SAN DIEGO -- Tennessee's defense struggled to get off the field, and key offensive players had trouble staying on it Sunday, resulting in the Titans' 33-25 loss at San Diego.
The Chargers converted 12 of 18 third downs, scored three touchdowns on five trips to the red zone and maintained balance between passes and runs in rallying from an early 19-7 deficit.
On the other side of the ball, Titans quarterback Vince Young and wide receiver Kenny Britt suffered injuries and missed significant time.
Young returned to action for the first time since suffering a knee and ankle sprain on Oct. 18. Young completed 10 of 21 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns but left in the fourth quarter after he aggravated the ankle injury during a scramble. Kerry Collins relieved Young and led the Titans to the Chargers' 15-yard-line with under a minute to go, but the drive stalled.
"It was very tough," Young said of watching the Titans' final two offensive possessions. "Like you said, I definitely wanted to be out there with my teammates. It was very frustrating."
Britt's day was much shorter. Coming off a 225-yard, three-touchdown performance last week against Philadelphia, Britt hurt his hamstring trying to track down the first deep pass Young threw his direction and did not return.
Young tried to connect with Britt on the Titans' second possession, but the ball was a step too far for Britt. Young connected with other receivers in Britt's absence, but the Titans were without both playmakers during the final six-plus minutes. Collins, who was nursing a torn tendon in a finger on his throwing hand, relieved Young on Tennessee's final two possessions.
Collins did not practice much last week to rest his finger, but the veteran completed passes on third down to Damian Williams and fourth down to Lavelle Hawkins on Tennessee's final drive. The Titans' attempt ended when Chris Johnson dropped a short pass on fourth-and-2 from the San Diego 15. Collins finished 8-for-15 for 52 yards.
"Just a dropped ball, a play I was supposed to make," Johnson said. "I make it nine out of 10 times but it was just a dropped ball."
The result snapped a three-game win streak by the Titans and a three-game losing streak by the Chargers. Tennessee (5-3) will try to rest and recover on its bye next week before visiting Miami on Nov. 14.
Chargers maintain possession of ball
San Diego's success on third down helped the Chargers' offense possess the football 37:47, more than a full quarter longer than the Titans. San Diego, which entered the game with the NFL's best offense (in average yards and passing yards per game) and stingiest defense (in yards allowed and passing yards allowed) also avoided turnovers that had plagued the Chargers (3-5).
"I think for a number of weeks our success has largely been tied to our ability to take the football away," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "We didn't get that done (Sunday). (The Chargers) did a real nice job protecting the football and keeping it away from us on third down. They converted way too many third downs. We had a chance at the end, but we couldn't make the play."
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers completed 27 of 36 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns. Rivers threw an interception—the game's only turnover—as time was winding down in the first half, but it was not costly.
The turning point in the game occurred in the third quarter when Titans safety Michael Griffin appeared to intercept Rivers at the San Diego 15 and returned the ball for a touchdown. Griffin, however, was called for holding Chargers tight end Antonio Gates on the play. The penalty negated Griffin's apparent touchdown and gave San Diego an automatic first down.
Chargers fullback Mike Tolbert rumbled for 36 yards on the next play, and Rivers hit Gates one play later for a 48-yard catch and score that gave San Diego a 24-19 lead with 4:20 left in the third quarter. Gates finished with five catches for 123 yards.
"I wish the interception would have counted," Griffin said. "That probably would have been a game changer, but third downs, there's a lot that plays a part in this loss. We have to go back in the film room, study and get better in two weeks."
Washington, Hawkins notch career highs
In spite of Britt's absence, five Titans caught passes of more than 20 yards Sunday.
Nate Washington recorded a career-high 117 receiving yards on four catches. Washington caught a 71-yard touchdown heave from Young, making the score 27-25 with 11:43 left in the game, but Young missed Johnson on a two-point conversion pass, and San Diego quickly responded with an eight-play, 52-yard touchdown drive, capitalizing on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Donnie Nickey during the ensuing kick return.
Hawkins, a third-year receiver, had a career-high of 56 yards on four receptions. Williams, a rookie, added two catches for 43 yards, second-year tight end Jared Cook had one catch for 36 yards, and third-year tight end Craig Stevens had two catches for 29 yards.
"You can't stop the show just because one guy goes down," Washington said. "You have to find a way to pick him up and find a way to win the game."
Johnson scores, can't break 100
Johnson put the Titans up 19-7 in the second quarter with an electrifying touchdown run, but the Chargers answered with 20 straight points and took running opportunities away from Johnson in the second half. Johnson finished the day with 59 yards on 15 carries, getting half of his net yardage on the scoring run.
Johnson appeared to have nowhere to go, but took a step back, reversed directions across the field and cut a path to the end zone. Johnson picked up key blocks from Young and wide receiver Marc Mariani on the play.
"Their defense was flowing very heavy so I knew I had a chance to cut back and then basically when I cut back, (Young) made a great block and I knew I had a chance to get it in the end zone," Johnson said.
Johnson has been held to less than 60 yards in each of the Titans' three losses this season and had his personal streak of eight straight road games with more than 100 rushing yards snapped.
First TD for Stevens
Stevens scored his first career touchdown, reeling in a 1-yard pass from Young in the second quarter. Stevens grew up about an hour and a half from San Diego in San Pedro, Calif., and had family and friends at Qualcomm Stadium.
The Titans have usually called upon Stevens in run-block situations, but Young completed a short pass to Stevens that turned into a 28-yard gain. Stevens caught the ball and rumbled until he was ruled down inside the one-yard-line. Young found Stevens two plays after the 28-yard gain.
Blocked punt worth two points
Titans reserve safety Nick Schommer blocked the first punt attempt by San Diego's Mike Scifres. It was the fourth time the Chargers have allowed a blocked punt this season, but it could have been worse for San Diego.
Schommer blocked it cleanly but the ball launched off him backward several yards and over the end zone, resulting in a safety and two points for the Titans. Had the ball landed in play, the Titans could have recovered it for six points or set up Tennessee's offense with prime field position.