NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chris Johnson shed his rain-soaked receiving gloves to get a better grip on the football. He shed would-be tackles to rack-up 190 rushing yards and help Tennessee stage a come-from-behind 23-17 victory over Tampa Bay Sunday at LP Field.
Johnson rushed 14 times for 144 yards in the second half, including runs of 10 and 34 yards on the possession that put the Titans ahead late in the fourth quarter. Although he didn't reach the end zone, he finished with the third-highest single-game rushing total of his career.
"It felt good to finally get out there and get to some open space and make some plays," Johnson said. "The offensive line out there blocked great. (Fullback) Ahmard Hall was getting on linebackers and making good blocks. It was just giving me room to run and make plays, and the receivers did a good job getting some blocks down the field. I feel like a lot of the running plays we ran, we executed well."
Rain in the area increased as the game progressed, generating conditions where it was hard for both teams to hang onto the football. The teams combined for nine turnovers — five by the Buccaneers (4-7) and four by the Titans (6-5).
Tennessee committed three fumbles, losing two, and Tampa Bay put the ball on the soggy ground five times, losing it on four occasions. Officials tried to dry the footballs with towels and did not set the ball until the offenses were breaking the huddle, but the dampness and some big hits by both teams prompted the turnovers.
Johnson, who has just nine fumbles on 1,284 career offensive touches (1,108 rush attempts, 176 pass receptions), wasn't immune. He fumbled on the Titans' first possession of the second half after a 13-yard gain.
"It was real tough. My gloves got really slippery and things like that, so it was tough to hold on," Johnson said. "Then I changed gloves to some leather gloves and those didn't do too well, so eventually I just wore no gloves."
That fumble started a six-play stretch that included two more turnovers. Titans safety Jordan Babineaux forced a fumble after a catch by Mike Williams that Cortland Finnegan recovered, but Tennessee quickly surrendered the ball again when Matt Hasselbeck threw his second interception of the game.
"I think the weather ends up being the main reason for it, but a lot of it was because there were a lot of good hits in that game," Munchak said.
Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib recorded the second pick against Hasselbeck and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown to give the Buccaneers a 17-10 lead with 12:04 left in the third quarter, but they didn't score again.
Johnson, who totaled 190 rushing yards in his first five home games this season, matched that mark Sunday and recorded his second 100-plus-yard rushing game in three weeks — both wins for the Titans.
Johnson said Tennessee, which rushed for 202 yards Sunday, must establish consistency in its final five games to keep a playoff spot within reach.
"If we want to be a playoff team, this is the time when you can't see-saw," Johnson said. "You've got to get hot right now and go on a win streak."
HASSELBECK FINDS WILLIAMS: Hasselbeck, who hurt his throwing elbow against Atlanta a week before, persevered through the interceptions and led the Titans 80 yards for the go-ahead score with 3:01 remaining. He finished 19-of-34 passing for 160 yards.
Facing a fourth-and-goal from the two-yard-line, Hasselbeck dropped back, surveyed the defense, received ample time from the offensive line and found Damian Williams in the back middle of the end zone. Williams came down and was ruled to have both feet in bounds, triggering boisterous cheers and high-fives by the home crowd.
Per rules that require each scoring play to be reviewed, officials took multiple looks at the play. In one version it appeared that Williams' heel may have been out, but another look clearly showed both feet tap down.
"I knew I was in during the play, but when I watched the replay, I was kind of nervous," Williams said. "From (one) angle it did look like I stepped out. I saw it (on the video board) and I felt better."
Hasselbeck and Williams said the play was a reaction to what the defense showed and a result of practicing that type of throw in practice.
"I was supposed to run a curl, but the safety shot (the out route) and tried to cut it off," Williams said. "He was just out of position. I came out of my break and was wide open, but Matt couldn't see me. I was just trying to get in his vision. Luckily he stayed with it and kept working."
'37 SPECIAL' SCORES TD: Tennessee took its first lead of the game with a deceptive kickoff return. Marc Mariani fielded the ball at the goal line, ran forward and made a clean handoff to rookie Tommie Campbell at the 16-yard-line. Campell started on the Tampa Bay sideline, doubled back for the reverse toward the Tennessee sideline and streaked untouched.
Campbell, a seventh-round draft pick who won a roster spot in training camp with athleticism and hustle, had a couple of blockers, but sprinted past everyone for his first career touchdown. He said the play is called "37 Special," and No. 37 planned to give the ball to his mother, who was in town.
"Once I got the handoff, I didn't see anybody outside and I knew I was going to score from there," Campbell said. "It was like, 'Catch me if you can.' "
Mariani and Campbell worked on the exchange every day at practice last week because both knew how critical that would be to the success of the play.
"It is a very hard thing to do to give the ball to a man, to have an exchange with a guy who is that fast, coming around the corner, going full speed, to put the ball in his belly," Mariani said. "Once the exchange was made, it was on. The race was on and I'll take Tommie every time."
Campbell left the game late in the first quarter due to a strained shoulder injury he suffered while blocking for Mariani during a punt return. Campbell said he was kept out of the game for precautionary reasons but expects to be fine.
UNIQUE COMPLETIONS: Hasselbeck had a pair of unique completions. Facing pressure from Adrian Clayton on third-and-1, Hasselbeck jumped and threw the ball with his left hand, hitting fullback Ahmard Hall for a gain of 11. The drive later stalled, however, and ended with a 42-yard missed field goal.
Hasselbeck told reporters that it wasn't his first attempt at throwing the football with his left hand.
"Unfortunately, no," he quipped. "I think I'm 2-for-3 left-handed, though."
Hasselbeck also recorded a completion to his center Eugene Amano in the third quarter. Amano alertly grabbed a deflected ball out of the air and advanced for a gain of 7. It was the first reception of Amano's eight-year career, but the possession stalled.
"When a ball gets tipped, it's pretty much anybody's ball," Hasselbeck said. "Usually, you get unlucky and a defender catches it. When it got tipped, my stomach kind of sank, and when Eugene caught it, I was cheering him on."
BALL RETURNS: Titans defensive end Dave Ball returned to the field after missing two games with a concussion and delivered a sack fumble against Josh Freeman and another sack against the Tampa Bay QB.
Ball surged through, put his hands up to delay Freeman's throw, brought his arms down knocking the football loose and fell on it at the Tampa Bay 38. The fumble recovery led to a 31-yard field goal by Rob Bironas.
"It was great. In the beginning of the game, all I was thinking was 'stay healthy. Don't get another concussion,' " Ball said. "You can't really help that, but that's how I was. Fortunately, I was able to play the whole game, make some plays and get a win that we so crucially needed."