This was a game of runs. The Titans raced out to an early 14-0 lead in the first quarter, then saw the Saints score the next 24. The two teams then traded touchdowns the rest of the way with Tennessee ultimately coming up short after a ridiculous non-call of a clear unnecessary roughness penalty that knocked Kalif Raymond out and caused a fumble to set up the Saints final touchdown to put the game away.
Considering the fact that the Titans were playing arguably the best team in the NFC without Derrick Henry, Jeffery Simmons, Adam Humphries, or Adoree’ Jackson, it was a pretty good effort overall. There is some alternate universe out there where Jerome Boger’s crew doesn’t swallow their whistle, the Titans are awarded the catch plus the penalty and have the ball down 31-28 at the Saints 24 yard line with just under 4:00 left in the game. I’d like to live in that universe.
However, things didn’t break that way today and there is nothing Titans fans can do about it besides taking solace in the fact that a Jets win over the Steelers means that Tennessee can reach the postseason with a win over the Texans in Week 17. I already broke down the tiebreakers and various scenarios in play here if you’re interested.
Here are my winners and losers from Saints 38, Titans 28:
Derick Roberson: Winner
Prior to this game, Roberson — an undrafted rookie edge rusher out of Sam Houston State — had played exactly zero NFL snaps on defense. He’d gotten 7 special teams snaps against the Texans the week before, his first game active on an NFL roster, but hadn’t lined up on defense until today.
Sacking Drew Brees twice and giving an assist on a third sack that was ultimately credited to Jurrell Casey is a heck of a debut for a young guy. Brees had been sacked just nine times all season coming into this game so getting him on the ground twice is no small feat for anyone, much less a rookie making his debut as a pass rusher.
His first career sack was one of the best moves you’ll see as he used a leaping cross chop/rip combo that looked like it was straight out of the Cameron Wake pass rush playbook to beat an excellent right tackle in Ryan Ramczyk.
The Titans release of Sharif Finch to make room for Dalyn Dawkins on Saturday was a bit of a surprise, but Roberson might have just shown us why the team believed Finch was expendable. In just one game Roberson equaled Finch’s season long sack output.
We shouldn’t get too carried away just yet — it’s just one game — but the flashes with Roberson have always been there. He recorded 15 sacks at Sam Houston State last season, timed in the mid-4.5s at his pro day at 245 pounds, and provided some eye popping reps in both training camp and preseason (particularly the Bears game). If nothing else, the Titans have a high potential young pass rusher that just earned a longer look in the rotation and that’s very exciting.
Taylor Lewan: Loser
Lewan had strung together over a month’s worth of really strong outings before today, but he got embarrassed a couple times by Saints defenders as both a run blocker and a pass blocker. The Titans will need more from him next week than what they got today.
Tajae Sharpe: Winner
Sharpe led the Titans in receiving today while filling in for the injured Adam Humphries as the team’s primary slot receiver. He hauled in 5 catches for 69 yards and 2 touchdowns on the day, including this beautiful leaping grab in the back of the end zone.
Sharpe was big on third downs throughout as well. Definitely his best game of the season.
Kickoff Coverage Team: Losers
This was awful today and if you want my opinion, this is the primary reason the Titans lost this football game.
Let’s start with new kicker Greg Joseph. Tennessee didn’t attempt a field goal today, but Joseph hit all four extra point attempts. However, he also failed to force a single touchback on any of his five kickoffs. That’s a problem.
The Titans have struggled to force touchbacks all year so this isn’t really anything new, but Joseph was hitting the end zone at a nearly 70% clip last year in Cleveland so it’s pretty shocking to see him go 0 for 5 today.
The short kicks left the Titans kick cover team — without leader Daren Bates — to chase dynamic Pro Bowl return man Deonte Harris all over the field. Harris torched the Titans coverage unit for an average of 37.5 yards per return. Tennessee effectively spotted the Saints a first down and a half per drive on the 5 drives that were started with a Titans kickoffs. With an offense as good as the Saints, constantly giving them great field position is a recipe for disaster.
If Bates can return from injury next week that would help some, but Craig Aukerman and the Titans special teams staff need to figure out this problem, and fast. The Texans have the dangerous DeAndre Carter this week and if the Titans win and advance to the playoffs, they’ll likely draw the Chiefs and Pro Bowl returner Mecole Hardman in the wildcard round. This isn’t a problem that will go away on its own any time soon.
Ryan Tannehill: Winner
Tannehill wasn’t perfect — he hung in the pocket too long and took some unnecessary sacks as he is still very prone to do — but he did enough to win this game again. His final numbers were 17 of 27 (62.9%) for 272 yards (10.1 YPA) and 3 touchdowns. The Titans out-gained the Saints 397 yards to 377 yards and performed better on third downs too, going 5 of 13 (38.5%) compared to 4 of 12 for New Orleans (33.3%).
Tannehill’s game brought his season long numbers to 188 of 266 (70.7%) for 2,547 yards (9.58 YPA), 20 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. He’s also added 165 yards on 38 carries for 4 more touchdowns on the ground.
The 20 passing touchdowns are good for the 5th best single season mark for a Titans quarterback since the team moved to Tennessee in 1997, trailing just 2016 Marcus Mariota (26), 2003 Steve McNair (24), 2002 Steve McNair (22), and 2001 Steve McNair (21). Given that this was just Tannehill’s 9th start of the season, that’s pretty amazing.
This was also Tannehill’s 5th start with a passer rating over 130 in the last 6 games. For those that needed to see him do it without Derrick Henry, this should answer that question despite the loss.
Kevin Byard: Loser
Extremely rare for Byard to end up here, but he didn’t have his best day today. He got beat multiple times in coverage by Jared Cook and Michael Thomas and dropped an interception. Even the best have bad games sometimes.
Dion Lewis: Winner
Lewis isn’t Henry... obviously, but the much maligned Titans back was actually pretty good in this game. He picked up 68 yards rushing on 15 carries (4.5 YPC) and added another 19 yards through the air on his lone catch of the game. Lewis was more solid than spectacular, but that’s better than I think most fans expected from him.
Harold Landry: Loser
Landry was mostly invisible for a second straight week and suddenly his quest for a double digit sack season is in doubt. He was credited with just one tackle in the game too which is unusual for the guy who almost never comes off the field and is always seen hustling to the ball.
The Titans need Landry to get back to his playmaking ways in the pass rush.
A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith: Winners
Both these guys are electric every time they touch the ball and they combined to put the Titans up early with two long touchdowns in the first quarter.
The Titans have to continue to get these guys the ball as often as possible. They did a poor job of that in this game after the early scores. Smith got just two more catches and Brown had just one catch after the first quarter. They’re too electric to not get more involved.
Mike Vrabel Challenges: Loser
Vrabel used a challenge on a Logan Ryan pass breakup against Michael Thomas that had zero hope of being overturned. It appeared that Vrabel was hoping they’d rule it a catch/fumble, but Thomas clearly never had possession. That ended up burning what could have been a valuable second half timeout.
That’s certainly not the reason the Titans lost this game, but it was a baffling decision nonetheless.
NFL Refs and Commentators: Losers
Look, I appreciate that refs and broadcasters each have tough gigs, but I expect refs to be able to get obvious calls right in big spots and commentators to understand the playoff picture of the team they are covering well enough to accurately relay it to the audience. I don’t think that’s asking too much.
Jerome Boger’s crew not only missed the bad hit on Raymond, but they also missed blatant offensive facemask penalty that should have been called on Michael Thomas on his record breaking catch (see header photo for this article). That penalty, if called, could have also been a game changer. Let’s also not forget the false start penalty that should have been called on Alvin Kamara’s 40 yard touchdown run.
Meanwhile, FOX’s Kenny Albert and Ronde Barber absolutely butchered the Titans playoff scenarios down the stretch of that game. I get it, I pay attention to that stuff more than most, but if you’re going to be covering a game and you have a full week to prepare for it, I think it’s reasonable to expect that the broadcast team have a good grip on what the game means to each team this time of year. Albert and Barber repeatedly claiming that the Titans would need a win and a Steelers loss in Week 17 to get in when they actually only need to win — a pretty significant difference — is a disservice to their audience.
Titans Playoff Hopes: Winners
Losing this game was painful for a few reasons. For one, you always want to see your team win and when the Titans went up 14-0 early it felt like there was a chance that they would be able to pull the upset. Another source of pain is the fact that the Titans will be unable to shatter the 9-7 glass ceiling they’ve found themselves bumping against for four years now. Ultimately, it won’t truly matter whether Tennessee gets in at 9-7 instead of 10-6 as long as they do get in, but there is just something about getting to 10 wins that feels like an achievement.
That being said, this loss really didn’t hurt the playoff odds much. The Titans got the Steelers loss that they were going to need anyway and are set up with a win and in scenario in Week 17 for the third straight year. Tennessee could even get in with a loss if the Colts and Steelers also lose their Week 17 matchups.
The Titans were also able to get some “extra” rest for guys like Adoree’ Jackson, Jeffery Simmons, Adam Humphries, and Derrick Henry who are all working their way back from some sort of injury. All four seem likely to have at least a decent shot at playing against the Texans based on their workloads in practice last week.
Henry’s ailing hamstring was spared a game’s worth of wear and tear which could be critical both for the Texans game and any potential playoff run.
The Titans remain a very dangerous team in my mind if they manage to qualify for the playoffs. The offense continues to click under Ryan Tannehill and has now scored at least 20 points in 9 straight games. Unlike Titans teams of old, there is a legitimate feeling that this Tennessee team can come back if they fall behind and they’re certainly capable of hanging around in shootouts. Despite the recent losses this doesn’t feel like the 2017 team (who lost three straight before beating the division champ Jaguars to sneak in during the final week). This feels like a team that could make some real noise in the AFC if they can just get by the Texans in Week 17.