NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With four games left in the season, the Tennessee Titans find themselves in contention for the final playoff spot in the AFC. The Titans probably have to win out, starting with their matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night, to punch their postseason ticket.
To beat the Jaguars (4-8), the Titans (6-6) will have to stretch the field to open up the rest of the offense. The bulk of that responsibility falls on quarterback Marcus Mariota, and he is starting to complete passes down the field.
His completion percentage this season (68.6) would be by far the best of his career thanks to a steady diet of short throws, but over the past couple of weeks, he has started to connect with his pass-catchers for more explosive plays. Through 12 games, Mariota has completed 30 passes of 20 yards or more. Five of those plays were good for 40 yards or more (tied for 14th in the NFL), and four of those five have come over the past two games.
Receiver Taywan Taylor exploded for 104 yards on three catches in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets on Sunday, when Tennessee rallied for a 26-22 win. Taylor and Mariota connected for plays of 44 yards and 55 yards, respectively, that fueled the comeback.
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The big plays brought the fans at Nissan Stadium to their feet and lit a fire under an offense that was struggling until that point.
Those explosive plays are back-breakers for a defense because they flip the field quickly, and more importantly, they force opposing teams to play the Titans differently. The dink-and-dunk passing by the Titans that was prevalent for most of the season allowed teams to condense the field because they didn’t respect the deep passing game. Defensive backs would squat on routes by Tennessee receivers because they weren’t worried about getting beat deep.
Head coach Mike Vrabel wants to make sure that doesn’t happen going forward.
“We have to do more of that, just to keep teams from sitting on you and bodying up at the top of the route,” he said. “It was good to see Taywan be able to stretch the defense and go make a play. To be able to hit two of those to change field position and momentum. Certainly, we would like to have as many of those every week as we could.”
The vertical threat Taylor presents will help open things up underneath for players such as wide receiver Tajae Sharpe to work the middle of the field. Running back Dion Lewis also will have more space to run choice routes out of the backfield. The tight ends can have a more significant impact with more space as well.
“It definitely helps,” Mariota said. “When you’re able to have that threat, I think defenses have to keep on us, and not really just hang on everything and play tight on all of our routes underneath.”
These are the areas that Tennessee tends to attack in third-down situations. Mariota likes to make the high-percentage throws between the hashes where Sharpe can create separation.
Stretching the field also will help the running game. When Tennessee wasn’t hitting deep throws, opposing safeties played closer to the line, making it tougher to run. Finding balance on offense by establishing the run makes offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur’s scheme go, and fewer defenders close to the line of scrimmage is important in LaFleur’s zone scheme. Running backs will have a more open cutback lane leading to big plays on the ground.
Success on the ground makes play-action work, and that produces big plays because it provides max protection so the receivers can run longer-developing routes. Those explosive plays make defenses back up, which makes it easier to run the ball effectively.
A stout Jaguars defense, fresh off pitching a shutout against the explosive Colts, will make it difficult for Tennessee to keep up its recent trend of hitting big pass plays. The highlight reels have been focusing on Mariota and his receivers, but the quarterback says the big plays can’t happen without protection.
“They’re huge,” Mariota said about the offensive line. “To give us the time to be able to do that is so important. Those guys, they don’t get a whole lot of credit for what they do, but they are definitely the focal point of this offense.”
Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph defends kicking field goal on fourth-and-1 vs. Cleveland Browns — ‘I wanted points there’
DENVER — The Denver Broncos went with math over a gut feel Saturday night, and many of their faithful left the 17-16 loss to the Cleveland Browns talking about a fourth-and-1 on which the team didn’t go for it in the closing minutes as the Broncos dropped to 6-8 and the brink of postseason elimination.
With 4 minutes, 39 seconds remaining, trailing 17-13 and with a fourth-and-1 on the Cleveland 6-yard line, Broncos coach Vance Joseph sent kicker Brandon McManus out for a field goal as boos cascaded down from the stands.
“I wanted points there,” Joseph said. “Had about 4:35 to go in the game. We had one timeout and the two-minute warning. I trust our defense to get a stop there, OK. If we don’t get points there, a touchdown has to win it. It was my decision — take points.”
McManus made the 29-yard field goal — after a delay of game penalty — and the Broncos did get the ball back after their defense stopped the Browns deep in Denver territory, but the Broncos couldn’t move the ball past the 50-yard line to kick a game winner.
Broncos quarterback Case Keenum said he was confident that the Broncos could have converted the fourth-and-1, but he added that he was angry he didn’t get the offense in position for the game winner after the team got the ball back.
“Yes, I felt confident [we would have converted the fourth down],” Keenum said. “I wanted to convert third down. That’s what I wanted to do. [Joseph] felt like the defense would get a stop, and [we would] get the ball back, and they did. They got a stop, and we got the ball back. I can’t complain. I had the ball in my hands with a chance to win the game. That’s all you can ask for.”
Joseph said “absolutely” the Broncos’ back-to-back runs for just 2 yards and no gain on the two plays before the field goal influenced the decision.
“Absolutely, the third-down play didn’t look great, and we had points,” Joseph said. “Again, I trust our defense to get a stop the next drive, and we did … hoping we get a stop there and get the ball back.”
While the Broncos’ defense held on a Browns fourth-down play on the next Cleveland possession, that stand came at Denver’s 13-yard line after Browns running back Nick Chubb gained 53 yards on six carries on the drive. That included a 40-yard run on the first play of Cleveland’s drive.
“That last drive, what was it: 75 yards rushing?” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “We can’t allow that.”
In five plays, the Broncos were able to go from their own 13-yard line to earn a first-and-10 at the 50-yard line with 52 seconds to play. Joseph said he believed the Broncos needed to get to the Cleveland 42-yard line, at minimum, for McManus to have a chance at a game winner.
Keenum spiked the ball on first down and threw two incompletions to give the Broncos a fourth-and-10 from the 50. Keenum took a low snap in the shotgun and was swarmed under by the Browns’ rush for a sack to end the Broncos’ chances.
“I’m still pretty emotional about it,” Keenum said. “Man, that’s what I dream about. Man, that’s what I want. I want the ball in my hands with a chance to win the game … to get that close, it pisses me off … Lot of anger at myself. There’s some plays I could make that I didn’t.”
It wasn’t pretty, but for at least one more night, the Browns are still in the playoff hunt – Cleveland Browns Blog
DENVER – The Cleveland Browns don’t care how it happened, they just care that it did.
The Browns somehow had slogged through for a 17-16 win, their fourth in five games.
And they had somehow kept their flickering playoff hopes alive.
It was a struggle — for both teams, but the Browns now hope for help on Sunday and point to Cincinnati in a home game on Dec. 23. The team is 4-2 with Gregg Williams as interim coach and Freddie Kitchens as offensive coordinator.
Mayfield was nowhere near as effective as he had been the previous four games, but when it mattered most he came through. After a T.J. Carrie fourth quarter interception, Mayfield hit Jarvis Landry for 12, Rashard Higgins for 16, Landry for six and then found Antonio Callaway for the touchdown that provided the winning points.
Denver would get a field goal to cut the lead to one, but Chubb broke a 40-yard run and the Browns were able to keep the ball until 1:49 remained.
Keenum got the Broncos to the 50, but a spike and two incomplete passes led to the fourth-and-10, when the Browns called blitz and Peppers came through up the middle to end the game.
Mayfield started strong, throwing a 31-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman on the Browns first possession. He finished 18-for-31 for 188 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and a lost fumble.
It wasn’t a spectacular effort.
But it was a winning effort, and a Browns team that had won four games in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons combined has won four of five to keep the postseason in view. At 6-7-1, the Browns trail five seven-win teams in the standings. If the Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans all win Sunday, Cleveland would be eliminated from the race. But, still, at least for Saturday night, the Browns are still alive.
That’s not a prediction many would have made when the Browns fell to 2-6-1 after Williams’ first game, or even before the season.
But that’s where the Browns are.
Believe it or not.
Von Miller eclipses Simon Fletcher as Broncos’ all-time sacks leader
DENVER — Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller has always said he considers the most important part of his job is “getting sacks and making game-changing plays,” and he has now done that more than any other player in franchise history.
When Miller launched himself through the Cleveland Browns‘ offensive line on the last play of the third quarter Saturday night and pulled quarterback Baker Mayfield to the ground, he had his 98th career sack.
Miller passed Broncos Ring of Famer Simon Fletcher, who finished his career with 97.5 sacks.
The play came at an opportune time for the Broncos, as the Browns had driven into Denver territory against a Broncos defense depleted at cornerback by injury and Jamar Taylor‘s ejection. The sack also gave Miller 14.5 for the season, the second-highest single-season total of his career.
His career high is 18.5 in 2012.
Miller was asked this past week if he thinks about awards and records down the road.
“I don’t really,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t. The thing about getting sacks, the sack race is so close right now. I’m three sacks away from [Rams defensive tackle] Aaron Donald, and the next guy behind me is just a sack away. So, it’s a tight race and every sack could mean the difference. That’s where my mindset is at right now.”
The Browns beat the Broncos 17-16.
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