NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Depleted and desperate for a win at home, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel took an aggressive approach into Sunday's game against AFC South rival Houston. The plan paid dividends early, helping Vrabel and the Titans secure their first victory, a 20-17 win against the Texans.
The Titans had their backs against the wall without quarterback Marcus Mariota (elbow) and their top three offensive linemen. That didn't matter to Vrabel as he attacked the Texans, who gave him his coaching start in the NFL.
It was a chance for the Titans to show their true character. Vrabel said during the week he was going to pull out all of the stops in an early important game for Tennessee.
"We are going to stay aggressive and give ourselves the best chance to win," Vrabel said after the game. "You find out what type of team you have when things don't look so good. They responded and played hard for each other."
The rookie head coach dialed up a fake punt that resulted in a 66-yard touchdown pass from safety Kevin Byard to defensive back Dane Cruikshank. The fans at Nissan Stadium erupted as Cruikshank caught the pass and showed a little wiggle to make a Texans defender miss before finishing the play in the end zone.
"We talked about it all week. You can't go into an NFL game being conservative and think you're going to win," Byard said after the game. "Just because someone is injured, you can't be passive. Fast and aggressive. That's what we were today and that's what we are always going to be."
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees was also aggressive with his playcalls on defense. He dialed up a nickel blitz by defensive back Logan Ryan, resulting in a sack. The defense consistently had quarterback Deshaun Watson under duress in the first half. It seemed like every tackle by Tennessee featured multiple defenders on the ball.
Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur unleashed the Wildcat offense with running back Derrick Henry taking a direct snap. Henry accounted for 25 yards on five touches on Tennessee's second possession and wide receiver Taywan Taylor caught a pass from Henry behind the line of scrimmage and ran for 8 yards. Blaine Gabbert lined up under center later in the drive and hit wide receiver Corey Davis on a speed out for a 7-yard gain.
Davis finished the play with a vicious stiff-arm that sent Texans defensive back Kareem Jackson to the ground. Gabbert then found Taylor on a wide receiver screen that went 18 yards for a touchdown, giving the Titans a 14-0 lead.
Vrabel continued to take it to his former team as he went for it on fourth-and-short from Tennessee's 31. The Titans converted, but were forced to punt five plays later. However, the tone had been set.
After Houston rallied in the second half, taking a 17-14 lead after Will Fuller caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from Watson with Malcolm Butler in coverage, the Titans seemed to be out of gas. But they managed to muster up a late surge like a 400-meter runner on the backstretch to get the win.
Desperately in need of a finishing drive, Gabbert and the offense drove 62 yards in 5:41, resulting in the winning 31-yard field goal by kicker Ryan Succop with 1:00 left.
Said Gabbert: "The message I relayed to the guys on the field was that we had to go win this thing. Coach relays the message throughout this organization, just keep fighting. It's a huge win getting Vrabel his first win as a head coach. We got the ball back and it was go time."
Getting his first career win against his former team, where he forged great relationships with the players and coaches, had to be special for Vrabel, who tried to downplay the accomplishment.
"Billy is a great friend," Vrabel said of Texans coach Bill O'Brien. "I spent four years there with those players and put a lot of late nights in with those coaches. It's hard to win in this league, and this just so happened to be against them, but it's not all about me."
The defense held on thanks to defensive tackle Jurrell Casey's relentless pursuit of Watson on the final play. Watson completed a 31-yard pass to Fuller, but time expired.
Though he didn't play on Sunday, Mariota had an impact on the Titans with a rare display of passion before the game.
"Marcus came out in the middle of the locker room before the game in and was [fired up]," Titans cornerback Adoree' Jackson said. "A lot of people don't hear Marcus talk, but to have him come out here fired [up], that's different. We love that! To see that from our quarterback, the chill mellow Hawaiian, to see him do that, it got everybody fired up and ready to go. You saw it out there offensively, defensively and special teams."