A consistent rainfall over LP Field on Sunday turned the football into “a wet bar of soap.”
Luckily for the Tennessee Titans’ defense, their grip was slightly stronger than Tampa Bay’s.
In a nine-turnover game, the Titans had five takeaways, including four forced fumbles, as they edged the Buccaneers for a 23-17 victory.
“I think the slippery ball ... that let a handful out,” defensive end Dave Ball said. “It was like a wet bar of soap out there.”
The Titans (6-5) only scored six points off turnovers but that was enough.
Rookie linebacker Colin McCarthy nabbed his first career interception with 2:19 left led to a huge insurance field goal from Rob Bironas to hand the Bucs (4-7) their fifth straight loss.
“With the weather conditions, it was tough,” McCarthy said. “As a defense, we had the same opportunities. We stayed positive and we understood we needed to finish.”
Clinging to a 20-17 lead, McCarthy, starting for the injured Barrett Ruud, picked off a Josh Freeman pass at the Tampa Bay 47-yard line that was intended for tight end Kellen Winslow.
“It was a play we went through in practice,” McCarthy said. “Early in the game, they kind of did that for 10 yards and just sat there. It was just a matter of time before he did the shake and tried to hit us deep. [Defensive coordinator Jerry] Gray had a great game plan. We went over that this week and when they throw it to you, you just have to catch it. So that was my main focus.”
The Titans entered the game having recovered just four fumbles in 10 games this season. They matched that by the end of the third quarter.
Defensive end Jason Jones started the fumble party off by knocking the ball loose from running back LaGarrette Blount on the second play of the game. Jones later had the biggest defensive stop of the game. He stopped Freeman, after he fumbled, for no gain on a fourth-and-1 at the Titans’ 25-yard line with 40 seconds left.
“We had to bow up,” Jones said. “I wanted to try to disrupt it and get penetration. He fumbled the ball and by the time he got it I was in the backfield and held him up. The defense, as a whole, we played good ... and kept ourselves in the game.”
Ball, who missed the last two games due to a concussion, nabbed the rare defensive hat trick — recording a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on the same play.
Early in the second quarter, Freeman fake a throw as Ball came leaping toward him. On the way down, though, Ball swatted the ball from Freeman and pounced on it at Tampa’s 38-yard line.
“It was pretty much luck,” Ball said. “I was just trying to block it jumping and then I swiped at it.”
Four of the first five series of the second half ended with turnovers. After Chris Johnson fumbled, the Titans got the ball right back.
The Bucs converted a huge third-and-nine and wide receiver Mike Williams moved up field to gain more yards. Titans safety Jordan Babineaux raced after him, stripping the ball from Williams while falling backwards.
“We had to remind ourselves to continue to go after the ball because ball security was an issue,” Babineaux said. “We had to win the turnover battle.”
The Titans did not capitalize as Matt Hasselbeck threw an interception on the very next play, with Aqib Talib returning it 27 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
The defense remained strong, keeping the seven-point deficit from growing. Two drives later, the Titans forced Blount to cough up the ball again as rookie defensive tackle Jurrell Casey forced and recovered a fumble.
“We’ve got to get it back. That is our job as a defense,” Jones said. “We can’t hang our heads on what the offense is doing and what they are not doing. We have to give them more opportunities to go out there to go on the field and score. [Sunday] we did that.”