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Despite losing their starting quarterback early in the second quarter Sunday and holding the ball for almost 16 minutes less than the Saints, the Titans came within one play of erasing a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit and shocking New Orleans. Rookie Jake Locker, who rallied his team down 20 in the second half against the Falcons in Week 11 before falling short, made a number of impressive plays — both with his arm and his legs — in relief of the injured Matt Hasselbeck (calf). Yet, a few glaring miscues, including a rookie mistake on the game's final play, cost the Titans a chance at victory.
The PFW spin
There was plenty to like about Locker's second extended action. His acrobatic six-yard TD run that gave the Titans their first lead of the game late in the third quarter was an incredible display of athleticism and awareness. With Locker's body in midair and clearly out of bounds, he improbably reached his hand back into the field of play and over the pylon to give Tennessee a 10-9 lead.
After Drew Brees quickly responded with a pair of scoring strikes, Locker didn't flinch, engineering a lightning-fast scoring drive of his own, capped by a perfectly thrown 40-yard TD toss to Nate Washington.
Tennessee forced a quick three-and-out, getting Locker the ball back with 4:36 remaining and 65 yards between him and potentially his first fourth-quarter comeback.
He again moved the Titans swiftly downfield, setting up a critical 3rd-and-1 at the Saints' 24-yard line. Instead of attempting to hammer it for the first down, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer called for Locker to go for the jugular. The rookie identified man coverage to his right on Damian Williams, who beat his man on a beautiful fade route. But Locker airmailed the throw, missing an easy go-ahead TD.
Palmer called for a QB sneak on fourth down, and although Locker appeared to surge forward enough to move the chains, a seemingly bad spot by the officials gave the ball back to New Orleans.
The Saints gained just one first down and milked only 34 seconds off the clock before punting it back to the Titans. Locker found Lavelle Hawkins and Washington with 25- and 40-yard connections, respectively, setting the Titans up at the New Orleans five-yard line with 0:07 remaining.
Locker tried Marc Mariani on a slant (one of several curious play calls by offensive coordinator Chris Palmer late in the game) that was deflected by Tracy Porter, leaving just five seconds on the clock.
Then Locker committed a cardinal sin.
After dropping back and finding no one open initially, Locker moved to his right. Not only did he not see Damian Williams appear to come open, he didn't see Saints LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who sacked Locker to preserve the Saints' victory.
Quite simply, Locker, at the very least, needs to get rid of the ball and give the Titans a chance. That didn't happen, and Tennessee now must win out and also get some help from the Jets and/or Bengals to have a shot at the postseason.
Make no mistake: Locker's brilliance in the second half put the Titans in position for the final play. He showed real moxie and a knack for making plays in nearly completing the comeback. He looked comfortable in the two-minute drill, showing off his cannon arm, toughness and great leadership.
But the Titans wisely acquired Hasselbeck, who could be back under center in Week 15, in the offseason so Locker could be brought along slowly and learn from the sideline. And for the most part, their plan has worked to perfection. Hasselbeck has done his part to keep the Titans competitive; Locker has played very well the few times he has been called upon. But the rookie came up just short on Sunday, and the lessons he learned from the defeat could come at a significant cost — at least in the short term.