NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The convincing 38-13 win Sunday by the Titans over the visiting Jets was supposed to be cause for celebration.
But there lay quarterback Jake Locker sprawled on the field, obviously seriously injured, and the season was flashing right in front of the eyes of Titans players, coaches and fans alike.
After all, the team had played well to open the season and stand a surprising 3-1 at the quarter mark, emerging as a contender to make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. And it was very much the emerging Locker who had played a huge part in the promising start.
But then came the hit on Locker. It was midway through the third quarter and seconds after he had thrown an incomplete pass.
Locker was nailed squarely from the front by Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. After falling awkwardly backward, Locker collided with another rushing defender, outside linebacker Quinton Coples, who hit Locker on his backside. Wilkerson was not penalized for the hit.
Locker immediately crumpled to the ground while clutching his right hip with his right hand. Locker was soon lifted onto a stretcher and then transported via cart from the field and did not return. As he was leaving he field, Locker offered a thumb’s up to the sold-out crowd in attendance at LP Field.
“Really other than saying his hip was injured, we just don’t know,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said after the game about Locker, who was transported to the hospital for more tests after initial X-rays taken at LP Field were negative.
“We just don’t want to speculate on what happened or didn’t, so we are just going to wait and see,” Munchak added. “ … I don’t think anything they saw on the field (indicated) that nothing had popped out. That’s what they had. That’s where it was sore.”
At the time of his injury, Locker had helped the Titans race to a 24-6 lead over the Jets (2-2) by completing 18-of-24 passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns. He had also rushed for 17 yards on three carries.
This season, Locker had thrown six touchdown passes without an interception, including guiding the Titans to a 94-yard, game-winning drive last Sunday against the Chargers. Other than Denver’s Peyton Manning, he is the only starting quarterback in the NFL to not have thrown an interception.
“Anytime your quarterback, any player gets hurt, there is a lot of concern,” said Munchak, whose team hosts the undefeated Chiefs (4-0) next Sunday.
“Quarterbacks, again first of all he was playing, three touchdowns, he was playing very well, so again hoping it wasn’t anything extensive. We will just have to wait and see exactly what it is.”
Following the injury, the Titans turned to backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, the former Bills’ quarterback who signed with Tennessee during the off-season as a free agent to be Locker’s backup. Fitzpatrick, a nine-year veteran, started 15 games last season for the Bills, but did not return to the team after posting a 19-31 record with 39 interceptions the last two years.
“That’s tough,” said Fitzpatrick, who completed 3-of-8 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in relief. “That’s a spot I haven’t been in for a little while, but obviously your mind is with Jake, kind of thinking about him and hoping that everything is OK there.
” … We’ll see where it goes from here in terms of Jake’s health and everything. If I end up being the guy … I was brought here for a reason.”
After starting slowly upon entering the game, Fitzpatrick eventually hooked up with veteran receiver Nate Washington on a 77-yard scoring pass midway through the fourth quarter. On the play, Washington beat Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who collided with the back judge while trying to defend the play
“It’s unfortunate what happened to Jake, but we’re very confident in Ryan and what he is able to bring to the table,” said Washington, who had eight catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns. “There’s a reason why we brought Ryan in here. He’s a wily veteran. He understands the game.”
The Titans also have quarterback Rusty Smith, a sixth-round draft pick in 2010, on the development squad. He spent the past three seasons on the team’s 53-man roster, but was released during training before being re-signed by the team. He has played in only three games, starting one.
“It was a really big shot,” Titans running back Chris Johnson said of the team’s initial reaction to Locker’s injury. “We had a lot of momentum, everything going our way, and just for the play to happen like that … it just kind of sucked (the momentum) all out of us.”
Locker’s injury overshadowed a stellar effort by the Titans’ defense, which forced rookie quarterback Geno Smith into four turnovers — two interceptions and two fumbles — that all led to Titans touchdowns. Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner had both interceptions and now has a team-leading four picks on the season.
Smith did complete 24-of-34 passes for 289 yards and one late touchdown — a 34-yarder to tight end Jeff Cumberland — be he was also sacked five times and was errant on several wide-open throws while constantly being dogged by Titans defenders.
“We just got our butts kicked,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “Obviously, that team deserves a lot of credit. They won the game.
“On this particular day, did (Smith) give us a chance to win? No, none of us did. We got beat across the board. It’s not on one man, and it never will be on one man. It’s on all of us.”
On the second offensive play of the game, Smith was intercepted by Verner on a pass thrown behind intended receiver Stephen Hill. Verner returned the pick to the Jets’ 18-yard-line, and five plays later, Locker connected with tight end Delanie Walker on a one-yard scoring pass and an early 7-0 lead.
Hill was injured on the play when just after the interception, he was blocked by Titans free safety Michael Griffin. Hill did not return to the game because of a head injury, although the contact between Griffin and Hill appeared to be shoulder to shoulder. Hill, a second-year former second-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech, entered the game leading the Jets in both receptions (13) and receiving yards (233).
After the Jets went three downs and out on the ensuing possession, the Titans pushed their early lead to 10-0 on a 26-yard field goal by kicker Rob Bironas. Locker connected on 6-of-7 pass attempts on the drive, including a 25-yarder to receiver Damian Williams to jumpstart the possession.
The Jets finally responded offensively, driving from their own to get-in range for kicker Nick Folk to nail a 45-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter to pull the Jets within 10-3. The big play of the drive was Smith hooking up with receiver Santonio Holmes on a 25-yard completion over the middle.
The Titans took advantage of another Smith turnover midway through the second quarter. After being flushed from the pocked and apparently picking up a first down, Smith was stripped of the ball by Titans linebacker Zach Brown at the Jets’ 35. Six plays later, Locker connected Washington on a 4-yard scoring pass to give the Titans a 17-3 edge.
After a 47-yard field goal by Folk pulled by the Jets to within 17-6, Smith’s second interception and third turnover of the half proved to be a dagger. Starting in good field position with 1:37 remaining for before halftime, Smith was intercepted by Verner again when he stepped in front of an out pass intended for Holmes.
Seven plays later, Titans rookie receiver Justin Hunter, who caught the game-winner in last Sunday’s come-from-behind win over the Chargers, hauled in a pass in the deep left part of the end zone to give the Titans a 24-6 halftime cushion. For Hunter, the second-round draft pick out of Tennessee, he now has two career receptions that have both gone for touchdowns.