It was the one time the ball was on the ground that the Tennessee Titans defense did not make the recovery. Even so, the ball went back to the offense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman recovered his own fumble but was stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-1 with 46 seconds to play. With that, the Titans secured a 23-17 victory Sunday in a game in which ball security was an iffy proposition right from the start.
“The game kind of got interesting,” coach Mike Munchak said. “It seemed like from [late in the second quarter] on the ball was on the ground a lot on both sides and we realized turnovers were going to become part of the game, unfortunately.”
In rainy conditions that led the vast majority of a sellout crowd out of LP Field well before the finish, the teams combined for nine turnovers, the first of which came when Titans defensive tackle forced a fumble and cornerback Jason McCourty recovered it on the second play.. The second half opened with three turnovers — two by the Titans — in the first 12 plays, a sequence that lasted fewer than three minutes on the game clock.
The last one — and the tiebreaker — went to the Titans (6-5) when rookie linebacker Colin McCarthy intercepted a pass with 2:19 remaining. That set up a Rob Bironas field goal, which forced the Buccaneers (4-7) to try for a touchdown, without the benefit of timeouts, in the remaining 1:44.
In all the Titans recovered four of five fumbles and had the McCarthy interception. The Buccaneers recovered two of three Tennessee fumbles and intercepted two passes.
“There were balls popping out for both sides, both teams and you just didn’t know how the game was going to go,” Tennessee tackle Michael Roos said. “Fortunately for us, the last turnover was theirs.”
McCarthy’s interception was the exception in that the previous four Titans’ takeaways all were fumble recoveries.
It also was unusual in that it led to points. Although the offense racked up 352 total yards — its third-highest total of the season — and running back Chris Johnson ran for a season-best 190 on 23 attempts (an 8.3 yards per carry average) it turned the takeaways into just six points.
Tennessee’s first touchdown came on a kickoff return, when rookie Tommie Campbell took a handoff from Marc Mariani and went 84 yards untouched. The only other time it got to the end zone was when it drove 80 yards in 10 plays during the fourth quarter capped by Damian Williams’ reception just inside the back line of the end zone on fourth-and-2.
“The sad thing about it is that we moved the ball all day,” Williams, who now has a team-leading five touchdown catches, said. “We had some fumbles, we had some penalties that were knocking us back out.”
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, turned a Javon Ringer fumble with less than a minute to play in the first half into a touchdown pass and a 10-10 tie six plays later. The Buccaneers went ahead 17-10 early in the third when cornerback Aqib Talib returned an interception 27 yards for a touchdown.
After that, though, the Buccaneers turned it over twice more and eventually relinquished the lead — for good.
“Turnovers came back and bit us, gave them some short fields, gave them some field goals and those things kept them in the football game,” Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said. “We were able to hold up a couple times and have some defensive stances there after turnovers, but you cannot turn the football over and expect to win.”
Still, they had a chance.
After Bironas’ final field goal they used just 36 seconds to get from their own 20 to the Titans 34. There, on third-and-10, Freeman completed a pass just short of the first down marker and hustled his team to the line of scrimmage. Rather than call for a measurement — “I don’t know why we didn’t get a measurement, but you still can’t use that as an excuse,” Morris said — officials allowed play to continue.
Freeman never got away from center with the ball and then got nowhere near the yard he needed once he had possession.
“There’s no doubt that [the weather] added to it,” Munchak said. “I think there were some good hits in that game where the ball was going to come out anyway. … Guys were stripping balls and some guys weren’t carrying the ball smart.
“It seemed like we were trying to help them as much as we could. It was frustrating. … It got dramatic, probably more dramatic than it needed to be.”