It was clear to anyone who had seen the last two games that the Tennessee Titans offense needed someone to lend a hand.
That is exactly what happened Sunday against the winless Indianapolis Colts in a contest that caused some unexpectedly uneasy moments for the sellout crowd at LP Field.
The origin of all three Titans’ touchdowns in their 27-10 victory was an extended hand. Patrick Bailey threw out his arms and blocked a punt that was recovered for the first. Later, cornerback Jason McCourty reached out and defensive end Jason Jones reached up to deflect passes that were intercepted, and the offense converted both takeaways into scores.
“Whenever you hit it and notice that you got it, that pain or whatever it was … I felt laces in my arm,” Bailey said of his first career blocked punt. “But after a time it kind of feels great and you’re so excited.”
That pretty much summed up the overall emotions for the Titans (4-3).
There were some painful moments along the way but the end of two-game losing streaks overall and against AFC South opponents was reason enough to feel good about the effort as a whole, never mind that they were outgained by an opponent that was 30th in the league in both total offense and total defense.
“It’s just a great feeling for all of us,” coach Mike Munchak said. “… It was just fun to watch guys make plays again and have exciting things happen and those turn into points.”
Left to its own devices, which included a much more even distribution of labor between running backs Chris Johnson and Javon Ringer than in recent weeks, the Titans offense repeatedly failed to take advantage of field position in the first half and missed early opportunities in the second to put the game out of reach.
In nine possessions that started with either a kickoff or punt by the Colts (0-8), Tennessee managed just a pair of first-half, Rob Bironas field goals — both from 50 yards or more. It was just 3-0 more than five minutes into the second half when McCourty recovered Bailey’s blocked punt and made it 10-0.
When McCourty’s tip turned into an interception by Michael Griffin, though, the offense went 65 yards in seven plays and just 1:28, capped by Nate Washington’s three-yard run that made it 20-0 with 22 seconds to play before halftime. That lead was cut in half by the time linebacker Barrett Ruud corralled Jones’ deflection midway through the fourth quarter. Washington’s 14-yard touchdown catch capped the scoring seven plays later.
“[Jones] did a great job of getting his hands up and tipping the ball, and [Ruud] made a great play” Indianapolis quarterback Curtis Painter said. “Those things are unfortunate, but I guess they happen. They’re a good team and they’re able to make plays.”
Still missing from the Titans’ attack were the trademark long gains from Johnson, which seemed so common through his first three seasons. He finished with 34 yards on 14 carries and was a spectator late as Ringer (60 yards on 14 carries) was the one sent on to help try and use the clock.
The Pro Bowl running back said that he and Ringer rotated every two series throughout the contest. Munchak said substitutions were made based on ‘feel’ by running backs coach Jim Skipper.
“I think, in general, we just knew we were going to give both a chance to get reps and make plays,” Munchak said.
The fact that Ringer averaged nearly two yards more per carry and had 42 receiving yards on a team-high five receptions (Johnson caught three passes for 17 yards) did nothing to stem the growing tide of popular opinion that the bulk of the responsibility for the running game be placed in his hands. Plus, both touchdown drives started with Ringer on the field and Johnson on the bench.
“I feel like it was a blessing for me to be able to help and to contribute to the team,” Ringer said. “… The Colts haven’t won a game, but they’re still a great team. That’s what we knew. If we slipped up, they could have taken advantage of it.
“We didn’t want to be that one up on their schedule that they got that win. So we just had to make sure we played our best.”