NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Mike Vrabel was getting ready to coach just his second NFL game and his roster was a mess.

His quarterback was out and so was Delanie Walker and he was down to his fourth and fifth tackles.

The Titans were installing Wildcat plays as late as Friday and Saturday and Vrabel came up with the formula to win: Forty. Seventeen. Two.

Mike Vrabel

To beat the Texans on Sept. 16, 2018, he ultimately told the Titans, they needed to run the ball 40 times, hold them to 17 points or fewer and force two turnovers.

They needed less than he anticipated. They won, 20-17 with 34 rush attempts and one takeaway.

Tonight’s game against the Bills on Monday Night Football isn’t nearly as complicated. But it feels a bit like that game, a matchup later that season against the Patriots, the playoff win in the 2019 season at Baltimore and last year’s win over the Bills after a 16-day, practice-and-a-half Covid-19 layoff.

They were all games where the Titans seemed overmatched heading in and what got them started, at least, was a sound plan and mindset instilled by Vrabel and his staff during the preparation week.

The 3-2 Titans have not played particularly good football so far this season outside of the second half of Week Two in Seattle. To upset the Bills, who bring the NFL’s best scoring offense (34.4 points a game) and best scoring defense (12.8) to Nashville, it feels as if Vrabel will need to be at his best again.Derrick Henry

“I haven’t figured that out yet,” he said early in the preparation week when I asked if he had a Texans-like formula for the Bills. “That came about four hours before the game when I figured that out because we were scrambling.

"There will be more clarity as the week goes on. I think we have an idea of how we would like to play the football game. We have to take care of the ball here against them. Last year we got three turnovers and we didn’t give any of them up, so that was a large factor. A lot of their success has been tied to those turnovers. They are creating short fields for their offense and hitting explosive plays. That would be a great place to start.”

Players say Vrabel is good at finding a pointed thematic message each week that resonates.

"He finds any way to help us get better or put an edge to this team in all three phases," Derrick Henry said. "Something to instill in our minds to go out there and focus on each and every week. Go out there, get better, push each other. We all love it and feed off of it.

As the week went on, Titans who regularly echo Vrabel’s message, talked about not paying attention to the laundry list of Buffalo's impressive stats.

"I think the message is no matter the stats or whatever is out there, just focus on what we need to do," Henry said. "To improve all week and go out there and try to get a win no matter what rankings or whatever like that. Just go out there, line it up, and go play."

Said Vrabel: “You kind of get caught up in how statistically good they are, statistically great,” Vrabel said. “We have to execute and play against a very good team. It is rightfully so, they have earned those numbers. It is impressive. I just want to make sure that we focus on what our plan is and how we need to try and play the game.

“They are plus-nine in the turnover margin after five games, they are averaging 34 points, giving up 12, number three in third down, first in the red zone on defense. So, it is going to be a huge challenge.”

His team is healthier than it’s been for much of its first five games, with Julio Jones in line to return and A.J. Brown probably ready to play a bit more than he did a week ago (provided he’s past the illness that got him on the injury report Sunday as questionable).

apple icon 144x144 precomposedBud Dupree and Rodger Saffold have no injury designations and will play. First-round cornerback Caleb should have a big role with one of the team’s best defensive players, Kristian Fulton, out.

But the Titans need to play smarter, cleaner, more explosive football.

Under Vrabel, we’ve seen them play down to their competition like they did in providing the Jets their only win of the season so far three weeks ago.

And we’ve seen them rise to the occasion against some high-quality opponents.

Tonight starts a brutal month and the Bills are likely the best of the lot. The question of whether they are up for it starts with their coach.

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