ST. LOUIS _ The Titans long-lost running game was discovered Sunday as Tennessee turned back its former coach Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams 28-21 in the Edward Jones Dome.
The build-up all week had surrounded Fisher, who coached the Titans for 17 seasons before leaving after the 2012 season, in his first game against his former club.
But the Titans made sure their focus was on finding a way to end a three-game losing streak and getting back to .500 as they try to stay in the playoff chase in the AFC.
“We said Monday in our team meeting that we didn't want to get caught up in all the talk of the Titans playing Jeff Fisher,” receiver Kendall Wright said.
Safety Bernard Pollard, another newcomer who never played for Fisher, added, “We said at the beginning of the week that that needs to be checked at the door. It doesn't matter who he drafted here, who coached under him while he was here, he has a job and that's to oversee his team. So he has no more ties to the Tennessee Titans.”
For former Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan, the additional motivation of facing his former team, was something that weighed heavily on his mind.
“If you can get any closer to a Super Bowl without it being a Super Bowl, that's what it was for me,” said Finnegan who had an interception against his old team. “It was staying up late and watching etra film and doing everything I could to prepare myself. In fact, I normally do, but just doing a little more because this team is who they were.”
Fisher himself admitted that the loss would probably have a little more sting than usual for Rams players like Finnegan and Jared Cook, who had played for him in Tennessee.
“I think this one probably, at the end of the day, it's probably going to last a little longer, hurt a little more to them because it was important to them,” Fisher said.
The Titans' best formula for not getting caught up in the Fisher hype was a dose of medicine that harkened back to the Fisher days in Tennessee – the running game.
Tennessee's rushing attack, which had sputtered during the club's three-game losing streak and even a bit before that, was back in a big way. Chris Johnson had 150 yards on 23 carries, while Shonn Greene added 38 more on nine rushes. CJ had his first two rushing touchdowns of the season on Sunday, including the game-winner on a 19-yard run with 2:54 to play.
“To watch it finally come together – I didn't think it was gonna take this long – but I am glad it happened,” Munchak said of the running game and Johnson.
Tennessee took the opening kickoff and drove 69 yards for a quick 7-0 lead when Greene barreled into the end zone from five yards out.
“I think a big thing was our offensive line,” Johnson said. “They went out there and covered those guys up and pushed them back and re-established the line of scrimmage. Another big thing was more opportunities. I see that I had 23 carries and Shonn had nine carries. The past few gaems we haven't even run it a total of 15 times, so this was a mix for success.”
It was good thing the Titans run game came alive, as the Rams had rushing success of their own for much of the game. St. Louis used the rushing of former Vanderbilt standout Zac Stacy, who had 127 yards himself on Sunday, to supplement the short throws of quarterback Kellen Clemens. Stacy finished off the tying TD drive with a three-yard run on the Rams' first possession.
The score stood that way through the half, as the Titans offense sputtered and the defense hung on despite several big gains by the Rams ball control offense.
In the second half, St. Louis took the lead using more of the same formula, going up 14-7 on Stacy's nine-yard score. Stacy's bruising style led to several missed Titans tackles and plenty of yards after contact for the former Vandy star.
“There's no secret sauce to what I'm doing, just making plays,” Stacy said.
Finding themselves trailing for the first time in the game, the Titans set about to regroup. After giving up four sacks to the Rams in the first half, the Titans went back to the running game and Johnson. That, plus a couple of quick passes that picked up gains of 18 yards (to Kendall Wright) and 22 yards (to fullback Collin Mooney), put the Titans back even as CJ finished off the drive with a 14-yard TD run.
The Titans were back in business at the start of the fourth quarter with Jake Locker capping the drive with a five-yard TD on a quarterback draw and a 21-14 edge with 9:47 to play.
But the Rams weren't finished, as they once gain answered a Titans touchdown with one of their own. Kellen Clemens found former Titan Jared Cook from 10-yards out and the tight end emphatically spiked the football to celebrate against his old team.
It appeared as if the Rams might have taken the momentum late after Rodney McLeod picked off a Locker pass with 4:52 to play.
“I had a one-on-one with my guy and I kind of beat him off the edge. As soon as I saw the quarterback try to step up, I just reached out for him and the ball came out. Luckily, Derrick was right there to recover it and it set up our offense,” Casey said.
It gave Tennessee possession at the 19-yard line, and Johnson needed just one play to do the rest, scoring and putting the Titans back in front 28-21.
Late in the game, the Rams got as far as the Tennessee 26 yard line, but a fourth-down throw to the end zone fell incomplete, sealing the win for the Titans.
For Tennessee, it provided a nice finish to what had been a big build-up regarding the reunion with Fisher, set against the backdrop of owner Bud Adams' death on Oct. 21.
“It was about winning a football game for your team. We needed it in a bad way. It was a very emotional week for this organization with the passing of Mr. Adams, an so I think we have been through a lot as an organization,” Munchak said. “I think this is exactly what we needed on a lot of levels.”