Tenacious Titans keep finding plays, ways to stay undefeated

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Traumatic. Tenacious. Triumphant. All apply to the Tennessee Titans, who’ve somehow pulled out three straight wins late for their first 3-0 start since 2008.

Now the Titans and that undefeated start is about to be put to a serious test. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills, both currently 3-0, are coming to Music City to kick off a three-game homestand with the Titans still having plenty of issues to work on.

At least the ability to make game-winning plays is not on the list to fix after a 31-30 win in Minnesota.

“It’s much more valuable than losing by one, but we have to be able to play better to try to not be in those tight games,” coach Mike Vrabel said Monday. “But I do think that our ability to function when the games are tight or maybe when we’re behind or have to execute these situations, that can only help you.”

Since Ryan Tannehill took over as the starting quarterback in mid-October last season, the Titans have won five games in his 13 starts in the regular season by three or fewer points. It’s the most such wins in the NFL in that span.

These three wins have come by the total margin of six points, the slimmest net point total for any of the NFL’s undefeated teams. It’s half the margin for the next-closest team with Chicago (3-0) having won by a margin of 12 points.

“It’s not what we want to rely on,” Vrabel said. “But it’s something that we feel like we gain confidence that the players don’t panic, and we’re able to execute the situations as they come up down the stretch.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The offense. The Titans are averaging 26.7 points a game so far, and Derrick Henry has a league-high 319 yards rushing. They had a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver in Minnesota. They also scored on five straight drives in the second half before kneeling for the victory.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Defense. The Titans are giving up 166 yards rushing per game after Dalvin Cook piled up 181 yards. Vrabel said they had “double-digit” missed tackles. They also are struggling to defend the pass with rookie Justin Jefferson catching seven passes for 175 yards.

It likely didn’t help that Shane Bowen, the outside linebackers coach, didn’t travel to Minnesota due to a COVID-19 test result. Vrabel helped fill the gap.

STOCK UP

Stephen Gostkowski. Taking the sock off his right, kicking foot after three missed field goals and a missed extra point in Denver seemingly did the trick. He now has made more field goals (9 of 12) than the Titans managed in all of 2019 (8 of 18) with five different kickers.

The four-time Pro Bowler also became the first NFL kicker since 1970 to kick a game-winning field goal in the final two minutes of regulation in each of his team’s first three games of a season. He’s the first to do that in this franchise’s history.

Gostkowski also hit three field goals of at least 50 yards for the first time in his career, the first in the NFL to do that since Justin Tucker of Baltimore on Nov. 27, 2016.

STOCK DOWN

Jadeveon Clowney. Maybe expectations were too high or maybe he just needs more time to hone chemistry with his teammates after signing Sept. 7. He has yet to have a sack through three games. He did have another tackle for loss against the Vikings along with two tackles and two quarterback hits.

INJURED

Three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan hurt a shoulder in the first half. He walked to the sideline but was carted away from the sideline. Vrabel didn’t have an update Monday.

Vrabel is hopeful starting cornerback Adoree Jackson, placed on injured reserve Sept. 14, might be close to practicing along with rookie offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson, who’s been on the Reserve/COVID list since Sept. 6.

KEY NUMBER

5: The Titans lead the NFL in turnover margin with six takeaways and only one turnover.

NEXT STEPS

A three-game homestand that will be capped by a visit by the defending AFC South champs, the Texans (0-3). How they handle this stretch before their bye will be crucial for their own division title hopes.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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