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VOL. 131 | NO. 201 | Friday, October 7, 2016

Mularkey Sees Improvement – Just Not Enough

TERRY McCORMICK Nashville Sports Correspondent

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So how much improvement has there been with the Tennessee Titans this season?

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is among those players who need to show more consistency. The Titans have a five-game stretch, beginning Sunday at Miami, that might allow him to build confidence.

(AP Photo/Eric Christian Smit)

The bottom line shows a 1-3 record, the same as the past two seasons that produced only a combined five wins in 32 games.

But Titans coach Mike Mularkey insists the 2016 edition of the Titans is a much better product than what has been put on the field the previous few years.

“I would say if you don’t see it, then you really don’t have any idea about football, about the NFL,” Mularkey says. “I think it’s different.”

Different? Yes. Improved? Probably. Satisfactory? Not at all.

Not yet anyway.

These Titans are somewhat better. In 2014 and ‘15, they lost 16 games by double digits. To give you some idea of just how non-competitive that is, that is half the games they played in that span. 

For a league that prides itself on parity and having most games decided in the fourth quarter by a touchdown or less, that is simply awful.

This season, the Titans have had their chances to win in every game but have only pulled through once in four tries. 

Worse yet, they keep finding ways to lose, whether it was Marcus Mariota’s two turnovers for scores against the Vikings; Taylor Lewan’s costly penalty against the Raiders that nullified a first-and-goal or the special teams fiasco Sunday against the Texans that got Bobby April fired. 

There have been other contributing factors in each game, but those are just the most egregious issues that have played a part in the Titans’ downfall.

“Losing is losing,” Lewan says. “Of course, there’s horseshoes and hand grenades, and that’s it. 

“But we need to do the little things. As a team, as a whole, we are better. Our record does not show that. We need to do the little things consistently.”

Mularkey agrees that it may no longer be a matter of not being able to compete. Instead, it’s not being consistent enough to put 60 minutes of winning football together.

“There’s a few plays – four or five plays a game – that have made a difference in the outcomes of these games,” Mularkey says. “I know in the last two years, if we’d have been down 14 points in Houston, that would not have been a pretty outcome.

“This team is competing with every team that we’ve played and had a chance to win every game we’ve played. We’ve got to find a way to win them. We’ve got to find a way to win the close ones.”

If the Titans are truly improved, then now is the time for that theory to take root. 

Yes, we know that coaches and players talk about taking it one game at a time, but we’re going to be bold here. It’s time for the Titans to take it multiple games a time. 

Even at 1-3, they are entering a soft portion of their schedule. Over the next five weeks, beginning Sunday in Miami, Tennessee does not face a team with more than one win to its credit. After the Dolphins, the Titans return home to face the Browns, Colts and Jaguars before going back on the road to take on the Chargers. 

Those five teams are a combined 4-16 on the year.

The good news is that those are all winnable games even for a team that hasn’t won two in a row in more than two years. 

The bad news, of course, is that each of these struggling teams on the schedule are probably looking the Titans in the exact same way – a winnable game on the schedule against Tennessee.

Titans at Dolphins: What to watch

Let Mariota play. Marcus Mariota looks tentative, even hesitant at times, and doesn’t appear to be playing with the same poise and confidence that he did a year ago. It is affecting his play on the field with bad decisions and costly turnovers. 

I get that the Titans want to run the football with DeMarco Murray – they should. But they have to find a way to better incorporate what Mariota does well, which is the shotgun formation, a bit of the spread and designed rollouts with what they are doing to get their quarterback back on track.

Pay attention to everything. The Titans have done a great job this season of taking away their opponents’ top weapons. They held Adrian Peterson to 31 yards rushing, and on Sunday held DeAndre Hopkins to one catch. 

The problem is they may be robbing Peter to pay Paul because there is so much attention heaped upon the opposing team’s stars that other players like Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs and Houston’s Will Fuller have burned them for big days.

Shore up special teams. After Monday’s firing of special teams coach Bobby April, Steve Hoffman will now be in charge of a group that Mike Mularkey said had not progressed over the past couple of years. 

The Titans need a big play or two on special teams, and they have to stop giving those plays up, as well as stopping the penalties.

Avoid big deficits. The Titans have trailed by two scores at some point in every game this season. For a team that is somewhat offensively challenged when it comes to big plays, it is amazing they have been able to stay in games and have a chance to win. Playing with a lead, rather than from behind, would be a big step in the right direction.

Matchups to watch

Ryan Tannehill vs. Dick LeBeau. LeBeau’s defense has been good at times this season. Tannehill is prone to inconsistency, and the Titans need to harass him into mistakes.

Ndamukong Suh vs. Quinton Spain. Suh is still one of the most prominent defensive linemen in the game, and Spain, who has graded well in run-blocking, will have a chore this week. That chore extends beyond just Spain, as the Dolphins can move Suh around, meaning Ben Jones and Josh Kline could see Suh lined up in their gap on occasion, as well.

Perrish Cox and Jason McCourty vs. Jarvis Landry. The Titans secondary has held up better than expected early in the season. Landry is the Dolphins’ top pass receiving target, and Tennessee needs to hold him in check on Sunday as they have Hopkins and Amari Cooper in recent weeks.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com

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