NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians knew from the strength staff he hired from Mississippi State that his Buccaneers had a chance of defending against Tennessee's first-round draft pick, defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons.
"I was hoping he would be a couple more weeks," Arians said.
Instead, Simmons made his NFL debut last week with a sack, two tackles for loss and a key role on the Titans' goal-line stand to clinch a 23-20 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. The performance by the No. 19 pick overall was so good that the Titans' coaches credited him with a couple of more tackles after looking at the tape.
Not bad for someone who tore his left ACL in early February preparing for the NFL draft. Arians said the Bucs' strength staff, who had been with Simmons at Mississippi State, raved about Simmons. They also told the Bucs that Simmons would be ready to play midway through the season and not to be surprised if Simmons played in November.
Simmons beat that by two weeks.
"He was very, very physical and impressive," Arians said.
Simmons' debut was impressive enough that the Titans (3-4) have him listed in their starting lineup for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay (2-4) alongside nose tackle DaQuan Jones and four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. The rookie said he felt fine after practicing for only a week with his teammates and playing 21 snaps in his first game in the NFL.
"It's just beginning," Simmons said. "I'm ready to keep on winning with this team, just go from there."
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Simmons got his first sack in the third quarter of Philip Rivers. He also showed off his strength on the tackle for loss, pushing the Chargers' center back before grabbing Melvin Gordon III for a loss of a yard.
Simmons really made his impact on the Titans' goal-line stand inside the final minute. He pushed a Chargers lineman backward off the line of scrimmage, and linebacker Wesley Woodyard came in and knocked the ball out of Gordon's arms for Casey to recover.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said they wound up playing Simmons a bit more than they originally planned.
"We needed him in certain situations, especially down near the goal line, and we thought he was playing fairly effectively," Pees said.
Simmons had been projected as a possible top 10 selection in the 2019 draft before tearing his ACL. When Simmons is at full strength, his legs are a big key to the explosion he plays with coming off the ball.
"I feel like my power against most people on this level will help me a lot," Simmons said. "My strength and just go from there. I feel like I pretty much (have) great power coming out of my hips and my hands. My hands I feel like I have some violent hands, so just keep using my hands and my strength to my advantage."
The key moving forward is how the Titans increase Simmons' playing time and how the rookie called simply "Big Jeff" helps a defense that ranks fourth in the NFL giving up 16 points a game. Inside linebacker Rashaan Evans said he already noticed having more room to operate with Simmons playing well with Jones and Casey.
"He's doing it in just his first game, so it's definitely going to be exciting to see what he can do not only these next couple games and ... even the next couple years," Evans said.
NOTES: WR Corey Davis (illness) practiced after missing Wednesday. ... RT Jack Conklin (right thigh) and RG Nate Davis (rib) practiced fully after being limited Wednesday. CB Adoree' Jackson (foot) missed a second straight practice along with TE Delanie Walker (ankle) and CB Chris Milton (calf).
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker