A few plays after Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry churned out 56 yards on a run midway through the second quarter, the Kansas City Chiefs were surrendering a touchdown — the second of the Titans’ first three possessions — giving Tennessee an early 14-9 advantage.
At that point, the Titans had manufactured gains of 16 or more yards on six different plays — gashing Kansas City’s defense in a variety of ways.
But they would end up being Tennessee’s last big plays of the night. From that point on, the Kansas City defense held the Titans to only three more points — and even those came on a short field after a turnover. The biggest factor was their adjustment to seal up big-play opportunities.
“All you can do is try and limit the explosives,” defensive tackle Khalen Saunders told reporters after the game. “I think he had like two big ones there in the first half... We came [in the locker room] at halftime — and was like, ‘If we stop that,’ you can see when you do that it kind of limits it. So I was happy coming out [of the] half to get [those] stops.”
After the Titans’ second score, Henry had only 27 rushing yards — and nearly half of quarterback Malik Willis’ passing yards had been gained by that time. Once the Chiefs’ defense cleaned things up, they truly suffocated Tennessee’s offensive attack.
“We just kind of knocking the rust off [from coming] off the bye week,” linebacker Nick Bolton admitted. “We kind of [started] off a little sloppy, tackling-wise. [We had a] couple bad fits here and there [that] kind of led to explosive runs.
“We were able to settle down, kind of get back in the zone of playing Chiefs defense and stopping the run. We were able to have a way better second half.”
Every time the Titans tried a big play, the Chiefs turned it away — either with a wall of defenders against a run or an individual defending a pass. Tennessee really only needed one — especially on a third down in the fourth quarter. At that moment, the Titans held an eight-point lead that they were threatening to extend.
The Titans completed the screen pass — but Bolton read it all the way, blowing up the receiver as soon as he turned around. It was one of the most significant plays of the game.
“It was kind of a pivotal third down,” Bolton recalled. “They were kind of on the fringe area of kicking a field goal. So it was kind of good to get another negative play — [and] kind of talk them out of kicking a field goal right there, forcing a punt... It was just a play I saw on tape [and] kind of talked about throughout the week. Coach did a great job of giving us keys and stuff throughout the week — and I was able to make that play.”
The linebacker said that was the common theme throughout the turnaround.
“We executed down the stretch,” Bolton emphasized. “I don’t think they had a first down in the last 40 minutes. It was us being able to get those stops — stop them on first down and force them into second-and-longs, [letting] our pass rush and corners go to work.”
The pass rush did go to work late, securing three sacks in the fourth quarter and overtime. Two of the last three plays of the game were sacks by Kansas City’s defensive line — but it wasn’t all the usual suspects. Khalen Saunders and defensive end Carlos Dunlap were part of those game-deciding plays.
“We spread the wealth,” Dunlap pointed out after the game. “We’ve got a lot of depth here; we’ve got a lot of players that can make plays. As you see, everybody stepped in and played the role; we spread the wealth and we did whatever it took.
“It feels good to close out a win like that — [in a] tight ball game — [and] get it done.”
“We had a lot of young guys step up,” said defensive tackle Chris Jones. “Malik Herring, George Karlaftis and then Carlos... Khalen Saunders made a lot of big plays tonight. So, we got a lot of depth in the room, a lot of young guys in the room.”
With their own offense facing a tough Titans defense, the Chiefs’ defenders had a feeling they’d need to match a strong defensive performance from their opponent. Kansas City’s offense was held to only nine points until the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
“We kind of knew coming into the game we had to outplay their defense,” noted Bolton. “[in the] first half, we didn’t do that. [In the] second half, we were able to come out and execute and play better than their defense — and that helped us win.”
Every ounce of effort became necessary, as the Chiefs’ offense continued to stall — which gave the Titans additional chances to score and win. It really was left to the defense to be the deciding factor. For Steve Spagnuolo’s unit — which is usually seen as secondary to the offense — that can be a rewarding feeling.
“We know the identity of the Kansas City Chiefs: it’s offense,” remarked Saunders. “We’ve got the best quarterback ever — and that’s fine; I love having that on offense — but sometimes Spags wants us to go out and win the game on defense. I feel like that’s what we did tonight — for the first time.
“And it felt really good to go out and win the game on defense — instead of just hoping and praying that Pat can get it done for us.”