What the Tennessee Titans defense accomplished on Sunday wasn’t playing football — it was more like a rescue mission.
The Titans can thank a defense that spent the most of the second half of Sunday’s 20-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons wriggling out of jams, allowing Tennessee to make off with its third win in four games, despite five turnovers and poor play from both the offense and special teams.
Six times in the second half, the Titans’ formerly maligned defense bailed the team out of drives that initiated from plus territory, yielding only three points in the final 30 minutes, despite spending 16:24 of the second half on the field.
In all, Tennessee’s defense limited the inept Falcons offense to 165 yards of total offense (not including a 49-yard fake punt), picked up two turnovers themselves, including Vincent Fuller’s 76-yard interception return for what proved to be the decisive touchdown in the third quarter.
But the defensive heroics didn’t stop there, as the Titans turned the Falcons away four times in the final period, including twice in the final 4:15 on drives that started at the Tennessee 21- and 19- yard lines.
It was good for the Titans that the defense turned in such a strong effort, because it was needed to overcome the many fumbles and bumbles on both offense and special teams.
It got to the point in the second half where the defense was in a bunker mentality trying to fend off the Falcons, who were desperately seeking the tying touchdown.
“If we’re going to be on the field, we might as well do something with it, and that was the mentality guys had,” defensive back Nick Harper said. “We’re out here, so we’re going to keep playing ball and not lay down. It was on our shoulders.”
No one’s shoulders or legs, for that matter, were more up to the challenge than defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. It was his leapfrog play over the offensive line to snare quarterback Byron Leftwich on first-and-goal at the 1-yard line that helped foil the final chance the Falcons had to tie the game at the end. As Leftwich was grabbed by his foot, he pitched the ball in vain to Warrick Dunn, who was smothered at the 9-yard line by Kyle Vanden Bosch.
“On the goal line they’re always going to try to take your legs out, and instead of trying to drive through short guys, I figured I might as well go over the top of them,” Haynesworth said. “I saw the quarterback. I was lined up right over him. I went for the grab and I got him.”
Dunn credited Haynesworth and the Titans defensive line with thwarting the play and the Falcons’ drive.
“Over the last few years, people said he didn’t play up to his potential, but over the last few weeks, he is playing dominant football,” Dunn said. “He is dominating the line of scrimmage and causing a lot of havoc.”
After the first down play, the Titans weathered a defensive offsides penalty and two incompletions before Vanden Bosch sacked Leftwich at the 12 on fourth down.
“This is what we play football for,” Vanden Bosch said. “We thrive on these pressure situations. As a defense we had our backs against the wall most of the day and we stepped up and responded.”
The Titans needed every bit of it to overcome a myriad of mistakes on both the offense and special teams.
Vince Young struggled through a terrible day with three interceptions, while Tennessee’s second-ranked rushing game was held to 92 yards on 32 rushes. Included in that was a LenDale White fumble in the first quarter that DeAngelo Hall returned 56 yards for the game’s first touchdown and a quick 7-0 Atlanta lead.
Tennessee’s troubles didn’t end there, as special teams suffered through a dreadful day coverage-wise, allowing Jerious Norwood returns of 76 and 45 yards, as well as allowing a 49-yard fake punt run by Artose Pinner that led to a 32-yard Morten Anderson field goal.
There was also Chris Davis’ lost fumble on a punt return, and finally the allowing of punter Craig Hentrich to be tackled on the 19-yard line that set up Atlanta’s final ill-fated drive.
“Our defense saved this game,” Young said. “That’s the good thing about it, we still won.”
That is quite the change from a year ago when the Titans’ 32nd-ranked defense was mostly maligned for its struggles throughout 2006.
On Sunday, those days seemed a distance memory, and the Titans were plenty thankful and fortunate that the defense turned in such an outstanding effort.
“We don’t like being the 32nd defense in the league,” Haynesworth said. “We had always had a pretty good ranked defense until last year, and last year people ran all over us. We had a huge chip on our shoulder, maybe even a boulder on our shoulder that we were going to stop the run and get after the quarterback.”
Rescue mission accomplished.