Iron Mike and the Street Rats
Mike Vrabel likes his Tennessee Titans team to be the physical embodiment of him as a player. Tough, well coached and situationally aware.
When COVID-19 took out Titans players and personnel staff for almost two weeks, the head coach had to prepare his players, mostly virtually, to play three games in 13 days. Tennessee dispatched Buffalo and Houston, and moved onto yesterday’s showdown with Pittsburgh. Vrabel is not part of an exciting wave of college coaches in the league, nor is he an offensive genius. He’s a defensive mind, who had made the transition to be a NFL head coach, after a stellar NFL career as an All Pro linebacker and three-time Super Bowl winner with the New England Patriots. Vrabel’s players love him and it is easy to see why. One minute he’s performing push ups as part of his pre-game ritual, during the Titans’ playoff run to the AFC Championship game last season. Next, he’s getting one over on his former coach Bill Belichick. During Tennessee’s playoff win over the Patriots, Vrabel had the Titans take a delay of game penalty, and then follow it with an intentional false start penalty with one second remaining on the play clock. It was a combination of penalties that allowed the Titans to take one minute and 19 seconds off the clock between snaps while protecting a late lead. Belichick had previously used the tactic. Coach Vrabel likes to refer to his team as ‘Street Rats’ for their ability to find a way to get the job done. Yesterday they faced Pittsburgh at home.
Game of the Week: Pittsburgh Steelers @ Tennessee Titans
After building a commanding first half lead, the Pittsburgh Steelers held off a determined Tennessee Titans comeback to advance to 6-0 on the season. Pittsburgh hung on despite being outplayed in the second half, to win 27-24. The game had been billed as the battle of two of the NFL’s bullies, the most physical and the AFC’s remaining undefeated teams. The Steelers were in total control in the first half. In the second, the game lived up to its billing. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger started the season with unerring accuracy and a low turnover count. He orchestrated a beautiful nine minute, 16-play opening drive that led to a touchdown. A feature of the first half was how much time in possession Pittsburgh had, and how difficult they made life for the Titans defense. Wide receivers Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster got open time and time again, while rookie Chase Claypool attracted all the Titans attention and had a quiet day. If these receivers can stay fit, the Steelers can spread the ball around with the best in the league. It is so impressive to see how Pittsburgh’s defense wrecks opposing teams rhythm. T.J. Watt led a Pittsburgh defensive front that sucked the life out of Tennessee’s offense and stifled power back Derrick Henry. In the second half, the Titans came to life and forced two turnovers.
The intentional grounding penalty on Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, halted what looked to be the game winning drive. They had one, final chance to take the game to overtime but missed a last second field goal.
Pittsburgh improves to 6-0. At 5-1, Tennessee power on manfully, just like their head coach.
Week 7 Highlights
MVP of the Week: Joe Burrow produced a virtuoso performance and, again, his Cincinnati Bengals came up short, losing with seconds remaining. He was remarkable while improvising despite being harried all day long by Cleveland Browns pass rusher Myles Garrett. I’ve said it before: his ability to keep his eyes downfield and escape collapsing pockets is a hallmark of elite NFL quarterbacks. Burrow became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400-plus yards, three passing touchdowns and run for a score in a single game. Joe doesn’t care for statistics. This was another crushing loss for the Bengals.
Bradywatch: Tom Brady gave a masterclass in precision strikes to his receivers and clock management, as the Tampa Bay cast aside the Raiders. Brady needs to buy generous Thanksgiving gifts for his offensive line who continue to provide great protection.
A Problem Called Antonio Brown: Tampa Bay has signed wide receiver Antonio Brown from the top of the NFL’s problem, rotten egg pile. After multiple transgressions and former teams in his rearview window, the NFL has agreed to allow Brown to play again in Week 9. The Latin to accompany Tampa’s Bay move for him, is caveat emptor - let the buyer beware. It is a curious move for the Buccaneers to willingly play roulette and disrupt the locker room for the sake of a Super Bowl run. Brown forced his way out of Pittsburgh and Oakland with erratic behavior, including hiring a social media lackey to agitate for a move. New England booted him out the door when more allegations came to light. His history of alleged abuse, sexual misconduct and threatening behavior, should be enough for him to never darken the door of the NFL again. Sadly, that appears not to be the case for the Bucs. Winning football games is all that matters to some. It is a Faustian pact.
NFC West: The San Francisco 49ers demolished the New England Patriots to announce they are a force awakened. Arizona produced the upset of the day to stun the Seattle Seahawks in overtime. On the back of their first loss, the Seahawks play the 49ers next weekend in what should be another titanic struggle between the two. The Rams play the Bears tonight.
Stat of the Week: New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones reached 21.23 MPH on his epic 80-yard run against the Philadelphia Eagles. His dash should have been a touchdown had he not collapsed yards of the endzone. It is the fastest speed by a quarterback as a ball carrier in over two years. No comfort for a winless Giants.
Quote of the Week: Former Miami Dolphins starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on his benching for young starter Tua Tagovailoa: “I basically got fired and my day today consisted of Zoom meetings with the guy who fired me (head coach Brian Flores) and sitting in a room with the guy who replaced me (Tua Tagovailoa) for four hours.” 2020, eh?
Woefully Disappointing Award: It must go to the AFC’s Houston Texans and the NFC’s Minnesota Vikings. Both went 10-6 and won a playoff game last season. This season’s showing has been abject. They are both 1-5.
Back to Work
For long periods against the Steelers, the Tennessee Titans defense rarely got off the field and couldn’t get any pressure. They looked like a team playing their third game in 13 days, after a COVID-19 disruption. Don’t expect them to grumble about it.
We know too much about the DNA of Tennessee. Expect them to bounce back under Mike Vrabel’s authentic leadership. No one should be too surprised if what we saw yesterday turns out to be the AFC Championship game in late January. After making it there in January 2020, Vrabel’s Titans have unfinished business.