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VOL. 130 | NO. 207 | Friday, October 23, 2015

Titans Staff Must Alter Offense to Protect Mariota

By TERRY McCORMICK

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As of Sunday, Oct. 18, the Tennessee Titans’ mission has changed going forward – or least it should.

After their miserable showing in a 38-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins, let’s not pretend this team is anywhere close to contending, even in the bad AFC South.

Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was sacked six times on Sunday by the Miami Dolphins, a team that entered the game with one sack in its previous four games this season. 

(AP Photo/James Kenney)

Now, at 1-4 and with a four-game losing streak, these 2015 Tennessee Titans have other, more important priorities than now than trying to tread water in a bad division. Sunday’s debacle was a reminder that maybe this team is still a little closer to the 2014 version than first believed.

But even Ken Whisenhunt’s 3-18 record – 1-11 at home – should not be the main focus right now for the Titans.

While I had previously said that Whisenhunt would not be on the hot seat despite the team’s struggles, that might have to be amended if there are any more no-shows like Sunday’s.

So the main focus of the rest of the Titans’ season, beginning this Sunday, Oct. 25, against Atlanta, has to be the protection of Marcus Mariota.

Through five games, Mariota has taken a beating, having been sacked 19 times, which puts him on pace for about 60 sacks for the season – provided he stays in one piece. And given the way the Titans line has played of late, that’s no guarantee.

Titans fans held their collective breath last week when Mariota went down with what turned out to be a sprained MCL in his left knee on a very questionable hit from Dolphins defender Olivier Vernon, who was flagged on the play.

That hit, the dirtiness of which can be debated or not, should put the Titans squarely on notice that something must be done to protect their young quarterback.

Despite Sunday’s struggles, Mariota, for the most part, has shown all the signs of blossoming into a franchise quarterback and franchise quarterbacks don’t grow on trees in the NFL.

But six sacks on Sunday brought to mind too many images of last season when Jake Locker, Zach Mettenberger and Charlie Whitehurst took turns getting hammered behind a porous offensive line. All three eventually went out with shoulder injuries.

The Titans cannot afford a repeat of that with Mariota.

The offensive line has had its issues as its two best players – Taylor Lewan and Chance Warmack – are less than 100 percent because of injuries. And now Brian Schwenke is out for the year with a gruesome leg injury, putting rookie Andy Gallik in the lineup at center.

It means that Mariota (or maybe Mettenberger this week) will now have two rookies protecting him, as Gallik joins struggling right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi in the starting lineup.

Poutasi was benched in favor of Jamon Meredith in the first half to try and better combat the Dolphins’ Cameron Wake.

So, this group isn’t exactly a carbon copy of the Dallas Cowboys line of the early ’90s, but the issues are far deeper than personnel.

In order to better help protect the quarterback, the Titans must do more from a coaching and adjustment standpoint, especially in-game adjustments. When Wake, Vernon and the rest of the Dolphins front were pounding away at Mariota, the Titans seemed reluctant to change.

They could have gone to a max protect package by keeping tight ends and running backs in to block. They also could have tried more three-step drops with screens or short slant routes.

Perhaps rolling the pocket to one side or the other away from the rush might have helped.

Or what about going no-huddle to make the defensive linemen play 10 straight snaps to tire them out?

It was sadly reminiscent of last year when they allowed poor old Will Svitek to be overpowered by J.J. Watt until Watt finally wrecked Mettenberger’s shoulder.

If the Titans value Mariota, and they want to eventually head back in the right direction, then their thinking on how to protect the quarterback must change – beginning now.

Five things to watch

1. Can they protect the quarterback? The Titans must figure out a way to help their patchwork offensive line keep the QB – Mariota or Mettenberer – in one piece and able to deliver the football.

2. See if anyone is mailing it in. One of the dangers of losing football is having players check out once the team falls out of any reasonable chance of contention. Well, the Titans are there in terms of out of contention after last Sunday, so it will be up to the coaches and the leadership of the team to make sure everyone stays focused and still plays with a mindset to win.

3. Andy Levitre’s return. Levitre was the scapegoat for the offensive line’s failure after signing a big contract with the Titans in 2013, and failing to live up to expectations. The Titans traded him to the Falcons for a sixth-round pick, now Levitre may be having the last laugh with the 5-1 Falcons, while the Titans still struggle to find cohesiveness on their offensive line.

4. Establish the running game. When your leading rusher has 23 yards on the ground, you’re doing something wrong. The Titans have to be able to have some sort of ground game, if for no other reason than to keep the high-flying Falcons offense on the sideline.

5. Step up the pass rush. Early in the season, the Titans pass rush was potent, but of late it has tailed off, like just about everything else in Titans land. Getting to Matt Ryan might be one way to help a beleaguered secondary against the likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White on Sunday.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com.

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