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Winners and Losers from Titans 28, Cowboys 14

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The Titans offense broke out in prime time.

Tennessee Titans v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Prime time game on the road against one of the league’s most popular teams, the Titans found themselves in a huge hole early. After a long Cowboys drive resulted in a missed field goal, DeMarcus Lawrence beat Jack Conklin around the edge and stripped Marcus Mariota and Dallas recovered at the 15. A short touchdown pass to Amari Cooper a few plays later put Dallas up early. The Titans came back and fumbled again, this time on a botched handoff from Mariota to Dion Lewis. Once again, the Cowboys took over in Titans territory, but this time the defense bowed its neck and got a fantastic interception in the back of the endzone from Kevin Byard.

Byard took the ball directly to the star at midfield of AT&T Stadium and posed, reminiscent of Terrell Owens. From that moment on, the Titans looked like a different team. Tennessee outscored Dallas 28-7 down the stretch, snapping their three game losing streak and showing some offensive firepower that has been missing over the first half of the year. It’s a huge win and puts the Titans right back in the playoff race in the AFC. Here are the winners and losers.

Winners

Marcus Mariota

Mariota’s first game playing at what he termed “100%” was awfully impressive. He finished 21 of 29 for 240 yards and 2 touchdowns, adding another 32 yards and a touchdown on the ground. For the second straight game Mariota was ultra-effective on third downs, converting 11 of 14 attempts.

Mariota’s most impressive throw of the night was a strike down the seam to Darius Jennings on 3rd and 10 that eventually led to the team’s second touchdown of the night.

This is exactly the kind of throw that I’ve been wanting to see from Mariota this season. It’s aggressive, in to a tight window, and relies on his receiver to make a play for him. In short, it’s a trust throw. We’ve all seen him do this before so it’s not a matter of ability or accuracy, Mariota has this in him, it’s just a matter of mindset and it sure looked like a more aggressive Mariota tonight.

Kevin Byard

Byard had the massive, momentum swinging interception early that was his biggest play of the game, but he showed up several other times throughout the night in run support as well. Byard is truly a do-it-all safety and he’s becoming the emotional leader of this defense as well.

Some won’t like the move to go stand in the star — especially Cowboys fans — but I think the best defenses almost always carry themselves with that little bit of extra fire and that’s what this Titans defense is becoming. I truly believe his celebration helped inspire the surge from the team directly following it.

Dion Lewis

The most obvious adjustment from the bye week was that this is officially Dion Lewis’ backfield now. Lewis led the way with 19 carries to Derrick Henry’s 6. While he only managed 62 yards on the ground, he did a bunch of damage through the air, catching 4 passes for 60 yards and a touchdown.

The Titans kept recently added fullback Jalston Fowler inactive for this game, but they did use tight end Luke Stocker as a lead blocker frequently throughout the game. I would imagine that will become Fowler’s role as he gets up to speed. It seems like Matt LaFleur likes Dion Lewis running behind a fullback similar to the way Lewis was used during his most productive stint in New England.

My guess is that we see Lewis treated like a feature back moving forward with Henry coming in to give rest and pick up short yardage until they can use him as a closer in games that they’re leading late. For all of Henry’s talent, it’s hard to disagree with with this approach right now given the results we’ve seen this season.

Jayon Brown

I feel like you can pretty much pencil Brown in to the “winners” category every week. He seems to have at least one or two splash plays each game and tonight was no different. His strip sack of Dak Prescott early in the second half put the Titans in great field position.

The effort on this play is pretty special. He’s setting a pick for Jurrell Casey to try and free up the Titans best pass rusher, ends up falling over a blocking back, but regains his feet and strips Prescott to force the turnover. Great play by a guy who has really turned into a good NFL player in his second year out of UCLA.

Kenny Vaccaro

Vaccaro made his return to the starting lineup after sitting out the last three games with a dislocated elbow suffered early in the Eagles game. He was constantly around the ball in Dallas, finishing second on the team with 6 tackles and helping the Titans run defense hold the Cowboys to their lowest rushing total of the season.

Vaccaro has turned out to be a major bright spot for this team after signing late in the offseason when Johnathan Cyprien went down. Having him back with Byard on the back end of the Titans defense makes this team better.

Taywan Taylor, Darius Jennings, Jonnu Smith & Cameron Batson

This group had been pretty unpopular over the past two weeks as Titans fans pined for help at wide receiver and tight end at the trade deadline, but they all came up big on Monday night. Taylor had two big third down conversions on tough catches before leaving with what looked like an ankle or foot injury. We will have to track his injury this week leading up to the Patriots game.

Jennings and Batson both got plenty of snaps, especially after Taylor left, and both had big moments. Jennings had the big 36-yard grab up the seam highlighted above and Batson converted both of his catches for third down conversions as well, including this WR screen.

Smith picked up a pair of catches, one of which counted as his first touchdown of 2018 on a nice shovel pass from Mariota. Smith has looked like he’s settling down over the last couple weeks and he looked particularly good making this catch over the middle for a big gain.

Harold Landry & Brian Orakpo

After a slow start from the pass rush, the Titans got things cranked up in the second half, sacking Prescott 5 times down the stretch including one each from Orakpo and Landry. Orakpo’s was just a matter of chasing Prescott out of bounds, but it counts as his first sack of the year. It’s good to see him get one on the board even if it wasn’t terribly impressive.

Landry’s sack came just a few plays later as the Cowboys chipped him to slow down his edge rush, but the rookie just fought through inside of Cowboys right tackle La’el Collins to get to Prescott. It’s just Landry’s second of the year, but it feels like he should have several more.

Mike Vrabel, Dean Pees & Matt LaFleur

The coaching staff really deserves a ton of credit for this one. Vrabel had his team motivated and prepared coming off of the bye and it showed.

LaFleur called the best game of his Titans career and seems to be getting a better feel for Mariota week by week. The screen game started to bear some fruit and that’s something that can be a game changer for this offense if they can start getting chunk plays with those low risk throws. He was particularly effective in the red zone, going 4 for 5 on the night with touchdowns. My only gripe is that they still have yet to score from outside the red zone this year, but we did see more explosive plays from the offense in general.

Also, can I get a slow clap for not one but two QB sneaks during the game? The Titans learned from their short yardage mistakes in London and kept the ball on the ground for their 3rd and 4th and 1 tries with great success. If nothing else, this coaching staff has proven that they’re willing to adapt to what’s working and move away from what’s not working. It sounds simple, but watching Mike Mularkey try to smash that exotic square peg in to the proverbial round hole for two years, it’s not something I’ll take for granted from this group.

Pees’ defense deserves a massive amount of credit. They forced two turnovers on the night. One prevented a Cowboys score and the other led to a Titans touchdown. By holding the Cowboys to just 14 points, they moved in to first in the NFL in scoring defense. They’ll face their toughest test of the season next week, but the Titans defense hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in regulation since Week 1.

Losers

Malcolm Butler

That being said, there is a clear loser on the defensive side of the ball and it’s Malcolm Butler. He got beat on the first touchdown by Amari Cooper who ran a very nice whip route to get free on the goalline. That’s understandable. Cooper is a good route runner and if a receiver has time to run a double move at the goalline, it’s usually going to end poorly for the defense. Less understandable, was the touchdown Butler allowed before the half.

Allen Hurns roasted Butler here and it’s emblematic of his season as a whole — gambling to make a big play, but gets burned for it. At this point it’s far too predictable. Offenses are coming at Butler constantly and winning too often. I had hoped his excellent performance in London was going to be a sign of things to come, but it appears it was a mirage. Butler’s struggles continue to be one of the few blemishes on an otherwise spectacular defense.

Jack Conklin

Conklin had been playing at a pretty high level heading in to this game, but he was no match for the excellent DeMarcus Lawrence (few are), getting beat a couple times including this disastrous rep that led to a turnover.

Conklin would leave in the first half with what was reported to be a concussion which makes his availability on a short week very unlikely. However, the silver lining is that Dennis Kelly continues to be a solid backup tackle and the offense really kept right on clicking after Conklin’s exit. Dorial Green-Beckham for Dennis Kelly continues to be one of the most under the radar robberies of recent NFL trades.

Ryan Succop

Succop has mostly been an extremely reliable kicker during his time here, but he missed a 28-yard chip shot in this game. It was the second shortest miss of his 9-plus year NFL career and the shortest during his stint in Tennessee. It could have been a very painful miss if things had worked out differently too. The Titans were up 21-14, trying to go up two scores in the fourth quarter when his attempt clanged off the upright giving Dallas new life.