NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Derrick Morgan wanted to make a great first impression against Jacksonville.
Morgan, the Titans' 2010 first-round draft pick, missed both meetings with the Jaguars last year because of an early-season ACL injury. He missed this season's opener in Jacksonville because of a flare-up with the injury but has recovered.
Morgan was healthy Saturday, however, and delivered one of the strongest performances of his young career. He made Tennessee's first tackle of the game, stopping Maurice Jones-Drew after a gain of 3 and stuffed DeJuan Harris for no gain two plays later to force a quick punt.
"I think he's getting his confidence," Titans coach Mike Munchak said Monday. "He's getting healthier, and I think he's getting stronger. The defensive line in general played very well at the line of scrimmage. We didn't get pushed back. The first time we played them they re-established the line of scrimmage a little bit at times, whereas in this game, we did that. He, Sen'Derrick (Marks), Jason (Jones), (Karl) Klug, that whole group, I thought, played well."
The Titans followed the Jaguars' opening possession with a 51-yard field goal by Rob Bironas and never trailed in a 23-17 victory that kept alive their hopes of landing a Wild Card berth in the AFC playoffs.
Morgan also impacted Jacksonville's next possession, tackling Jones-Drew for a 3-yard loss on second down to create a third-and-long that the Jaguars failed to convert.
Tennessee built on that momentum with a 55-yard touchdown pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Jared Cook on its next snap.
Morgan was credited with a team-high seven solo tackles by press box statisticians, including the one for a loss against Jones-Drew. Morgan also recorded a quarterback hurry and defended a pass.
"I thought he played well going against tight ends, tackles, guards," Munchak said. "He rushed well. He got some good hits on the quarterback even though he didn't get a sack, so that's what we're expecting out of him. I think the last five-six games, he's really getting a feel for it and what's being asked of him and playing better and better every week."
Jones-Drew, the NFL's leading rusher managed to get 103 yards on 24 carries, but Tennessee repeatedly used multiple tacklers to prevent significant gains by the running back.
"That was one of the things we talked about in the pregame: gang tackling, and most important, going out there and having a little fun out there," Morgan said. "Guys were just amped up. … We knew they primarily wanted to run the ball and are pretty much a one-dimensional team."
Tennessee withstood that production by forcing Jacksonville into repeated third-and-long situations and put pressure on rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert. The Jaguars had four third downs of 3 or less yards and converted just one of those — a 1-yard touchdown by Greg Jones with 3:44 left in the game.
Jacksonville went 2-for-4 on third downs when it needed 4 to 7 yards and went 2-for-10 when it needed 8-plus yards. Holding Jacksonville to 5-for-18 on third down was a substantial improvement from the first meeting when Jacksonville went 9-for-18 and possessed the ball nearly 40 minutes.
"The last time we played them it was a bunch of third-and-2s, third-and-1s," Munchak said. "They started this game with a third-and-2, and we stopped them. That really set the tone for us as a defense."
Saturday's time of possession was split almost in half, and Tennessee's offense, defense and special teams worked in unison to benefit each other.
"It's a big advantage," Dave Ball said. "Any time you can kind of get a break from trying to stop Maurice Jones-Drew is big. He was out there trying to steamroll people from the beginning, which we knew he was going to do. Any time you can get a break, and the offense can get some momentum, that helps us a lot. We did a pretty good job of first and second down."
Tennessee (8-7) visits AFC South champ Houston (10-5), which is guaranteed of having the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, Sunday.
The Titans have three scenarios through which they can grab the final postseason spot. All require Tennessee to beat Houston and Cincinnati (9-6) to lose to Baltimore (11-4), which is still trying to win the AFC North and can do so by beating the Bengals.
If Tennessee wins and Cincinnati loses, the Titans will reach the postseason if: 1) the New York Jets (8-7) win at Miami (5-10) and Oakland (8-7) loses to San Diego (7-8); 2) the Jets win and Denver (8-7) loses at Kansas City (6-9); 3) the Jets lose and Oakland and Denver win.