NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Coach Mike Vrabel likes to refer to the Tennessee Titans as "street rats" because they find a way to get the job done, even when things get tough. Given how Vrabel has utilized the rules to gain advantages late in games, it might be time to refer to him as the "sly fox."
Last Sunday's 42-36 win over the Houston Texans provided the latest example of how Vrabel used his understanding of the NFL rulebook to give the Titans an edge. The situation: On second-and-1, the Texans had the ball on Tennessee's 25-yard line with a 30-29 lead and 3:05 left in the game.
The Titans had all of their timeouts left. But Vrabel seemingly found a way to stop the clock, in effect manufacturing an extra timeout.
Before the play, Vrabel sent defensive back Josh Kalu onto the field, even though there were already 11 defenders out there.
Veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph reacted to Kalu running onto the field, but Vrabel gestured to Joseph to get him to relax. And for style points, Vrabel utilized a little bit of acting to make it seem like he was upset about the ensuing penalty.
The official called the Titans for having too many men on the field, which cost them 5 yards, giving Houston a new set of downs. But it bought Tennessee about 40 seconds because it stopped the clock.
"I remember [Saints] Coach [Sean] Payton used to always preach about being great in critical situations. The good teams do that," Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "As you saw with Vrabel, the quick thinking, the coaching staff coming together and having a plan there to save us some time on the clock was huge. It's uplifting for us as a player. The coaches, that's what they focus on -- how can they put us in the best position possible to win the game?"
It's not the first time a Vrabel-coached Titans team has taken a penalty late in a game that worked to its own advantage. The coach won't say that he purposely took the penalty to stop the clock. But a quick peek at Rule 5, Section 1, Article 1 of the NFL rulebook offers some insight:
The game is played by two teams of 11 players each.
If Team A has more than 11 players in its formation for more than three seconds, or if Team B has more than 11 players in its formation and the snap is imminent, it is a foul. In these instances, game officials shall blow their whistles immediately and not allow the snap or kick to occur.
Notice where it said the "officials shall blow their whistles immediately" when the snap is imminent and not allow the snap to occur. The stop in play saved valuable time for the Titans. The Texans scored on the drive to take a 36-29 lead (their 2-point conversion attempt failed). But the Titans started their game-tying drive with 1:45 left with two timeouts -- likely a better situation than if they had not taken the penalty to stop the clock.
According to Vrabel, although every Titans coach is charged with knowing the rulebook, coordinator of football development John Streicher, special-teams coach Craig Aukerman and assistant special-teams coach Ryan Crow are the leaders in that category.
Dave McGinnis, the Titans' radio analyst and a former NFL coach, said teams that he was a part of would discuss all of the various situations that could arise and how to react.
"After my second year in the league, I was told I needed to learn the rulebook inside and out. When I was a head coach, the rulebook was something you needed to know for the rules and how it can apply in any situation," McGinnis said. "That moment [on Sunday] was a tremendous application of situational football. That's just knowing your craft. The margin for victory in the National Football League is so thin. You have to understand every chance you have to win. Sometimes that is in the moment. That was in the moment."
It seems like Vrabel has used too many men on the field before to gain extra time. He took the same penalty two years ago in Week 13 against the New York Jets. The Jets were up 22-19 over Tennessee with 2:28 left in that game. The penalty for too many men on the field gave the Jets a first down on a second-and-2 play, but it also stopped the clock.
The Titans used two of their three remaining timeouts along with the two-minute warning before forcing the Jets to punt with 1:54 left. Tennessee went on to score the go-ahead touchdown, making the score 26-22 with 36 seconds left.
Vrabel gave his former coach Bill Belichick -- who has strategically run time off the clock before -- a taste of his own medicine in the playoffs last year when Tennessee played the New England Patriots. The Titans were clinging to a 14-13 lead when the punt team ran onto the field with 6:39 left in the game. Vrabel wisely took an intentional delay of game penalty as 1:10 bled off the clock.
Tennessee then took a false start penalty to take even more time off. An anxious Patriots player crossed into the neutral zone as the Titans were letting the clock wind down. After eclipsing almost two minutes off the clock, Titans punter Brett Kern pinned New England at its own 11-yard line with 4:44 left. Tennessee beat the Patriots 20-13.
"That's something that's probably a premium in the National Football League," Vrabel said of finding an edge. "I think where the talent and the games are so close, and historically close, trying to find an edge anywhere you can. Just try to do everything you can do to help the players and to find an advantage, whether it be a play or situation that you can take advantage of."