By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Pro Football Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — No Marcus Mariota. Both starting offensive tackles out, along with the top backup against Houston and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Mike Vrabel gave the NFL a glimpse at just how much of a difference he and his assistants can make for the Tennessee Titans as the rookie picked up his first victory as a head coach.
Vrabel and his coaching staff dug into the playbook for a 66-yard touchdown pass off a fake punt , some wildcat on offense and a defense that kept Deshaun Watson in check with the game on the line Sunday to pull out a 20-17 victory over the Houston Texans.
“We’ve got a lot more coming for sure,” Titans tight end Jonnu Smith said of victories for Vrabel.
Blaine Gabbert started in Mariota’s place and threw for 117 yards and a touchdown . All-Pro safety Kevin Byard threw the TD pass on the fake punt, and Ryan Succop kicked field goals of 42 and 31 yards in the fourth quarter for the victory. Gabbert described the coaching staff’s aggressiveness as gritty.
“The message that Vrabel kind of relays throughout this organization, through the coaching staff to the players is to keep fighting,” Gabbert said. “Turn it into a fistfight week in, week out.”
The Titans (1-1) also came up with four sacks and an interception. They allowed only one sack with Gabbert throwing quickly and coaches giving right tackle Tyler Marz help slowing down Watt.
Houston had the ball and a chance to at least force overtime. By the time Watson found DeAndre Hopkins on a 31-yarder to the Tennessee 21, time had expired leaving the Texans 0-2 to start a season filled with high expectations, if only because so many are back healthy this year.
“You’ve got to keep fighting,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said. “It’s a long season. What are you going to do? You have two choices. One is not very good, so you’ve got to fight your way up.”
Some things to know about the Titans’ third win in four games over their AFC South rival:
The Titans quarterback was active and backed up Gabbert. Mariota warmed up wearing a glove over his right hand and even threw some passes. But he still is having numbness in his right hand after hurting his elbow in the season opener in Miami. So Gabbert started for his fourth different NFL team, and the Titans will see where Mariota is before they visit defending AFC South champ Jacksonville.
“We’ll keep evaluating Marcus and when we have an update on him we’ll let you know,” Vrabel said.
The Texans didn’t help themselves with 11 penalties for 88 yards, and one of the worst came in the fourth quarter after Houston had taken its first lead at 17-14. Luke Stocker caught a pass and was pushed out of bounds on the Houston sideline. Linebacker Jadeveon Clowney apparently said something, and officials flagged Houston for taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct. That moved the Titans to midfield, and they tied it up seven plays later with the first of Succop’s two field goals.
The Titans didn’t use it much, but Derrick Henry handled the wildcat on five snaps on the Titans’ lone touchdown drive. The Titans put in the impromptu wildcat earlier this week, and Henry said he ran it a lot in high school and once in practice in college at Alabama. “Hopefully, we keep it in there,” Henry said.
Kevin Byard is an All-Pro safety, but he remembers his last pass in high school going for a touchdown. He joked Vrabel must have seen his high school tape and drew up the fake punt for him. Byard hit a wide-open Dane Cruikshank, and the rookie finished off a 66-yard TD in the first quarter. That set a NFL record for longest TD pass by a defensive player , topping the mark set in 1967 by Ed Meador.
The Texans outgained the Titans 437-283 on offense, but a line that lost right tackle Seantrel Henderson to a season-ending injury in the opener struggled to protect Watson at times. Watson threw for 310 yards and two TDs but was intercepted in the end zone.
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