It’s not a Tennessee Titans win if it isn’t ugly or difficult — or both, as we’ve learned this season.
Safety Kevin Byard said the defense takes pride in picking up the slack for the offense. That was exactly the story Sunday, when they prevented a disastrous loss, pulling out a 20-16 victory over the Indianapolis Colts with a relentless pass rush that delivered eight sacks and stingy play in the red zone.
“We have no problem putting the team on our backs,” Byard said. “We have to be the best defense to win ball games. We were (Sunday) and I feel like we have to continue to do that to win ball games.”
Marcus Mariota and the Titans offense played poorly for more than three quarters. A non-existent running game and struggling offensive line put all the pressure on Mariota, who followed his worst NFL game at Pittsburgh with a two-interception day at Indianapolis.
But the Titans got their first ever win at Lucas Oil Stadium and their first road win against Colts since 2007.
So who are the Titans? They’re a 7-4 team, likely headed to the playoffs if they don’t combust in their final five games, which is still a possibility. They would have taken this record if given the opportunity to start the season, but the method of getting there has been less than impressive. Reaching the playoffs was always goal No. 1, and they’re on their way, but then what?
It’s hard to answer why Mariota, a rising third-year quarterback, has hit the worst slump of his career. His 12 interceptions are already a career-high, compared to just nine passing touchdowns.
Mariota has eight interceptions in his past four games after throwing just four in his first six games. Sunday was his fourth straight game with an interception, matching a career-long streak. After the game, Mariota took complete ownership of the interceptions, calling them “poor throws.”
Left tackle Taylor Lewan and tight end Delanie Walker agreed that type of play won’t do well against playoff teams in January.
“We have to have a sense of urgency in the beginning,” Lewan said. “We can’t make those mistakes in the future. It’ll come back to bite us like it did in Pittsburgh.”
But Mariota led his fourth game-winning comeback of the season by trusting a run game that had just 3 yards on 13 carries after three quarters. Derrick Henry got 52 of the Titans’ 77 yards on six touches, showing his physicality and power while the Colts were worn down. DeMarco Murray got the go-ahead touchdown on the goal line.
Tennessee’s offensive line was happy that offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie trusted them to keep running the ball. That patience, along with Robiskie chewing them out at halftime, paid off on that last drive.
“We’re one of them teams that finish,” Walker said. “We may start slow, but we finish strong.”
The Titans showed Sunday they can get enough on defense and, eventually, from Henry (13 carries, 79 yards) to carry the offense to the playoffs, but we’ll have to see Mariota and the overall run game get out of their slumps to make any noise when they get there.
The game turned on a Marlon Mack dropped pitch from Jacoby Brissett when the Colts were up 16-6. Byard scooped it up for his eighth takeaway of the season, and one play later Mariota hit Delanie Walker for a touchdown. Walker did a CPR celebration after what was his first touchdown of the season, it represented the revival the Titans needed in the second half to get the win.
DaQuan Jones, Erik Walden, Brian Orakpo, Jurrell Casey and the rest of the Titans’ front-seven were vicious up front, beating up the Colts offensive line. Holding the Colts to three field goals in the red zone, instead of touchdowns, made all the difference.
The Titans will have to figure out soon if this is just who they are, or if they can turn things around to become more than just a one-and-done playoff squad.