ATLANTA — The Titans' present — and playoff hopes — took a hit with a 23-17 loss to the Falcons Sunday, but young players on Tennessee delivered sparks that forecasted a bright future.
Rookie first-round draft pick Jake Locker relieved veteran Matt Hasselbeck (strained elbow) late in the third quarter with Tennessee trailing by 20. Locker showed composure, however, in leading the Titans to touchdowns twice in the three possessions he had at the Georgia Dome.
Rookie fourth-round draft pick Colin McCarthy relieved veteran middle linebacker Barrett Ruud in the second quarter, and finished with a team-high 10 tackles, including three for loss, and forced a fumble by Michael Turner that kept the Titans in the game. Will Witherspoon recovered the fumble, giving the Titans the ball at their own 14-yard-line.
The late surge couldn't make up for a rocky first half by Tennessee (5-5), which fell two games down in the loss column to AFC South leader Houston (7-3). Atlanta (6-4) capitalized on errors and played keep away, possessing the ball for 36 minutes, 59 seconds.
"We gave ourselves a chance at the end to make a stop and do something special but we shouldn't have put ourselves in that situation," Titans coach Mike Munchak said.
The Titans signed Hasselbeck, a 13-year NFL veteran, in the offseason to help the development of Locker. The team has repeatedly said Hasselbeck is the starting quarterback, while also stating that Locker will be ready when needed. Hasselbeck injured his throwing elbow when his arm was hit during a pass attempt. He lasted one more play before coming out of the game.
Hasselbeck said the injury occurred as he spotted receiver Damian Williams executing a double move.
"We had a touchdown and someone just hit my arm when I was getting ready to throw," said Hasselbeck, who added he was not "in a ton of pain" but could not throw the ball.
The injury necessitated the Titans to bring in Locker with the team trailing 23-3 with 3:07 remaining in the third quarter. Locker had previously seen action in a win against Cleveland and in a loss against Houston, but Sunday was the first time the score was within reach.
Locker's first pass was incomplete, his second — a short throw to Jared Cook — gained 8 yards, and his third throw turned into a touchdown. Locker scrambled and found Nate Washington near the Titans' sideline. Washington corralled the ball, sidestepped one defender, stiff-armed another at the 15-yard-line and sprinted to the end zone.
It was the first career touchdown pass for Locker, who ran and jumped up in the arms of center Eugene Amano in celebration.
Atlanta tried to put the game away in the fourth quarter, moving the ball down to the Tennessee 7-yard-line, but McCarthy popped the ball out of Turner's possession, and Witherspoon fell on the ball at the 16.
Locker led the Titans on a 14-play, 84-yard drive to pull within six with 3:06 remaining. He converted third-and-10 with his legs on a scramble for 11 yards, converted fourth-and-17 with a 22-yard pass to Cook, and delivered a strike on third-and-goal from 4 yards that only Washington could catch.
"I thought he played great," Hasselbeck said. "He has been practicing well and playing well. I've said many times that I think he has a real bright future. It was fun to see."
Locker also eluded pressure on the drive and heaved a jump ball that Lavelle Hawkins caught for a gain of 32 to set up the second touchdown to Washington with 3:06 remaining. Washington led the Titans with a season-high 115 yards on a career-high nine receptions.
"I think that it was great to see that everyone kept playing and nobody gave up," Locker said. "They raised their level of play and allowed us to stay in that football game."
The Titans opted to kick the ball deep and try to force a punt instead of trying an onside kick to get the ball back. Turner burst through a hole for a gain of 27 on the first play, and Matt Ryan converted third-and-6 with a 6-yard pass to Harry Douglas after Tennessee exhausted its timeouts.
Locker went 9-for-19 passing for 140 yards and the two touchdowns. Hasselbeck was 13-for-25 for 124 yards with one interception.
EARLY PENALTIES SET TONE: The Titans committed a penalty on the opening kickoff, uncorking a series of mistakes and miscues that created an insurmountable deficit Sunday.
Officials flagged Cook for holding, negating a solid return by Marc Mariani to the 33-yard line and pinned the Titans at their own 17. The Falcons stuffed Chris Johnson for a loss of 3 on Tennessee's first play from scrimmage and quickly forced a punt.
A holding penalty against Johnson on Tennessee's second possession erased a 25-yard pass from Hasselbeck to Washington. The Titans recovered from the loss of yardage when Hasselbeck found Washington for a gain of 17 on third-and-12, but the drive halted when Dunta Robinson intercepted Hasselbeck at the Atlanta 43.
An offside penalty against Chris Hope on the ensuing possession gave the Falcons another chance to move the chains after it appeared the Titans had stopped them on third down. Atlanta continued that drive and added one of three field goals by Matt Bryant.
The trend continued in the second half, with Cortland Finnegan getting flagged for illegal contact on a third-down play after it appeared the Titans would force a punt early in the third quarter.
Tennessee committed 10 penalties for 86 yards; Atlanta committed five for 55 yards.
HURRY-UP OFFENSE YIELDS POINTS: The Titans got on the board with a 46-yard field goal by Rob Bironas with two seconds left in the first half.
The field goal by Bironas capped a seven-play, 62 yard drive on which the Titans took possession at their own 10 and moved to the Atlanta 28 before a shortage of time forced the kick.
Hasselbeck completed passes to Cook for 20 yards, and found Javon Ringer on short throws that the reserve running back turned into gains of 11 yards and 15 yards. Hasselbeck then completed a quick slant pass to Damian Williams for a gain of 16.
Bironas extended his field-goal accuracy streak to 14 in a row, tying him with Al Del Greco (1999-2000) for sixth best in franchise history.