Inspired by head coach Mike Vrabel’s pre-game speech, the Tennessee Titans went into their game against the Patriots with a new mindset.
With the juggernaut New England Patriots in town on Sunday, the Tennessee Titans rose to the occasion. They dominated the reigning AFC champions (34-10) for four quarters, causing a vast majority of the many Patriots fans who attended the game to head for the exits early.
Last time the Titans won at Nissan Stadium, the scene in the locker room after the game was one of cockiness. That’s when some players, namely Kevin Byard and Taylor Lewan, made their now-infamous cries for more attention from the national media.
In the three games that followed those comments, the Titans were 0-3. They went into the bye week with a losing record, and, two weeks later, that has changed.
Winning percentage isn’t the only thing that has changed for the better within the Titans organization since the bye week, their attitude has as well.
After a dismantling of the Patriots, arguably the best and most consistent team in the NFL, the Titans didn’t demand that they be talked about in the press. They didn’t act as if they had somehow earned something by winning a regular season game.
Instead, they emphasized the importance of teamwork. The old cliché of “complementary football” was rampant in the locker room following Sunday’s game, but it was appropriate.
Salute to Service
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) November 11, 2018
Sunday served as the Titans’ “Salute to Service” game, the league’s annual opportunity to honor men and women who have served in the armed forces. The Titans had a number of veterans and active servicemen and women in attendance, and head coach Mike Vrabel took advantage of the situation to send his team an important message.
After the game, Vrabel explained the message he gave the team. “Being veteran day, talking about our veterans that serve a greater sacrifice than just themselves. I said ‘we’re never going to be soldiers or give that type of commitment, but we’re football players and we can serve each other.’ We can serve everybody else on our team as opposed to us individually.”
The Titans seemed to really take that message to heart, as all three phases of the game played very well throughout the game. The synergy across units was perhaps the biggest key to the Titans’ win.
On the very first play of the game, receiver Darius Jennings returned the opening kickoff 58 yards to the Patriots’ 40-yard line. Just a handful of plays later, quarterback Marcus Mariota hit tight end Jonnu Smith in the end zone for a touchdown.
The Patriots’ ensuing possession was cut short thanks to good coverage from the Titans defense, and, following a successful field goal from New England, the Titans again punched the ball into the end zone to take an early 14-3 lead.
This pattern of complementary football continued for the rest of the game. The Titans offense usually had good field position, the defense played with a lead for the game’s entirety, and the special teams did their jobs very well too.
“It was huge,” said linebacker Wesley Woodyard about being able to play such good complementary football. “Anytime you play New England or anytime you’re watching New England, you always sit back and say, ‘Aw, New England has a chance to win.’ It’s because teams beat themselves, and the Patriots never beat themselves.
“They don’t play sloppy football, they know how to be dominant, they know how to play football. It’s a team win—you’ve got to play complementary football when you’re going up against a team that knows how to win.”
Mariota was also appreciative of Vrabel’s message. “First and foremost,” he said, “it’s a blessing for us to be able to do what we do. All the people overseas that are able to make this happen for us, all we can do is just say thank you. Vrabel really hit it on the nail, he put things into perspective. For us, if we can play that complimentary football we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”
Energy and Effort
The Titans new attitude of playing for each other also revealed itself on Sunday in ways that the stat sheet or scoreboard won’t reflect. From the moment the team took the field, they were full of energy.
In noticeable contrast to the games during their losing streak, in which many of the players looked to be sleepwalking, the Titans took the field ready to play on Sunday. They were bouncing around, giving lots of high fives, and just seemed prepared for what was ultimately a blowout of a very good football team.
“First off, I think it revolves around our home stadium,” Woodyard said of the energy the team came out with. “Anytime we’re here, we’re going to be amped up and excited, and we want our crowds to feed off of us. That’s how you can steal a game. If your crowd’s into it and jumping around, it’s going to help you out on the field later on.”
Linebacker and special teams captain Daren Bates said that, while it may not always be visible from the outside looking in, the team always makes an effort to be energetic. “Every game we try to come out with energy. You have to always bring your own energy; you don’t know what the crowd’s going to be, you don’t know what the refs are going to be…You feed off of each other, so we try to bring our own things and feed off of each other and make plays.”
Bates added that he, too, was a fan of Mike Vrabel’s pre-game message. “Those men, they go out and give their lives for the whole country, that’s tough. But we go out for each other, to have each other’s back. Whenever anything happens, we have to be able to have each others’ backs the same way that they do. We take that to heart because we’ve all been through so much, through Training Camp, OTA’s (organized team activities), blood sweat and tears. We try to model our game after theirs.”
Vrabel with lots of praise for Dean Pees and the defense. pic.twitter.com/uDFg4l195G
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) November 11, 2018
The Salute to Service game, something that is usually an afterthought for fans who aren’t in attendance of the game, could not have come at a better time for the Titans. They clearly received some much-needed inspiration, and the attitude with which they played on Sunday needs to follow them for the rest of the season.
Additionally, Vrabel deserves all the credit in the world. He learned his lesson when the Titans went on a winning streak earlier in the season and the locker room reacted poorly, saying after Sunday’s win, “I’ve got to do a better job than I did last time when we were 3-1.”
If the way the Titans handled their win against the Patriots is any indication, they have put the “look at us” demons from earlier in the season well behind them. “We’re coming off the field and into the tunnel,” Vrabel said of the game, “and guys are like, ‘Man, onto the next one, onto the Colts.’ I really appreciate that.”
He should appreciate it. It’s a very good change and one that will only serve to help the growth of this team.
Cover image: USA Today/Jim Brown and Christopher Hanewinckel