Tennessee’s flickering playoff hopes continue to smolder, thanks to a spark from the Titans’ defense in a 47-7 roasting Sunday of the St. Louis Rams at LP Field.
The rout came courtesy of a five-interception performance from the Titans defense, including a 45-yard return by Vincent Fuller for a touchdown and two picks each from linebacker Keith Bulluck and cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
The performance also helped to soften the loss of quarterback Vince Young, who left in the second quarter after pulling up with a mild strain to his right hamstring after a career-long 44-yard scramble.
Sunday’s victory pushes the Titans to 6-7, just one game out of the final AFC wild-card berth with three games to play. Four teams, including next week’s opponent, the Miami Dolphins, stand 7-6, while the Titans and two others are also still in the hunt a game back.
Tennessee was at a decided advantage on Sunday against the hapless Rams (1-12), who were down to their third-string quarterback, rookie Keith Null, who saw his first NFL action ever thanks to Kyle Boller’s thigh injury that kept him sidelined.
Given that, the Titans concentrated their defensive efforts on slowing Rams running back Steven Jackson, and putting the game in Null’s hands. It worked to perfection, as Jackson had just 47 yards rushing on 19 carries, and Null was rendered void with the five interceptions.
“We showed them different looks, and we took away the run,” Bulluck said. “They never established the run. We put it all on his shoulders. Five turnovers and 47-7, we’ll take it. We’ve been on the receiving end of a tail-kicking before, so it’s about time we dished one out this year.”
The Titans took control on offense early, with Chris Johnson, who scored three touchdowns, taking center stage. Johnson, who finished with 117 yards rushing and another 69 yards receiving in scoring three touchdowns, broke free and followed his blocking into the end zone for the first score of the game on a 39-yard run.
Things were going so well for the Titans on Sunday that even a mistake turned into a touchdown on the next series. Johnson was supposed to have a blitz pickup on the play, but missed his block, drifted into the flat and became a safety valve for Young to throw to. Some 66 yards later, Johnson was in the end zone with a 14-0 lead and the romp was on.
“I was amazed. He was supposed to pick up that blitz, but if he’s going to make a mistake like that, well, make a mistake like that,” said Young, who finished his abbreviated day 6 of 8 for 132 yards and a TD. “I saw him waving his hand on the side, and I got it to him. The speed that he has is, when you get the ball in that guy’s hands, it’s unbelievable.”
Added Johnson, “It was a missed assignment. I did the wrong thing. I was supposed to stay in, but dude came in real late, and actually I was out, and it worked out for the better.”
Things could not have worked out better for the Titans’ defense either, as they bottled the Rams rushing game and Jackson up all game long, not allowing a run longer than 12 yards to the NFC’s leading rusher.
That allowed them to sit back and exploit the inexperience of Null, who finished 27 of 43, but had just 157 yards passing and no throw longer than 13 yards. When it was over, he had his first NFL touchdown pass long after the game was out of hand, but the five interceptions showed just how dominant the Titans’ defense was on Sunday.
“He was taking the majority of the reps all week with Kyle Boller being hurt,” Finnegan said. “We felt that a third-string quarterback shouldn’t come in and beat us if we stop the run and do the right things.”
Defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil didn’t throw any complicated wrinkles at Null, instead just letting his defense stay basic and relying on them to make a play.
“It was almost a preseason game as far as calls that I made. There were very few, it any, curves,” Cecil said. “It was just don’t beat ourselves was what we were trying to get to. It worked for us early, and we just stuck to it. I just kept making the same calls over and over, but the biggest thing was the guys executing it.”
While the defense was doing its job, the Titans offense turned back to Kerry Collins, who turned in a solid effort off the bench, six weeks after losing the starting job to Young following an 0-6 start.
Collins completed 11 of 19 passes for 154 yards and had a 1-yard
touchdown throw to tight end Alge Crumpler in the fourth quarter. Collins directed two second-half touchdown drives, which helped to keep the Titans on track after settling for four Rob Bironas field goals after Young’s initial second-quarter exit.
“It was just fun to be out there playing again. That’s for sure,” Collins said. “The defense gave us good field position. We definitely would have liked to have capitalized more on some opportunities they gave us.”
The biggest opportunity for the Titans, of course, is that they live at least one more week in the AFC wild-card chase, with the Dolphins coming to LP Field next Sunday.
“Our backs are to the wall, and we’re fighting,” Crumpler said. “We understand. We can’t use that ‘P’ word. But we know what it is.”