NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The 8-3 Tennessee Titans have already accomplished a lot during the 2020 season, but perhaps the team’s most impressive feat has been its ability to withstand injuries.
A handful of key starters currently sit on the Titans’ injured reserve list, and another handful has missed a game or two here or there. That doesn’t even take into account the two-week span during which many key players sat out because of the coronavirus.
Yet, the Titans have kept on trucking and, more importantly, kept on winning. Several players have attributed those triumphs to a “next man up” mindset.
“Obviously, you never want to see your teammates go down, but if someone happens to go down, we have to have a next-man-up mentality and find a way to execute and move the football and score points,” QB Ryan Tannehill said.
“That’s been our mindset throughout this year and we hope to continue that.”
MORE THAN A MINDSET
The Titans’ ability to succeed in the face of injuries to key players goes beyond having that mindset, though.
After all, every head coach of every NFL team probably has, at one point or another, spoken of the importance of a “next man up” mentality. It’s one of the oldest cliches in the book.
But, unlike a lot of the other teams that preach about “next man up,” the Titans put the notion into action.
One of the reasons they’re able to do so is the fact that, for the Titans, it’s not just coach-speak or a nifty mantra to paint on the walls of the locker room. Instead, it’s a way of life.
The phrase and, more importantly, the attitude exists for the Titans outside of press conferences and pre-game speeches.
“It goes down to the way we coach them,” head coach Mike Vrabel said. “Whoever comes to work is going to get coached. The expectation is that anybody who’s on the regular roster or the practice squad should be ready and available to play.
“I think they realize that they’re one snap away from having to go in there.”
That’s been clear throughout the 2020 season. Every time a key Titans player has gone down with an injury, whether major or minor, a ready-to-go replacement has stepped in and, for the most part, done it seamlessly.
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While Vrabel and the other Titans coaches’ insistence on preparedness is part of the recipe, it’s not all of it. The Titans’ ability to succeed without key players is also a testament to the roster that general manager Jon Robinson has assembled, particularly on the back end.
A team needs more than just prepared replacements to not be harmed too badly by injuries—they need capable ones.
Robinson has given the Titans plenty of players who fit that description to a tee, many of whom have proven to be under-the-radar gems who will continue to make contributions even when their predecessors return to full health.
CB Bredon Borders certainly falls within that category. The 25-year-old cornerback has been exceptional in relief of Adoree’ Jackson, who has yet to play in 2020.
Other gems that the Titans have stumbled on include DL Teair Tart, an undrafted rookie free agent; LB Will Compton, who is playing at a high level in relief of the injured Jayon Brown; LT Ty Sambrailo, who did a great job of protecting Tannehill’s blindside in relief of Taylor Lewan before being seriously injured, himself; and RB D’Onta Foreman, who has given the Titans some nice runs while they wait for injured third-round rookie Darrynton Evans to return.
LT David Quessenberry, who became the Titans’ third different starting left tackle of the 2020 season in the team’s most recent game against Indianapolis, could soon join that list. He played very well against the Colts.
These success stories give Vrabel and his staff the ability to prove the truth of their “always be ready to play” motto.
“We try to point out and emphasize those players who have been called into duty and done well earned more opportunity by their ability to help the football team,” Vrabel said.
PUTTING IT INTO ACTION
That job has been made very easy in 2020.
It’s really quite amazing how well the Titans have adjusted to key players’ being injured.
Well-known starters like LT Taylor Lewan, LG Rodger Saffold, LB Jayon Brown, S Kenny Vaccaro, WR A.J. Brown and OLB Jadeveon Clowney are just a fraction of the players who have missed games for the Titans this season.
Somehow, though, the team hasn’t missed a beat.
“This league has a 100% injury rate,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Guys have to come in and step up. For us to go on a long run and get to where we want to get, you’re never going to have all 11 of your starters out there at a time.”
All teams believe that, but the Titans put it into practice.
Cover image: Katie Stratman & Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today