NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans have drafted quarterbacks in the second and third rounds in the past two drafts instead of players who could help Ryan Tannehill, and he’s early in a season that is already well on its way to battering his body again, before moving on to wherever with whatever kind of opportunity he can find.
He played his worst game as a Titan — as a pro, if we want to judge by QB rating — in last week’s 16-15 loss at New Orleans, squandering victory by failing to do things that are routine for him. He heard about it, he was asked about it, he got sick of talking about it. Even Mike Vrabel, whose respect for Tannehill is immense and stands in contrast to how the NFL at large feels about him, could only shrug and say he didn’t know why Tannehill made the mistakes he made. No one did. It was out of character. It needed to be an aberration.
It was, which makes Tannehill the story two weeks in a row. He responded to his worst with some of his best, which was just enough to bring the Titans back for a 27-24 overtime win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday in front of 67,438 at Nissan Stadium. A lot of people had a hand in this one, including two guys coming off ACL repairs and two running backs starting to play complementary bully ball.
But Vrabel finding Tannehill for a hug — in the wake of Nick Folk’s 41-yard game-winner with rain breaking out — after the second game of the season gives you an idea of how important this was. So does Vrabel’s reaction to a question about Tannehill a few minutes later.
“That’s what Ryan’s done, he’s one of the tougher players on our team,” Vrabel said after the Titans’ first win and most points since a 27-17 decision at Green Bay last Nov. 17. “I know we’ve got a bunch of tough guys, but he stood in there and got the (crap) knocked out of him a couple times late, and I respect the heck out of it.”
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This looked more like what the Titans were expected to be, at least for those who didn’t have them picking near the top of the 2024 NFL Draft, who don’t think New Orleans Tannehill is “actual” Tannehill. For the second straight game, he was on his back a lot in the early stages, betrayed by his paid protectors. First-round rookie left guard Peter Skoronski (appendix) was out, so Xavier Newman started in his place and struggled through two series, so Dillon Radunz came in for Newman less than nine months after tearing his left ACL in a loss to the Chargers.
Radunz, who was told he would be the first guy in at any position of need other than center, held up. The protection got better, though it still yielded five sacks and is going to be a weekly concern. But Tannehill was unaffected, as he has been for most of the time since taking over the starting job from Marcus Mariota six games into the 2019 season. As he was not last week.
On the fourth series of the game, with the Titans sitting on eight total yards and trailing 11-0, he made the play that changed the game. A play that may be referenced once or twice if the Titans build on this and hang in an AFC South race that should include them — witness Jacksonville’s much-anticipated home opener, a 17-9 loss to Kansas City.
It was simple yet stunning because the Titans don’t do it much, aren’t really built for it and had no time to so much as peer downfield at that point. But Tannehill faked to Derrick Henry on first down, had a clean pocket and let one launch to Treylon Burks, sprinting past Asante Samuel. Tannehill released the ball at his own 18 and Burks caught it at the other 20, a flight of 52 yards. Samuel managed to drag Burks down at the Los Angeles 5-yard line, by which point the somber and sleepy fans were fully awakened.
“It sparked a fire in us,” Burks said of the 70-yard gain.
“It gets the crowd back into it, gets the sideline back into it,” Tannehill said.
“We were leaking oil and we needed somebody to step up and make a play,” Vrabel said. “And that was a huge play.”
There were others. Harold Landry, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, ran a twist inside on the Chargers’ final play of regulation, a third-and-3 from the Titans’ 7-yard line, an attempt to win the game and avoid overtime. Denico Autry set a pick for him and Landry dragged Justin Herbert down for a sack to force a tying field goal.
In overtime, the Titans went aggressive man coverage on three plays after Herbert did a lot of picking apart of a lot of zone looks from a secondary missing two of its best players. Three plays, three incompletions.
Henry and rookie Tyjae Spears both had key moments and combined for 129 rushing yards on 33 carries. Ryan Stonehouse was a punting monster (61.2 average on five punts) and Folk is 7-for-7 on field goals, crushing kickoffs for touchbacks and giving the Titans their most confidence in that position — it’s still early, mind you — in years.
But it’s a quarterback league, and the Titans won and looked like a good team Sunday because they got good quarterback play. Another deep shot, this one 49 yards to Chris Moore, started the drive that ended with a touchdown pass from Tannehill to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine to go up 24-21 with 2:25 left in regulation.
Folk’s winner in the rain was set up by a Tannehill roll right and rope on the run to DeAndre Hopkins for 14 yards. He finished 20-for-24 for 246 yards, efficient and never threatening to give the ball to the opponent after doing it three times last week. He ran one in, too, a 12-yard score on an option keeper, on a day that saw well-timed creativity from new offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. He did the finger roll celebration after that one. It was that kind of day. The kind he and the Titans had to have.
With 246 yards passing in today’s game Ryan Tannehill moves into 5th place on the franchise all-time passing list with 13,275 yards pic.twitter.com/QiKeGbsQjR
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) September 17, 2023
“Just a lot of grit,” Arden Key said of Tannehill. “We all know the kind of game he had last week. He came out and showed everybody that he can bounce back.”
That was “something I expected, something I’ve seen from him,” Kevin Byard said, and something Tannehill heard would happen from some of his teammates.
“We’ve got his back, I’ve got his back, and no matter what, he’s our quarterback,” Jeff Simmons said. “Hell of a job.”
Most of what the Titans have done suggests this is it for Tannehill, which is an easy sell after a performance like he had in New Orleans. A performance like he had against Los Angeles gives pause. It will probably take a lot of those, including one or two in January, to alter the apparent plan.
What matters right now is these guys think they’re good and can win, and just produced some evidence to show everybody else. The film of New Orleans, a game they should have won, was an especially tough watch for one guy in particular. He sat through it five times.
“Obviously, watching the tape, it sucks,” Tannehill said. “You’re looking at the negative things and the things you want to correct and you’re excited to get back out here. But once I was able to make those corrections with my teammates, with the coaches, I was able to put it behind me and get going for the next week. You have a long season. You can’t harbor good things or bad things.”
That’s good to remember. More of the bad things will be planned for him in the week ahead, by Myles Garrett and the Cleveland Browns.
(Top photo: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)