’t continue that brand of futility. He found ways to get Dion involved as a pass-catcher and a perfect safety valve for Mariota.
And we FINALLY saw the screen to Lewis we all expect to be highly useful and effective in this offense. It happened in overtime on yet another fourth down conversion during that final drive of the game.
Henry didn’t do much at all, but because of his style, that was likely to be the case against Philly’s talented front. Still, the concepts and the various looks, especially the quality and quantity of pre-snap motion and play action, were exactly what you want to see from this team. The NFL has become THAT kind of game, and LaFleur understands it.
MARIOTA MADE JUST ONE REAL MISTAKE ALL DAY…OKAY TWO
8 made a horrible throw in the final minute of the first half that was intercepted by Avonte Maddox. Davis ran one way, the ball went the other, but it was on Marcus. I have no idea what he was looking at or where he was aiming on that play, but the defense held the Eagles to a field goal on the ensuing series. Other than that scar, however, Mariota played one of the better games of his career, thriving in the LaFleur offense and connecting with six different receivers. All in all he finished 30-43 for 344 yards, two touchdowns, and the one errant miscue.
He also beat the World Champs. And he might have actually played a bit better than Carson Wentz in the process.
It would have been seven receivers, but Jonnu Smith inexcusably dropped a third down pass in the first quarter that would have kept an early drive alive. Marcus ran for a touchdown as he saw enough open grass in front of him on 2nd and Goal from the 2. With the exception of the INT, which was no doubt a bad one, he played within himself and looked healthy and hungry.
The one other mistake was missing Tajae Sharpe for the game winning TD in the final seconds of overtime. He had him and he just put it too far in front of him. But, he found Corey Davis a few seconds later, so I’ma let him slide on that one. Fair?
You can argue he underthrew Taywan Taylor on a deep route in the first half as well, and it definitely appeared he was a half second to a full second late, plus put too much air underneath the ball, but Taylor still had an opportunity to make the catch, even while being interfered with on a questionable no-call.
THE DROPS, OH MY THE DROPS
Corey Davis dropped a pass early (but played an amazing game), Jonnu Smith dropped a first down pass early, Taywan Taylor dropped one, maybe two if you count the DPI play (which I don’t), and then came Darius Jennings bobbling and dropping the overtime bomb from Marcus Mariota, which was perfectly thrown and would have put Tennessee in the red zone for the potential winning score at that point.
Mariota, even with the one INT and being a little off on the deep ball to Taylor, was largely dealing from the QB spot on Sunday against the Eagles. He was looking through his progressions and giving his guys a chance to make plays. But here’s the rub…
…These guys have GOT to make those plays. Good teams don’t botch these things. The Titans WR group must be more consistent. Mariota dealt with three drops last week in the close shave over Jacksonville as well. It’s got to be better. Simple as that. Your QB is doing his job, so you’ve got to be there for him.
HAROLD LANDRY IS A S-T-U-D IN THE MAKING
Every week, he gets better. The Titans made the move to jump from 57 to 41 in this year’s NFL Draft to go get Harold Landry out of Boston College. Some experts had him pegged as a 20-30 on their rankings, and Jon Robinson decided he was worth what it cost to grab him in the infancy of the second round.
It’s certainly too early to say for CERTAIN, but it sure as heck looks like Robinson knew exactly what he was doing.
Harold Landry is a football player folks. He’s a gamer. He has the skills, especially with Dean Pees’ clever blitzing schemes, to change a game as he alters what an opposing quarterback can do against the rest of his teammates. Four tackles in regulation on Sunday and he sacked Carson Wentz on another beautiful bend move, a technique at which he’s already adept at the NFL level.
I could also have included Jayon Brown in this takeaway as well, as the 2017 fifth rounder is starting to turn into a potential force himself. These two young men are the future, and that’s without Rashaan Evans being able to do much due to his offseason health concerns.
TITANS SECONDARY STRUGGLES WITH THE LETTER “Z”… WENTZ AND ERTZ
No question hampered by the injuries to both Wesley Woodyard (arguably the most consistent Titan of the season, alongside Jurrell Casey and Brett Kern) and Kenny Vaccaro, Carson Wentz was able to distribute the ball early and often. He was chased around and the Titans did a good job of not giving him a clean pocket, but what makes the Eagles quarterback so special is he’s even BETTER when he’s under duress, especially when chased and forced to throw on the run. He’s a terrific athlete at the position, and he’s poised and intelligent to boot.
Malcolm Butler was beaten deep for a 56-yard touchdown to former Vanderbilt Commodore, Jordan Matthews in the first half. He’s been beaten four times this season, usually because he’s slow at the snap and has to catch up, which he generally does, but he’s behind the eight ball before he starts.
In overtime, the Eagles finally found some running lanes. The Titans did a good job for the first four quarters in keeping Jay Ajayi and company under wraps, just as the Eagles did to the Titans, but just as LaFleur abandoned the run to some extent, Doug Pederson and Philly did something similar. Abandon might be too strong a word, but this was very much a passing game for the most part, with 100 yard receivers on both sides. TE Zach Ertz makes the Eagles offense go, and increasingly Dallas Goedert will do the same on the other side. Those two together are going to be fun to watch.
Wentz was 33-50 overall on the day for 348 and two touchdowns. He didn’t make the big mistake at any point, never throwing one to the opposing jersey. He was sacked four times, but played well.
IF HEALTHY, COREY DAVIS LOOKS LIKE HE’S GOT “IT”
Yeah he dropped one and yeah we’ve seen some miscommunication in multiple games between 84 and 8, but they also haven’t actually gotten to play with one another very much since Davis was drafted number five overall in 2017. What we saw on Sunday against the defending champs was 13 targets to WR1, 9 catches for 161 yards and the game winning TD. He was physical and bullied the Eagles secondary, and his route running created the necessary space for Mariota to fit the pigskin inside the not-so-tight windows and keep drives alive.
With Taylor starting to emerge and Sharpe making some plays, the one problem other than the aforementioned drops is the lack of TE production sans Delanie Walker. Jonnu Smith wasn’t ready to be the starting TE without 82 on the opposite side of that line in 12 personnel. But, Corey Davis seems to be vastly and rapidly improving and becoming more formidable by the week.
When you take a WR that high in the draft, he’d better be a stud. It’s a huge risk in this day and age, with only RB being more “hmmm”-worthy in the new brand of NFL football. You have to have a WR, but so few of them end up living up to that level of hype. Davis has had health issues and he’s dealt with some grumbles from the fan base, but you can’t hate what you saw today. This was the performance a top five pick SHOULD give you in a big game.
It’s incredible. Vrabel, LaFleur, Pees, and the players they’re working with are 3 and freaking 1 after losing Delanie Walker in Week 1, dealing with Taylor Lewan’s concussion and Jack Conklin’s absence (among others) Marcus Mariota’s ulnar nerve, multiple bang-ups to Adoree Jackson, no Wesley Woodyard or Kenny Vaccaro in the second half… and I’ll stop there, but could keep going.
3-1 and the Titans have gotten through the toughest stretch of their schedule, with Buffalo, Baltimore, and the London showdown with the Chargers before the bye. All three of those are winnable games, especially with Joey Bosa out for England. This is impressive, no matter how you slice it. And against Philly, with a healthy Mariota, LaFleur finally got a chance to show some more of what he’s got.
The Titans are 2-0 in division and 3-1 overall, with three consecutive wins over the Texans, the Jaguars, and the Eagles. You’ll take it all day long. This was a huge win. Momentum in Nashville? Absolutely.