NASHVILLE — Just maybe, a message from the past sparked a trio of Tennessee Titans to make big plays in Monday night’s 14-10 win over the New York Jets.
Last weekend, Titans coach Mike Munchak played host to the franchise’s Hall of Fame Weekend, inviting several former teammates from his Hall of Fame offensive lineman playing days with the Oilers. He has made it a point to connect the franchise’s past in Houston with its present and future in Tennessee.
Among those Hall of Famers returning to mingle with current players included former quarterback Warren Moon, defensive lineman Elvin Bethea and defensive back Kenny Houston, who addressed the team and emphasized the notion that a team’s playmakers had to, well, make plays for it to be successful.
“Kenny Houston, when he addressed the team, said that the great players have to make great plays,” Munchak said Tuesday afternoon. “The guys who have been given the talent and the team is counting on have to step up.”
In a game where neither team made many plays, the Titans made just enough to eliminate the Jets from the playoffs and snap a three-game skid during a stretch where they had lost five of six games. And a trio of Titans, who are being heavily relied upon but who have each been inconsistent this season, made a series of plays that were crucial to beating the Jets.
That would be running back Chris Johnson, quarterback Jake Locker and free safety Michael Griffin.
Johnson had a franchise-record 94-yard scoring run in the second quarter that gave the Titans their first lead. Locker directed a seven-play, 64-yard, game-winning scoring drive in the third quarter. Griffin pulled down two interceptions from Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, the last of which thwarted the Jets late in the game just two yards shy of a touchdown.
“They did (step up),” Munchak said of Johnson, Locker and Griffin. “It was exciting to see those guys make plays.”
It hasn’t always been that way this season. Thus, the 5-9 record heading into Sunday’s game at Green Bay and the season finale a week from Sunday at home against Jacksonville.
For Johnson, Monday night’s feast-or-famine performance was a microcosm of this season. Other than the 94-yard run, the fifth-year back out of East Carolina gained only 28 yards on 20 carries. This season, he has gained 1,159 yards on 4.8 yards per carry, surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for a fifth straight year, and gained more than 100 yards five times. But he also has been held less than the century mark nine times, including six games of 51 or less.
But Monday night, as he has done so many times in his career, he hit the home run. In fact, his six career rushes of 80 yards or more is a franchise record, and the 94-yarder against the Jets marked the second-longest run on Monday Night Football.
“It’s a situation that their defense plays so many guys down in the box,” Johnson said of his knack for long runs. “No matter what run you have, you always know if you get behind those guys there is a good chance you can go all the way.”
Prior to the start of the season, the second-year Locker was named the starting quarterback ahead of veteran Matt Hasselbeck, who led the Titans to a 9-7 record last season and a narrow miss at a playoff berth. But before and after separating his shoulder in the fourth game against Houston and sitting out five games, the University of Washington product has been inconsistent during his acceptance of becoming the heir apparent.
Case in point was Monday night. With the Titans trailing 10-7 late in the third quarter, he guided the winning drive by connecting on passes of 21, 12 and 13 yards before capping the drive with a scoring sweep of 13 yards around the left side. But for the game, he was a pedestrian 13-for-22 for 149 yards and a 79.5 passer rating. On four separate throws, his glaring problem with inaccuracy reared its ugly head when open receivers were missed, and the offense stumbled to find a rhythm.
“When you set yourself back behind the chains, it can be tough playing a team like that,” Locker said Monday night after the game. For the season, he has completed 155 of 269 passes (57.6 percent) for 1,884 yards with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions and an overall 76.5 rating.
“Those are some of the things that we have to clean up and do along with taking sacks, personally, in situations when I need to get rid of the ball,” Locker said.
Although the Titans’ defense has improved in recent weeks, it had no way to go but up. In the first nine games, the Titans allowed 30 or more points eight times, including giving up 51 to Chicago in a home loss. Taking a large brunt of the criticism has been Griffin, the two-time Pro Bowler who had the franchise tag lifted when he signed a five-year, $35 million deal last June.
Then again, the sixth-year former first-round pick out of Texas, who has started every game but one the past five seasons, does lead the Titans with 95 tackles, which can’t say much about the front seven when the free safety tops such a category.
“There have been plenty of games where either we’ve been up or we’ve been close, but we just didn’t finish,” Griffin said of keeping the Jets out of the end zone on five possessions in the fourth quarter. “It’s been put on the defense a couple of times this season, but we have to live up to the challenge. It’s a team sport, and we all work together.”