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VOL. 39 | NO. 50 | Friday, December 11, 2015

Struggling Titans step up their game for Mularkey

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Titans interim head coach Mike Mularkey, shown here with wide receiver Harry Douglas, has the team on his side as he makes a bid to become the non-interim head coach for 2016.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Zaleski

The biggest positive for the 2015 Titans is that they continue to fight.

Their record – 3-9 – is terrible, not a marked improvement over last year’s 2-14 debacle. But the Titans have not folded on a regular basis, as they did a year ago when they lost nine games by two touchdowns or more.

You read that correctly – nine of their losses last season were by 14-plus points.

If you’re looking for reasons why these Titans have continued to battle despite another bad season, there are a few.

One, of course, is the play of Marcus Mariota, who looks more and more like the long-term answer at quarterback. Another is the defense, which has improved dramatically under the tutelage of Dick LeBeau.

But there is another, less-talked-about reason why these Titans keep battling when their predecessors folded shortly after last year’s Oct. 4 bye week.

Titans players really do like interim coach Mike Mularkey. And they would like to win enough games for him to earn serious consideration to keep the job, rather than going through yet another coaching change for 2016.

Take what happened before the Titans’ win over Jacksonville on Sunday:

Mularkey called the players together in their meeting and asked them why they thought he wanted to win this game so badly. The quick answer from a few players drew on the fact that Mularkey coached the Jaguars for just one season in 2012 before being dumped after Shad Khan bought the team and made sweeping changes.

But that wasn’t the reason. Mularkey said he wanted to win the game for the players themselves.

“I told them it was important to win for all of us in the room, the coaching staff and the players, because of how hard we work. That’s why I want to win,” Mularkey said.

“That’s why this is so much better of a feel, because I know how important it was to all those guys in that room.”

And as left tackle Taylor Lewan tells it, veteran linebacker Brian Orakpo said what a lot of players were feeling in that meeting after hearing Mularkey’s remarks.

“Before the game, Mularkey said, ‘Why do you think I want to win this game so bad?’ A couple of guys said, ‘Because it’s your old team’ and stuff like that. But Rak (Brian Orakpo) said it, ‘We want you back.’ We love that coach and we love that coaching staff. We want to win games,” Lewan said.

Veteran tight end Craig Stevens, who had Mularkey as a position coach before he was elevated to interim head coach, says the players are fortunate to have Mularkey in their corner.

“Everyone on this team has a lot of respect for Coach Mularkey, and he treats us all real good,” Stevens said. “He was an awesome tight ends coach and he’s an ever better head coach.

“We’re real lucky to have him as a coach. I want to win for him and I know a lot of the players do, too. It’s just go out there and do your job, and that’s what he encourages us to do.”

The players have Mularkey’s back, even when he has had to do unpleasant things for the good of the team. Such as when he stripped Lewan of his captaincy a few weeks ago and gave it to veteran running back Dexter McCluster.

“Even that day he sat me down and said, ‘I’m giving the C to Dexter,’ I respect him more than any coach, and that’s awesome to have a respect for a coach and the way he respects us and respects the way we work,” Lewan said.

It seems the players have Mularkey’s back in his bid to become the Titans non-interim head coach. Now they’ll have to win enough over the final month to convince ownership things are heading in the right direction.

Five things to watch

1. Maturing of Dorial Green-Beckham

DGB had his best game to date Sunday against the Jaguars with five catches for 119 yards. What can he do this week against a much stouter Jets defense?

2. More running for Mariota

Marcus Mariota is healthier now than he has been in weeks, and it showed with his 87-yard TD run on Sunday. Of course, teams will not be more cognizant of him taking off out of the pocket and running. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing because teams will have to devote a defender to watch him, which takes away from pass coverage.

3. Can the defense rebound?

The unit, which has anchored the Titans much of the season, struggled against the Jaguars on Sunday. They need to be able to get back on track this week against former Titan Ryan Fitzpatrick.

4. Secondary shuffle.

It appears that B.W. Webb has passed Blidi Wreh-Wilson as the Titans nickelback for now. At least that’s what happened late in the Jaguars game.

5. The offensive line’s improvement

The line looked better on Sunday with another week together. The Titans are starting two rookies now in center Andy Gallik and left guard Quinton Spain.

Three matchups to watch

1. Jets D line vs. Titans O line

The Titans offensive line has struggled for much of the year, having protection issues at times and also being inconsistent in their run blocking. The Jets have one of the top fronts in the NFL and can get to the quarterback in many ways. Muhammad Wilkerson has nine sacks.

2. Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Titans defense

Fitzpatrick doesn’t appear to be the same gunslinger he was with the Titans, having morphed into more of a game-manager with much better results. Can the Titans get enough pressure on him to force him back into his old turnover-prone ways?

3. Perrish Cox vs. Brandon Marshall

Marshall has been having a great year with 83 catches for 1,072 yards and 10 touchdowns. Cox is the best the Titans have at cornerback and probably will see Marshall often on Sunday.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com

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