Jim Wyatt, SENIOR WRITER/EDITOR
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Blaine Gabbert said himself Sunday wasn’t his first rodeo, but it was his first time on this new horse, at least as a starter.
With Marcus Mariota sidelined, the veteran quarterback stepped in and led the Titans to an improbable 20-17 victory over the Texans.
Improbable to others, that is, because the Titans were confident they’d find a way even without Mariota, their top three offensive tackles, and no Delanie Walker.
Gabbert came up big, especially down the stretch, as the Titans pulled it out.
“He’s a tough dude,” Titans tight end Jonnu Smith, who replaced Walker in the starting lineup, said of Gabbert. “I don’t care who is back there. I have confidence in both guys and you can see why.”
The Titans felt confident in Gabbert, who got plenty of work in practices leading up to the game as Mariota dealt with the lingering effects of an elbow injury he suffered in the season opener at Miami.
Gabbert, an eight-year veteran who led the Cardinals to a win over the Titans last December, completed 13-of-20 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown in the contest. His passer rating of 97.3 was the third-highest rating of his career in games with at least 20 passing attempts.
He engineered a 12-play, 62-yard drive that was capped off by kicker Ryan Succop’s game-winning field goal with one minute left.
“It was go time,” Gabbert said of the final drive. “There’s always going to be a few drives in a game, a few plays in a game, where you’ve just got to go play. That was the message that tried to relay to the guys when we were going out on the field. We got the ball in our hands, and let’s just leave it all out here and see what happens.”
Gabbert, who replaced Mariota in the third quarter of the opener, said he was happy to step in and do his job.
“This isn’t my first rodeo — I’ve been in the league eight years,” Gabbert said. “I’ve been in a lot of different situations. I’m always ready to go. Whether you’re a starter or a backup … you’ve got to have the same routine, week-in and week-out. Otherwise, you have nothing to fall back on when your number is called. I just stuck to my routine, prepared the same way as I always have, and just stuck with that.”
Gabbert’s touchdown pass was an 18-yarder to receiver Taywan Taylor, who caught the ball and made defenders miss. He picked up a key block on the outside from receiver Rishard Matthews.
“Blaine did a good job of getting the ball in my hands fast, and I was able to see the field,” Taylor said. “I made the first guy miss, and tried to be a playmaker from there.”
Gabbert’s most popular target on the day was receiver Corey Davis, who caught five passes for 55 yards, including a key 18-yard grab and go late.
Gabbert also made a heads-up play late on a second-and-7 play from the Houston 35 that looked to have disaster written all over it. On the play, Gabbert caught a deflected pass, and instead of taking a big loss and facing third down, he threw the ball with his left hand on his way to the sideline, which made it an illegal forward pass.
But what even coach Mike Vrabel thought would put the Titans in a hole, the rule aided the Titans. It was a five-yard penalty, and the Titans instead faced a 2nd-and-12 from the Houston 40. Gabbert connected with Davis on the next play, and the Titans were on their way.
Gabbert said he knew the rule, and used it to his advantage.
“It saved yardage,” he said. “It was called on me my rookie year, you’re reacting in the game. You know, it worked out in our favor in that situation. It was kind of a flashback to Marcus (Mariota) in Kansas City, catching his own batted ball and running it in, but there were a lot of guys in my way. Rather than taking the 10-yard sack, losing a down, throwing it away and just getting a five-yard penalty, and keeping us relatively close in the field position.”
Gabbert, a first-round draft pick by the Jaguars in the 2011 NFL Draft, knows the Jaguars are up next for Tennessee.
If Mariota can’t play, he’ll be back in the saddle again.
It’s a familiar seat.
On Sunday, Gabbert took the bull by the horns, and the Titans got a big win.
“Whenever you get a chance to start in the National Football League, and especially win the National Football League, it’s extremely special,” Gabbert said. “Especially when you can beat Houston, a division opponent, a good, quality football team, it’s special. It means a lot. Any win is a good win in my book.”