Late in their Week Six loss to Arizona, Cleveland lost their starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield, to a significant injury to his non-throwing shoulder. With a quick turnaround before their next game that Thursday, the Browns welcomed the slumping Denver Broncos missing not only their quarterback, but also both of their top two running backs (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt). If ever Denver were going to take down the Browns, this would be the day.
But, instead, Case Keenum stepped in and played a solid game in relief of Mayfield, and a heretofore unknown running back named D’Ernest Johnson stepped into the shoes of the two All-Pros and ran through the Broncos to the tune of 146 yards, leading Cleveland to a crucial 17-14 victory.
Early in next Sunday’s game, New Orleans’ quarterback Jameis Winston suffered a season-ending knee injury, leaving the Saints with just Trevor Siemian to contend with Tom Brady and the defending champions from Tampa Bay. Again, though, the backup came through. Backed by a ferocious defense, Siemian did just enough to nudge New Orleans into the victor’s circle, 36-27.
Later that day the then 5-1 Dallas Cowboys dropped in on the scuffling 3-3 Minnesota Vikings. They would be without their star quarterback, as Dak Prescott wasn’t sufficiently recovered from a calf injury he sustained two weeks earlier. In his place, Cooper Rush would make his first career start. If the Vikings were ever going to take down the Dallas juggernaut, this would be the day.
Instead, Rush threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns – the last being the game winner in the closing moments of the 20-16 Dallas win.
The super-substitute show took center stage in Week Nine as two damaged teams went on the road to face formidable opponents. On Sunday afternoon, a vitiated Arizona team went into San Francisco to face a desperate 3-4 49er team. Unavailable to them were quarterback Kyler Murray and his top two receiving targets – DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green. On the first play of the game, leading rusher Chase Edmonds joined those other guys on the sideline with an ankle sprain.
The Cardinal injury situation was such that the 7-1 Cardinals were listed as a 3.5 point underdog to the 3-4 49ers. If ever San Francisco was going to work its way past the Cardinals, this would have been the day.
Later that night, the Los Angeles Rams hosted the Tennessee Titans. Tennessee was, arguably, as hot as any team in football. They came in on the heels of four straight victories, three of them over playoff teams from last year. But they also came in without running back Derrick Henry – as irreplaceable an offensive talent as there is in the league. Since there are enduring questions about Tennessee’s offensive viability without Henry, they seemed especially vulnerable as they lined up against the 7-1 Rams. If the Rams were going to push Tennessee around, this, seemingly, would be the day.
But, as with the earlier examples cited, the shorthanded franchises walked away – not just with wins, but with easy victories. The Cardinals jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead and cruised on to a 31-17 win (gamebook) (summary). Tennessee took a 21-3 advantage into the locker room at halftime, and never looked back as they polished off the Rams, 28-16 (gamebook) (summary).
In many ways, these two contests were almost the same game. There were a few common threads that ran through each of them.
Someone Steps Up
As you would expect, with major playmakers missing, someone else needed to rise to the occasion. Both the Cardinals and the Titans saw that happen.
For the Cardinals, the leading role went to “other” running back James Conner. Conner will spell Edmonds frequently during the game. Mostly, though, James is the short-yardage back. Coming into the game, Conner was averaging only 3.8 yards per carry, but had scored 8 rushing touchdowns. In general, he is not thought of as a “big play” threat.
But with Chase on the shelf, James showed a pop that surprised many. His 96 yard rushing day included a 35-yard burst in the second half. His 77-yard pass receiving day included a screen pass that he took 45 yards for a touchdown. Seventy-three of those 96 rushing yards came after contact – 3.5 YAC yards per carry.
Conner was perfectly complimented by backup quarterback Colt McCoy. In a nearly flawless performance, Colt completed 22 of 26 passes – including 10 of 11 in the second half, when his only incompletion was a third-down drop by Zach Ertz.
The game-plan was as predictable as it could be for a backup throwing his first passes of the year. It was almost all short stuff. Of the 25 passes he actually threw at a target (he had one throw-away), only 3 were thrown at receivers more than 10 yards downfield. Otherwise, he got rid of the ball quickly and put it in places that allowed his receivers room to run after the catch. Of his 249 passing yards, 193 came after the catch (8.8 YAC yards per catch). He also made great use of play-action, going 12 of 14 (85.7%) for 177 yards and a touchdown on those throws.
Colt was the picture of the quarterback playing within himself. The big runs from Conner and the disciplined controlled passing game from McCoy was just what the doctor ordered for the Cards.
None of Tennessee’s offensive backups made much of a splash. In the absence of Henry, the team added veteran running backs Adrian Peterson and D’Onta Foreman. Peterson accounted for 26 scrimmage yards, and Foreman 29. The difference maker for the Titans was its defense.
The Titan defense is kind of hard to figure out. In Week Seven they shut down the sometimes explosive Kansas City Chiefs in a 27-3 win – impressive even though the offense allowed the defense to play downhill. Nonetheless, holding the Rams to 16 points makes only four times in nine weeks that Tennessee has held an opponent to fewer than 20 points. They have four other games where they have given up more than 30 points. In general, though, as the pass rush has picked up, the pass defense overall has tightened up.
In their 3-2 start, they dropped an opposing quarterback just 10 times in 177 pass attempts (just 5.6%). Consequently, they allowed those passers a 100.3 rate and a 9-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, while allowing 26 points a game. Beginning with their Week Six Monday Night contest against Buffalo, the Titan pass rush re-charged. Tennessee has managed three or more sacks in three of their last four contests – all wins. Over their last three games – against Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz and now Matthew Stafford – the Tennessee pass defense has allowed just 4 touchdown passes, while intercepting 5 passes and holding those passers to a 69.1 rating.
They were at their aggressive best against the Rams – who brought the league’s fifth-ranked offense (both in yards and points). But a combination of disruptive inside pressure – especially from tackle Jeffery Simmons – and split safety coverage grounded the Rams and their high-powered offense.
Inside, Simmons put together the best game of his three-year career. His 3 sacks against the Rams were more than he had in the season’s first 8 games combined (2.5) and equaled his total from all of 2020. He also knocked Stafford down once and recorded a “hurry” – defined as forcing the passer to throw sooner than he wanted, or chasing him from the pocket – for a season-high five pressures.
Through his first 8 games, Matthew had suffered just 7 sacks, and was being dropped on just 2.5% of his pass attempts. Both figures were the lowest for any qualifying passer. That protection allowed Stafford to ignite a down-field passing attack that averaged 9.07 yards per attempted pass (the second-best average in the NFL), 13.2 yards per completion (the fourth-best figure), 22 touchdown passes (second), and a touchdown percentage of 8.1% (third). His season-long 118.0 passer rating was second in the league at the start of the game.
But Simmons and the Titans sacked Stafford four times in the first half alone – and finished the game with 5. Matthew threw just one pass more than twenty yards downfield (an incompletion) and was just 6 for 13 (46.2%) on passes from 10 to 20 yards from scrimmage. He finished the first half with just 62 passing yards. After throwing just 4 interceptions over his first 8 games, Stafford tossed 2 in the first half.
The heroic defensive performance was almost completely responsible for the Titans’ 18-point halftime lead – a deficit which the Rams were unable to overcome.
Which brings me to the second common thread.
Both losing offenses put themselves in a trail position when they bunched turnovers early in the game. Two first-half fumbles cost the 49ers dearly. The first – by one of football’s top tight ends, George Kittle – set Arizona up near mid-field. It took the Cards 9 plays from there to put the ball in the end zone for the game’s first points. The second quarter fumble was, arguably, more deflating.
Trailing, now, 14-0, San Francisco was finally finding a little offensive momentum. After ripping off at least 11 yards on three consecutive plays, the 49ers found themselves with a first-and-ten on the Cardinal 30 with still 12:35 left in the half. Here receiver Brandon Aiyuk went vertical to corral a long pass from San Fran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But, instead of first and goal, linebacker Isaiah Simmons came from behind and punched the ball free, where it was recovered by Jordan Hicks (who had also made the first fumble recovery) on the 8 yard line.
Arizona then ground 8:23 off the clock as they drove into range for the field goal that built their lead to 17-0.
A critical part of this turn of events was that the Cardinals capitalized on the opportunities presented them. They scored 10 points off the two turnovers – the exact margin of their halftime lead.
The turnover cluster that doomed the Rams was even more spectacular.
It was almost exactly at that same point of the second quarter, with 12:36 left before the half. Los Angeles was leading 3-0 at this point.
A brilliant punt had backed the Rams up inside their own five-yard line. After a short pass left them with a third-and-four on their own ten, Simmons turned the game decisively in the Titans’ favor.
Blowing through the line, Jeffery wrapped his arms about Stafford and was about to drag him down at the goal line. Concerned that he might give up a safety, Matthew flipped the ball blindly toward the line. His hope was that it would fall incomplete and give his team a chance to punt. But before the ball could find the turf, linebacker David Long picked it off. He didn’t quite take the ball all the way to the end zone, but gave the Titans a first-and-goal at the two. It took them 1 play to take the lead.
Bad enough. But on the very first play of the next possession, Stafford’s sideline pass for Robert Woods was picked off by Kevin Byard. This time, the Titan defender wasn’t denied the end zone. In 15 seconds of football time, Tennessee had turned a 3-0 deficit into a 14-3 lead. They would not be headed.
The lead itself, of course, was huge. Even more important, though, was what it meant to the Arizona offense for the rest of the game. When you are starting your backup quarterback – and missing all of your playmakers – the one thing you hope is that your second line people aren’t put in a position where they will have to make an exceptional play to win the game. The sizeable lead allowed them to keep playing small ball, grind the clock, and keep the Ram offense on the sideline.
Coaching and the Expectation of Victory
I have great respect for both of the losing coaches in these games. Both Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan have led their teams to Super Bowls recently, and both are top offensive minds. But I think that both of these games were won in the locker room as much as they were on the field. Just watching the Cards and the Titans you could see that they were not just hoping that something good would happen. There was no one on these teams that was surprised by the outcomes. Even minus several irreplaceable talents, both Arizona and Tennessee expected to win their games.
Clearly, the coaches and players view their weekly contests differently than their fan base does. The decimation of the Arizona roster would have put me in a mostly hopeless state – were I a follower of the Arizona version of the Cardinals. Were I a Tennessee fan, the announcement that Henry was likely done for the season would cause me to abandon hope for the rest of the season. In the locker room, though, the attitude is decidedly different. Yes, they all miss Derrick – and the impact of his loss on the team is not lost on them. But they thing they all understand from the beginning of the season is that the nature of the game is that anyone can be lost for the rest of the season at any time. No one on a football team can be irreplaceable. The “next-man-up” mentality is a football cliché, but it is – nonetheless – how you have to approach a football season.
This expectation begins with the coaching staff and extends down through the rest of the locker room. After six middling seasons at Texas Tech, Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury came to the NFL with some question marks. His Red Raider teams finished five games under .500, never finished in the top-25, and only went to three bowl games (losing two of them). It’s not the optimal pedigree for an NFL coaching hopeful.
But the Cardinals have enjoyed steady success under Kingsbury – who now has them at 8-1 halfway through his third season as their coach. And never has he been better than in the middle of this crisis. Even as more players were going down around him, Kliff and his entire sideline exuded the confidence of a team that doesn’t believe it can be beat – regardless of the circumstances.
Arizona’s situation is better than Tennessee’s. The Cardinals will be getting their stars back. They just have to weather the storm. Derrick Henry will almost assuredly not be back – and if they should make the unwise decision to try to bring him back, his foot injury would leave him as only a shadow of his former self.
In the wake of Henry’s loss (and despite what I wrote earlier about no one being irreplaceable), the struggles of the Titan offense are concerning. Ryan Tannehill threw for just 143 yards and the offense managed just 194. If this is how the rest of the season will go, Tennessee could be in trouble.
Even so, what a pleasure it is watching their coach – Mike Vrabel – prowl the sidelines. Behind him is 14 years as a tough-as-nails linebacker – mostly in New England, where he won three Super Bowls. Now Mike brings that same intensity and toughness to the Titans. You don’t have to watch him for very long to see that he lives for Sunday. On Mike’s teams, competitiveness outweighs talent. His main expectation is that his players will fight to the final gun. You get the feeling that he could lead a team of girl scouts to victory on Sunday, so long as those girls were tough enough to punch someone in the mouth.
That begin said, his Titans are in a bind. Last Sunday, his defense rose up and came to the rescue. But it’s unlikely that they will be able to ride just their defense to a playoff berth. In Week Eight, the Saints rode an overwhelming defensive performance to an upset win over the Buccaneers. Last Sunday, that defense didn’t have enough answers to help them past Atlanta.
If Mike can’t get more juice out of his offense, it will likely be a long, short season for the Titans.
Super Bowl Re-Matches
The Titan/Ram game was one of five Super Bowl rematches that played out over Week Nine – and, even though that Super Bowl was played 22 seasons ago, it’s still the second-most recent of the re-matches – most of which date back to the earliest days of the Super Bowl.
The re-matched games were Super Bowl I (Green Bay over Kansas City) played after the 1966 season, Super Bowl III (the Jets over the then-Baltimore Colts) played after the 1968 season, Super Bowl XII (Dallas over Denver) played after the 1977 season, Super Bowl XXXIV (the then-St Louis Rams over Tennessee) played after the 1999 season, and Super Bowl XXXVIII (New England over Carolina) played after the 2003 season. Of the coaches and players involved, only New England coach Bill Belichick is still with the same team in the same capacity.
If you believe that revenge is a dish best served cold, then its sweet revenge for the four oldest of the Super Bowl losers, as they all came away with victories over their former conquerors. The Patriots were the only ones to replicate their previous victory.