NASHVILLE — When Titans cornerback Jason McCourty was burned by Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace for an 82-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter last Thursday, he had a similar memory from his days at Rutgers to draw upon.
McCourty, in his fourth season, said that he allowed the bad play in college to affect him the entire rest of the game.
“I told myself at that point: Never again,” he said.
When Wallace allowed the long scoring play, the Titans were 1-4, were on pace to give up the most points in NFL history and falling down 10-3 early on an explosive play to a perennial playoff team like Pittsburgh could crush the soul of even the strongest of heart.
However, in the Titans’ 26-23 victory over Pittsburgh that head coach Mike Munchak and numerous players said they believe can help to turn their season around, McCourty made a number of big plays that were integral to the outcome.
“So definitely being able to bounce back and being able to make a play for this team was real important to me,” McCourty said. “I just love the feeling of being able to help us win.”
Munchak said he has enjoyed watching the development of McCourty, who is now a captain on defense.
“I think that’s what makes a player special,” Munchak said. “If you play corner, that’s going to happen. You know what? Guys are going to have a bad play or two. Guys are going to make a play on you. There’s some pretty good receivers in this league. You need to have a short memory, which I think he showed you (last Thursday) he had.”
Before the first quarter had ended last week, McCourty made one of those big plays to help get his team back on top. Tim Shaw blocked a punt as time expired in the quarter and McCourty recovered it at the Steelers’ 1-yard line. Two plays later, the Titans took the lead, 13-10.
Then, with 1:31 remaining before halftime, he intercepted Roethlisberger, who again was going deep — 50 yards downfield — but this time for Antonio Brown. The Titans took over at their 32 and ended up kicking a 47-yard field goal with four seconds left before halftime to take a 16-10 lead at the break.
Munchak spoke of McCourty, 25, as a leader. Last season, the former sixth-round pick ranked second on the team in tackles (107), first in passes defended (13) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (2), as he started 15 games, the most of his career.
In the win over Pittsburgh, he also posted five tackles and two passes defended.
“That’s an example we need everyone on our team to see,” Munchak said. “You know what? You’re going to make bad plays, man. You’re going to get run over. You’re going to get embarrassed in this league. I don’t care who you are. You’ve been through it, but how do you respond to that? How do you respond when you had a bad play and everyone knows that you had a bad play?
“By that — by how he did it. He’s a perfect example of that and he came out and played a strong game.”
McCourty accepted all of the blame for allowing the touchdown to Wallace, refusing to say that he should have had help from a safety on the deep route and that another teammate blew a coverage. Irrespective of the outcome, he said he should not have allowed that play.
“It was all me,” he said. “I got to play that better. No matter what happens in the rest of the game, I have to play that play better. I can’t let him get behind me.
“The most important thing is just being able to bounce back. I think it was a little bit encouraging for the other guys on defense to see me bounce back. It just kind of gave the guys faith in me so they could believe that I can still get the job done.”
Even though the Titans had won once before the Pittsburgh game, Thursday’s victory was the defense’s best performance, allowing seven fewer points than its next best showing (a 30-7 loss to Minnesota the week before). The team is still on pace to give up the most points in league history, but when factoring in that the offense has given up 21 points, that is not the case.
While holding the Steelers to 10 points in the first half, including shutting them out in the second quarter, McCourty said it was important to continue that effort in the second half.
“Yeah, I mean the last few weeks we’ve made stops, we just haven’t been able to maintain it,” he said, “so when we came in at half we said to ourselves the most important thing for us to do is finish. It’s not good enough to play a good half of football and give our offense opportunities in the first half, but in the second half give up touchdowns. So I think it was just important for us to come out and not let up at all and just continue to place our foot on the pedal and continue to play well.”
The Titans did that. On Pittsburgh’s final drive of what was then a tie game, the Titans held the Steelers to a four-yard pass play on first down, Derrick Morgan’s 1-yard tackle-for-loss on second down and then forced an incomplete pass on third. That forced a 54-yard field goal try, which failed.
Then the Titans’ offense came up with some heroics of its own to earn an emotional victory. McCourty is hoping it’s something the team can build upon.
“We’ve already given away four games,” he said after the game. “At this point, it’s a matter of being able to win out. We’re moving on the right track. It’s just important for us to be smart with these days off and come back, refocus and continue to do what we do. We knew all along that we were more talented than what we were showing on tape and it’s up to us to show that.”