NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When the Tennessee Titans announced inactive players for their Week 7 game against the Chargers, the name of No. 19 overall pick Jeffery Simmons was not on the list for the first time. He was activated on Saturday after spending eight months working his way back from a torn ACL that he suffered in February.
Stepping back on the football field to help the Titans to a 23-20 win on Sunday was the perfect reward for Simmons' hard work in recovery.
"The main thing was to get back on the field and help this team as much as I can," said Simmons, who played 21 snaps against the Chargers. "Just the opportunity to get on the field and have the chance to play in my first game. I was like, 'It's here.' I was excited to be out there and get a win. I was just ready to play football again. It's as simple as that."
Simmons was placed on the non-football injury list before training camp, which kept him from being eligible to practice until after Week 6. The Titans brought Simmons along by working him on a side field with the strength and conditioning staff. They saw early on that they could expedite the process.
During the summer Simmons was running and cutting on the knee during one-on-one workouts with coach Mike Vrabel and veteran defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who joked that the training staff had to get Simmons to ease up in workouts. Casey let Simmons know it was time to get after it before Sunday's game.
"I told him to let it rip," Casey said. "He did his thing today. When he first came out, I told him to have fun and not think about it. Let loose and have fun with it."
Simmons didn't start, but he entered the game in the first quarter and immediately had an impact. On the first defensive series, he put pressure on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to force an overthrow. Vrabel said he liked the push that Simmons generated -- and not just as a pass-rusher.
Simmons bulldozed his way into the Chargers backfield to tackle Melvin Gordon for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter as well. It usually takes time for a player to have an impact after returning from such a significant injury, but Simmons helped the Titans right away. His NFL debut featured an impressive stat line that included four tackles (two for loss) and a sack.
It was a great start, but Simmons said he still has a lot of work to do. Before his first practice, Simmons said he was learning a lot of new technique, which he identified as the most important thing for a defensive lineman. He mentioned how he was a little too high with his technique on a couple of plays but promised to keep working on getting better.
He was on the field for a crucial goal-line stand that sealed the win, which is a testament to how much the coaches trust Simmons. Simmons rewarded the coaches' confidence in him by blowing up the right guard and pushing him into the Chargers backfield, which caused running back Gordon to re-route his path to the end zone. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard was able to strip Gordon, and Casey recovered the fumble to seal the game for the Titans.
It was a massive moment, but Simmons' mindset was simple.
"Defend every inch of grass," Simmons said. "I came off the ball and knew I was going to get the guard by myself. My job was to knock my man back. Beat the man in front of me. I felt like I did a great job with that."
The next step for him is to watch the film, then take the coaching they give him on Wednesday when the team gets back to work. The goal is not to rush anything but to get better each week. It took six games into his rookie season for Simmons to make his NFL debut. The Titans' staff had a vision when they drafted Simmons despite his severe injury. They feel his future is bright.
"It’s a long journey for him. He’s a great kid. He’s a better person than he is a football player and we think he’s going to be a great football player. This is the kind of guy you want to be around. I’m glad he’s on our team," Vrabel said.