A short-handed Tennessee Titans team reached deep into its bag of tricks and deep into it inner core to gut out a 20-17 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday.
The Titans, who did not have quarterback Marcus Mariota due to an arm injury, and were also missing their top three offensive tackles and tight end Delanie Walker, used a fake punt, the wildcat formation installed in mid-week and a bend-but-don’t-break defense to squeeze out a three-point win inside the AFC South.
The Titans, who gave Coach Mike Vrabel his first victory, served notice to the Texans to expect almost anything when what appeared to be defensive stop for Houston on the first series, turned into a 66-yard fake punt pass from safety Kevin Byard to safety Dane Cruikshank, who was the gunner on the punt team.
“I think my last throw in high school was a touchdown – a trick play. I think Vrabel must have seen my old film from high school and drew it up,” said Byard, who sailed a left-handed pass to a wide-open Cruikshank who did the rest en route to the end zone. “It was a certain look we were getting. We got the look last week, but we didn’t want to run it. I was surprised they gave us the look, but the coaches trusted me to call it and run it. It worked out and it was a big swing in the game.”
It gave Tennessee a quick 7-0 lead, one the Titans would build on in their next series with more tricks to throw at the Texans. Tennessee, using backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert to start, lined tailback Derrick Henry up in the wildcat formation, and the running back ran five straight plays getting the direct snap, and gaining 25 yards to move the Titans down to the Texans’ 31. Henry used four runs and a shovel pass to Taywan Taylor out of the wildcat.
From there, going back to a more conventional look, Gabbert found Taywan Taylor four plays later on an 18-yard touchdown throw.
“I’m familiar with it. I ran it a lot in high school,” Henry said of the wildcat. “I think we ran it one time at Bama n practice. But the wildcat is not too hard at all. Hopefully, we keep it in there.”
The Titans learned the impromptu wildcat well enough this week to have success with it on a series that helped them build a 14-0 lead.
“It’s different angles The timing is different as far as how the back is going to hit it. So you get a feel for it,” center Ben Jones said. “When you’ve got a back like Derrick Henry, if there is any daylight, he’s going to hit it. He runs so hard you want to block that much harder for him.”
With a 14-0 lead, the Titans seemed to go into survival mode for much of the rest of the day. They managed to keep Houston’s vaunted pass rushers J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus at bay with a patchwork offensive line that featured Kevin Pamphile and Tyler Marz (fresh from the practice squad) at tackles. Houston had just one sack on the day, and it came from Duke Ejiofor.
Still, it took nearly everything the Titans could muster to stay in the game. The Titans dodged one bullet when Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbourn came up short on a 54-yard field goal try in the first quarter.
Adoree’ Jackson killed another Texans drive by plucking his first career interception on a ball in the end zone for DeAndre Hopkins.
Houston got on the scoreboard, cutting the Titans’ lead in half when DeShaun Watson found Hopkins for a 28-yard touchdown with just 58 seconds left in the half.
The Texans crept closer when Fairbourn’s 34-yard field goal with 2:39 left in the third period trimmed the Tennessee lead to 14-10.
Houston finally took the lead in the fourth quarter when Watson found Will Fuller on a 28-yard TD pass with 13:25 to play, but the Titans answered by tying it on their next series when Ryan Succop connected from 42 yards.
After forcing the Texans to punt, the Titans got the football back and drove 62 yards in 12 plays where Succop hit what proved to be the game-winner from 31 yards out.
“It was go time. There’s always going to be a few times, a few drives in the game, where you’ve just got to go play. That was the message I tried to relay to the guys as we were going out on the field, was, ‘We’ve got to go win this thing. We’ve got the ball in our hands. Let’s just leave it all out here and see what happens,’” said Gabbert, who was 13 of 20 for 117 yards and a touchdown.