Titans face another tough test in trip to Miami for Monday matchup

AP photo by George Walker IV / Tennessee Titans quarterback Will Levis (8) walks down the tunnel at Nissan Stadium before last Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts in Nashville.
AP photo by George Walker IV / Tennessee Titans quarterback Will Levis (8) walks down the tunnel at Nissan Stadium before last Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts in Nashville.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Mike McDaniel's Miami Dolphins have done a lot of winning this season.

They're 9-3 for the first time in 22 years and are tied for the best record in the AFC. They've outscored opponents 384-266 with an offense that leads the NFL in passing, yards per play, yards per rush and red-zone efficiency.

What does the second-year head coach think of that?

"Call me when it's a 13-game season," he said. "That's all nice, but we have a job to do today. If we shortchange and are worried about anything other than the Tennessee Titans when we're game planning ... then all those conversations and stories literally don't matter at all."

Hosting a playoff game is the Dolphins' long-term goal as they try to close in on their first division title since winning the AFC East in 2008. So this week's only focus has been beating the visiting Tennessee Titans (4-8) come Monday night.

The Titans have just one victory since Oct. 29 and haven't won a game outside of Nashville in more than a year, struggles that have them well at the bottom of the standings in the AFC South — a division they won in 2020 and 2021 before falling a victory short of taking it last season to miss the playoffs altogether.

Even with five games to play, Mike Vrabel's sixth year as Tennessee's coach has already produced more losses in any season of his tenure except the 7-10 showing for 2022. Still, he has insisted his team will not coast to the finish line despite performing well below expectations.

The Titans had been able to hang their hats on being unbeaten at home this season, but that ended with last Sunday's overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts as they were swept in the series between the division rivals.

"You put a lot into it every week," Vrabel said Wednesday, "and sometimes you put a lot into it and you lose a close game, and that's disappointing. But you've got to pick yourself back up. You've got to answer the bell.

"Nobody's going to feel sorry for us, especially the Dolphins. And it's a very good football team. We have to get ready and prepare. A lot of different looks, so there's a lot to cover."

Miami has won three straight games and has yet to lose this season at home, where the Dolphins have averaged 38.8 points per game with an offense led by Tua Tagovailoa, who has passed for 3,457 yards and 24 touchdowns. For his career, he's 18-4 as a starter at Hard Rock Stadium, an .818 winning percentage that is the best among active NFL quarterbacks with at least 20 starts at home.

In last week's 45-15 road win against the Washington Commanders, Miami's Tyreek Hill caught five passes for 157 yards with touchdowns of 78 and 60 yards. His 1,481 receiving yards are the most by a player through 12 games in the Super Bowl era.

"He's having an MVP-caliber season," Titans defensive back Elijah Molden said. "I feel like we have to simplify our defense and make Tua check it down and be great tacklers on the perimeter."

Vrabel said the Titans wouldn't be able to replicate Miami's speed in practices leading up to the game, but that they would need to work on being sound in their tackling and being in the right spots to limit Hill's production.

"We're going to need some extra people to help," Vrabel said, "and to take great angles, and use your leverage and your help, and all those different things that we talk about when tackling."

Will Levis, Tennessee's rookie quarterback who took over as the starter in late October, has thrown for 1,266 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He has also caught McDaniel's attention.

"You watch how guys play with him on the field and you can tell he's earned the respect of veteran players," McDaniel said. "And you either have that or you don't. As a quarterback, there's nowhere to hide. So it's cool to watch him progress, and I think he is capable of making, I think, pretty much every throw."

The 33rd pick of April's NFL draft, Levis now has as many starts as the veteran Ryan Tannehill did this season before getting hurt and losing his spot at the top of the depth chart — and Levis has been sacked just as many times as his predecessor. The Titans gave up six sacks against the Colts, and Miami comes in tied with the Buffalo Bills and the Los Angeles Chargers for the third-most sacks in the NFL this season.

The Titans hope to protect Levis better with an offensive line that has used eight starting combinations through the first 11 games. This will be the third straight game for a unit anchored by a pair of rookies in left tackle Jaelyn Duncan and left guard Peter Skoronski, the 11th overall pick.

Tennessee also hopes to be better on special teams.

Vrabel fired special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman on Monday after the Titans had two punts essentially blocked by Indianapolis. The first was returned for a touchdown, while the second — on Tennessee's next attempt — was knocked away before the rusher crashed into punter Ryan Stonehouse's left leg. Stonehouse's season will end due to surgery for his resulting injury, and the Titans signed undrafted rookie Ty Zentner to the practice squad Wednesday.

New special teams coach Tom Quinn, who will oversee the group the rest of this season after joining the Titans as a special teams assistant in the offseason, said Zentner will be the team's holder Monday night.

Tennessee and Miami last played at Hard Rock Stadium in the first week of the 2018 season in what became the longest game in NFL history at 7 hours, 8 minutes because of two lightning delays. The Titans had someone getting miniature pizzas from a concession stand to help keep players fed during the delays.

The Dolphins — with Tannehill their quarterback at the time — won 27-20, helped by two kickoffs returned for touchdowns in Vrabel's head coaching debut.

Said Vrabel: "Certainly interesting and unique way to start my NFL coaching career."

Upcoming Events