By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – December 23, 2018)
Some wondered where this piece was last night, but it didn’t make sense to write something that could be rendered outdated or obsolete within 24 hours due to results of other games. So, now that we KNOW quite a bit more, let’s talk about what happened yesterday and what it means for the regular season finale against the Indianapolis Colts.
That game…is relatively big.
Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from 25-16 and 9-6 vs 9-6.
UGLY, BUT WHO CARES?
Sometimes you have to win ugly in the NFL, and at some point, nearly every team in the league has done it. Sure, you’d rather it not happen against a journeyman QB who has been with his current team for 17 days, but that squad still had NFC Playoff hopes of its own, and they showed up to win the game. 25-16 doesn’t adequately illustrate how close the contest was, and in actuality, the Redskins had control far more often than any Titans fan could have been comfortable watching.
This wasn’t a banner day, and it many respects it duplicated the 26-22 Jets debacle, all the way down to the go-ahead score coming in the fourth quarter. Here, there was no Marcus Mariota, and Blaine Gabbert, who I’ve crushed at times, did his job as a backup quarterback and made just enough plays to get the job done.
The defense had trouble on a consistent basis, but still were much more bend, but not break than “shatter into a thousand pieces on the floor.” It was a tough, nasty, just barely win, but it was a win. That’s all Tennessee had to do. Win. And now they have to win one more.
I raised the ire of some Titans fans last night when I tweeted during the game that should Marcus Mariota turn out to be substantially injured again, “don’t pay him.” I stand by it. Some scolded me and claimed it’s ridiculous to call him injury prone. It’s ridiculous NOT to folks, and I didn’t actually go there. I also made sure to say he wasn’t soft, he’s just taken a lot of hits and he’s inconsistent at getting the ball out of his hands to avoid contact.
You can blame the offensive line all you want, but the fact is, quarterbacks do get hit. Every single time Mariota hits the ground, you can’t tell me you’re not terrified he won’t get up. He can’t be a franchise quarterback if he can’t finish seasons or multiple games in every pro season he’s played in thus far in the NFL. I get it, you like him, and he shows so much on the field that makes you think he’s special.
He’s got special talent, but so did Grant Hill and Anfernee Hardaway, and neither of them came close to living up to their potential because their body simply wouldn’t cooperate. Marcus has had two stingers in two months and the ulnar nerve, and we all recall the history before that. The Colts game is the biggest game in a decade of Titans football at least, and as of right now, no one knows if he can even play in it.
Also, he hasn’t done much of note in a MONTH of game action. He had a fourth quarter comeback against the Jets, then rode Derrick Henry and the defense to the next two (now three) victories. Be in the tank for him, but recognize that’s what you’re doing. Healthy he can be the guy, but at some point, a player is who he is. Without him, the Titans chances on Sunday are incredibly slim.
The Titans won 25-16, largely because the defense didn’t give up multiple touchdowns and kept the offense in the game. Derrick Henry had seven carries for 27 yards in the first half. Matt LaFleur had an awful day, with the exception of the opening drive and a few scattered series’ here and there late in the game.
Henry finished with 84 yards on 21 carries. So he ends up with a good number, but why the Titans aren’t pounding the rock in the first half makes no sense. 22 is the key to opening up the play-action passing game, which Mariota thrives in, and it also helps in pass pro as the defense sells out for the run and enables the quarterback to have some time.
Need evidence of it? How about the MyCole Pruitt touchdown from Blaine Gabbert?
Every red jersey followed Henry, who had carried the load on the drive outside of the excellent 35 yard pass to Taywan Taylor. On the biggest hit Mariota took, Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports mentioned it was Henry that blew the block and got his quarterback demolished, positing that as the reason the Titans weren’t going to him as much as they otherwise should. That’s a national take from someone who hasn’t watched this team.
They didn’t go to Henry because Matt LaFleur is suspect as an OC. He’s someone who has a propensity to want people to think he’s smarter than they are, and he outthinks himself. It’s a no-brainer to keep feeding Henry and letting him eat. Once he started getting consistent carries in the second half, the Titans offense woke up from its funk…and won the game.
The injuries on this Titans team have been unreal, only surpassed by those of the team Tennessee matched up with on Saturday afternoon. In addition to Marcus Mariota’s second stinger, and my suspicion is he’ll play (but if he can’t throw, that’s untenable), Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey may have played his last down of the season. Rashaan Evans was injured as well, but he looks to be okay, which is good, because the Titans need him to try and stop Marlon Mack on Sunday Night Football.
Without Casey, the Titans lose their anchor up front and the best player on the team, not to mention the most crucial piece to the all-important pass rush. When factoring in all the guys that either already aren’t, or might not be available to play against Indy, it’s pretty impressive that the Titans are 9-6. As unlucky as they’ve been in some ways, this slate of must-win games featured opponents that had either mentally checked out, were inferior, or had nothing to play for, which certainly helped matters.
Perhaps Casey isn’t as banged up as initially feared, but Paul Kuharsky reported following the game the Titans are preparing to play Week 17 and any possible playoff games without Casey’s services. Recall Jurrell also left early against the New York Giants due to a knee issue. He’s been bitten by the injury bug multiple times this season.
MY BIGGEST CONCERN
The Tennessee Titans have won four in a row, but they’ll have to make it five if they want a CHANCE to win six in a row on Wildcard Weekend. In that four game stretch, the Titans have escaped Josh McCown, soundly beaten Cody Kessler, shut out what’s left of Eli Manning (in horrific weather to boot), and outlasted Josh Johnson.
Not exactly a murderer’s row.
What’s bothersome is the Titans secondary feasting on bad quarterbacks and substandard offenses throughout this stretch. Jets, Jags, Giants (minus Odell), Redskins. The last two games Mike Vrabel’s football team lost were division matchups in Houston and in Indianapolis, against two stud QBs in Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck.
Titans vs. Colts (11/18): Andrew Luck: 23/29, 297 yards, 3 TD, 96 QBR (Mariota suffered his first stinger in this game, and Gabbert was 11/16, but the Titans were CRUSHED 38-10).
Titans vs. Texans (11/25): Deshaun Watson: 19/24, 210 yards, 2 TD; 9 carries, 70 yards, TD, 90.1 QBR (Mariota was terrific in this game, but the Titans defense struggled for a second consecutive game – particularly against the deep ball. 34-17 loss).
It isn’t that the Titans can’t contain Andrew Luck, or a quarterback of his caliber. It’s that they haven’t had to lately, so they’re facing a guy that can light it up…without “practice” or battle testing. The last time they faced him, he buried them. The Titans haven’t faced Brees, Mahomes, Wilson, Goff, Roethlisberger, Mayfield, Cousins, Rodgers, Ryan, or even Cam Newton this year.
It means they have to step up their play to a huge degree compared to what they’ve seen for a month (or 3/4 of the season) and that worries me.
THE LAST WORD IS – SIX
The sixth takeaway is the number six, which works both for Brett Kern, who continued his stellar play and provided an enormous assist in field position to the Titans against the Redskins, but it also works for the number of losses the Titans currently have…and must still have next Monday morning.
It’s that simple. Andrew Luck is 10-0 against the Titans, and if he goes to 11-0, it’s time to look to the NFL Draft. If he’s 10-1, there’s football to be played, courtesy of Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, some really questionable PI calls in New Orleans, and Sheldon Rankins ripping the ball away from Juju Smith Schuster.
This is what you want. Even with the losses to the Dolphins and Bills and the near miss against the Chargers, the Titans now control their own destiny again. Win and you travel somewhere a week later for another game…unless Houston loses, and then things get even more bonkers. Everybody’s record resets to 0-0, and the NFL appears wide open right now. Getting a shot this year feels a little more meaningful than in others, because of the flaws of every playoff team.
The Colts barely edged out a game Giants team on Sunday, but they throttled the NFC East Champion Dallas Cowboys 23-0 one week ago and have won nine of their last ten games. The defense is stout, the OL is keeping Luck’s uniform clean, Marlon Mack is running it, and 12 is gunning it all over the yard.
If the Titans are to win, they’ll have to avoid the minor mistakes, keep up the streak of not killing themselves with penalties, and they’re going to have to commit to Derrick Henry early in the game to open up the play action and keep the Indy offense on the sidelines. A national television audience will be watching this play-in playoff game, and it’s likely to be a raucous, chilly sellout at Nissan Stadium.
The Titans can win it. The news on Mariota on Casey will be immense, but regardless, there’s 60 minutes of football to play. If the home team can end Andrew’s Lucky streak, there’s more Tennessee pigskin to enjoy. How will 9-7 be perceived if it doesn’t go Vrabel’s way? Will fans see it as a success considering everything the team has dealt with, a new rookie head coach and offensive coordinator, and still having a shot in Week 17 to play your way into the postseason? Or will it be a huge disappointment with a lingering effect?
Hopefully, that’s a question that will be rendered moot seven days from now.
I’m @JMartZone. Merry Christmas! Al…Cris…we’ll see ya on Sunday.