There was no pre-snap discussion between Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Derwin James, no wink and a nod between the two defenders as the Tennessee Titans lined up for the decisive two-point conversion attempt, no verbal exchange as the game’s final dramatic act unfolded.
“We kind of free-styled that play,” Hayward said in a jubilant locker room after the Chargers held on for a 20-19 nail-biter of a victory over the Titans before a Wembley Stadium crowd of 84,301. “We’ve got a sixth sense with each other.”
Sunday’s game ended with Chargers defensive back Adrian Phillips tipping a Marcus Mariota pass intended for receiver Taywan Taylor in the back of the end zone, denying the Titans a two-point conversion that would have given them a one-point lead with 31 seconds left.
But the key to the stop might have been the little switch-a-roo that Hayward, a seven-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowl selection, and James, the heralded rookie from Florida State, pulled to Mariota’s right.
Hayward’s holding penalty on the initial two-point attempt, an incomplete pass by the scrambling Mariota, gave the Titans a second chance from one yard out. Mariota lined up in shotgun formation with two wide receivers to each side. Running back Dion Lewis went in motion to the left.
“They went empty [backfield] on us and motioned Lewis across,” Phillips said. “They only had one yard to get but 53 yards sideways with one of the best running quarterbacks in the league. We knew they would try to spread us out.”
Mariota took the snap, dropped back and looked immediately to his right for tight end Jonnu Smith, who swung outside on a short wheel route, and inside receiver Corey Davis, who cut toward the middle and sat four yards deep in the end zone.
The play was designed to cross up Hayward and James, perhaps even make them run into each other in the confusion over who to cover. Neither took the bait.
Hayward, who was lined up to cover Davis, switched to Smith and smothered him on the outside. James, who was supposed to cover Smith, picked up Davis instead and stuck to the receiver like Velcro.
“It was natural,” James said of his connection with Hayward. “We feed off each other. That’s what we do. We’re gonna make each other right. If I went with [Smith] I would have been picked, and Casey’s man would have bodied him out. We switched it up on [Mariota] and it messed him up. He was like, ‘Oh.’ ”
Mariota quickly moved on to Plans B, C and D, but safety Jahleel Addae had Tajae Sharpe smothered on the left side, and slot cornerback Desmond King had Lewis well covered in the left flat.
Mariota threw toward the middle, where a leaping Phillips got just enough of the football with his left hand to disrupt its flight. The ball sailed well out of the reach of Taylor, who had cornerback Michael Davis draped over his back.
“That’s the beauty of our defense,” Phillips said. “Guys know where they’re supposed to be, and each of us was in the exact spot. And the beautiful thing thing is, if I didn’t tip the ball, Mike Davis would have made the play. He was right there. You can go look at the film. He had him blanketed.”
Chargers defenders are not fond of their bend-but-don’t-break reputation because it implies they do a little too much bending, but there was no denying the label on a sun-splashed 66-degree afternoon in an iconic stadium more than 5,000 miles from home.
The defense stiffened at the end of two long first-half drives, forcing the Titans to settle for field goals of 28 and 33 yards by Ryan Succop. Trailing 10-6, Tennessee had a chance to take a halftime lead when it drove from its five-yard line to the Chargers 10 in 16 plays.
But on the 17th play, defensive end Melvin Ingram leaped at the line of scrimmage and tipped a Mariota pass into the hands of linebacker Denzel Perryman, who corralled the ball at the four-yard line for an interception, the Chargers’ fourth red-zone interception this season and the first of Mariota’s career.
Tennessee pulled to within 17-13 on Derrick Henry’s one-yard touchdown run with 9 minutes 43 seconds left in the third quarter. Mariota capped a 13-play, 89-yard drive in the fourth with a one-yard touchdown pass to Luke Stocker on fourth down to cut the Chargers’ lead to 20-19 with 31 seconds left.
An extra-point kick would have sent the game to overtime. Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel went for the win.
“When that drive started, I thought if there was less than 40 seconds left when we scored, we were going to go for two and win the game,” Vrabel said. “If there was a minute 30 seconds left we were going to kick the extra point and go play defense. … I’m not going to second-guess the call. It just didn’t work out.”
Most Chargers agreed with Vrabel’s bold move.