Titans picked a bad time to come up short in effort to limit big plays

Monday, September 24, 2012 at 10:12pm

It was bound to happen sometime.

Even so, the Tennessee Titans defense could not have picked a worse time to allow its first big pass play of the season. It happened, of course, with no time remaining in regulation Sunday when the Detroit Lions converted a Hail Mary pass for a 46-yard game-tying touchdown that forced overtime.

“We all knew the situation,” cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “It’s seven seconds left. We knew that they had to get into the end zone, they’re probably going to chuck it up.

“… We were aware. We just didn’t execute.”

Ever since he was hired as defensive coordinator following the 2010 season, Jerry Gray has emphasized the need to minimize — if not eliminate — long pass plays by the opposition.

A year ago the Titans allowed just four completions of 40 or more yards. That was second only to Pittsburgh, which gave up two, and significantly less than playoff teams such as New Orleans (a league-high 14), Denver (13), Atlanta (12) and San Francisco (12).

Thus far in 2012 nine teams still have not given up a pass play of 40-plus yards. That group includes the only three remaining unbeatens, Arizona, Atlanta and Houston.

Yet that one big play almost was enough for the Lions of overcome a record-setting number of them from the Titans, who ultimately won 44-41 in overtime. Tennessee had the lead because it became the first team in NFL history to score five times on plays of 60 yards or more in the same game — two passes, one punt return, one kickoff return and a fumble return.

“You practice that play,” Munchak said. “You talk about it. You do it on a Friday, you do it on a Saturday but it’s not game speed. There’s no way to simulate that until the heat of the battle. … It was just the way our game went, I guess. There was a lot of craziness, a lot of guys making plays. Luckily we overcame it.”

Up to that point the longest completion the Titans allowed was 31 yards in Week 2 at San Diego. New England’s Tom Brady did not have a pass go for more than 28 yards in the opener. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford averaged just 8.4 yards per completion, with a long of 28 yards, before he was injured in the fourth quarter.

It was backup quarterback Shaun Hill who made the heave to the end zone that broke the streak and forced overtime when linebacker Akeem Ayers knocked the ball down into the hands of receiver Titus Young, who fell into the end zone.

“We didn’t play it right,” Ayers said. “… That’s on us as players. We have to be smarter than that — last play of the game, we have to know.”

Verner theorized that the secondary was too focused on Lions’ wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who led all players in the contest with 10 receptions for 164 yards, including the only gain of 20 yards or more up to that point.

“We’ve seen it documented that he makes catches over three people,” he said. “So why not worry about him?”

Whatever the reason, Young was left alone and was in the right position to field the deflection off Ayers’ right hand.

“When I jumped, I didn’t see him run down there,” Ayers said. “I saw the ball in the air. I was watching the ball the whole time from the quarterback’s hand. I’m jumping up and I bat the ball down and I fall. I saw him catch it right in front of me but he caught it so close to me he was in the end zone. I was at a loss for words.”

Fortunately for the Titans, all was not lost. They kicked a field goal on the opening drive of the extra period and the defense made its biggest play when it stopped Detroit on fourth-and-1 from the 7 to end the contest.

No one doubted, though, that it should have ended earlier than it did.

“It’s probably the thing that happens a lot in those situations,” Verner said. “We didn’t get a body on a body. Usually you have to have one or two people jumping for the ball and everybody else has to play [a] guy because, like they did, they only had a couple people actually go for the ball. [Young] was waiting for the tip.

“They outexecuted us in that sense. We have to take that, learn from it because we know that if we get into that situation again that’s what they’re going to do to us.”