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VOL. 39 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 25, 2015

Mariota’s toughness an edge as Colts come calling

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Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota had a tough day in Cleveland with the Browns sacking him seven times. Despite the beating and an ankle injury, the rookie quarterback helped cut a 21-0 deficit to 21-14 in the second half before the Browns were able to put the game away, winning 28-14.

-- Ap Photo/Ron Schwane

Two games in, it is still a bit too early to declare Marcus Mariota the franchise savior for the Tennessee Titans.

But one thing that stood out is that we may have learned as much or more about Mariota’s makeup in last Sunday’s loss to the Cleveland Browns than we did in his week one shellacking of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What was noticeable about Mariota’s play, and something that can be built on going forward for the Titans, is the rookie’s resiliency.

He was beaten, batter and bruised to the tune of seven sacks, three fumbles and an ankle injury.

Yet he refused to come out of the game and continued to battle back, even when it appeared all hope was lost. He even helped the Titans make a game of it, getting as close as 21-14 with a little less than seven minutes left before the defense gave up the back-breaking touchdown pass by Johnny Manziel that sealed it.

Just two games into his NFL career, it is clear that the Titans will follow Mariota’s lead on and off the field. If the culture with the Titans is going to change, then Mariota will be the one leading the way.

The 2014 version of the Titans would have gone on to lose by 30 points after that disastrous first half. Instead, this team kept fighting and clawing and trying to make a game of it.

Yes, there are going to be mistakes, but Mariota’s moxie appears undeniable, even this early into his pro career.

“You have to have confidence in your abilities and we had confidence in what we were doing,” Mariota says of trying to come back against the Browns.

“It’s just the way the ball bounces sometimes. There are things that we can improve on and get ready for next week.”

Already, the players are buying in, despite the learning curve and bumps in the road that are inevitable when breaking in a rookie quarterback.

“We can sit here and talk about him being a rookie, but I don’t think our players see him as a rookie,” Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt says. “Our players see him as a good football player that can help them win, and they’re excited about that.

“The way they view him is what he’s earned because of the way he’s worked and the way he’s performed since he’s been here.

“So he has leadership skills because of who he is, not because he’s a rookie or he’s a high draft pick. And quite frankly, that’s the way it should be.”

After week two, the respect meter for Mariota seemed to rise another notch from those viewing how he handled himself in the face of adversity.

“He’s a warrior,” says tight end Delanie Walker, who missed Sunday’s game with a wrist injury. “That showed us a lot, that he’s not going to come out of the game.

“He took some big hits, and things we don’t want to happen, but we know if it does, he’s going to keep fighting.”

As Mariota enters his regular season home debut this Sunday against the Colts, the Titans come face-to-face with perhaps the biggest game they have had in several years.

Yes, it is week three.

Yes, AFC South favorite Indianapolis will be smarting from an ugly 0-2 start.

And yes, the division is a mess right now, where it looks like the first team to eight wins might win it.

But for the Titans, after having been at the bottom for so long, anything resembling a big game is a welcome change from the recent past.

The Titans have lost seven straight to the Colts, and have not beaten Andrew Luck in six tries. But with Mariota, the Titans believe that change is on the way.

“That has to change, if we want to talk about us being a powerhouse team and leading this division, we can’t let the Colts dominate this division every year,” Walker says. “I feel like it will take some time to have that true identity, but it’s coming.”

Five things to watch

1. Derrick Morgan vs. the Colts offensive line: Morgan has three sacks in two games, and the Colts offensive line has been suspect in the first two games of the season, allowing Andrew Luck to be pressured into five interceptions already.

2. Marcus Mariota’s home debut. Mariota had a good start against the Bucs and showed resiliency against the Browns after the Titans dug themselves into a 21-0 hole. Mariota was sacked seven times, but still managed to throw two more TD passes, giving him six in his first two NFL starts. It looks like the Titans may have found their franchise quarterback, if they can put pieces around him.

3. Which running back will carry the load? In game one, it was Bishop Sankey going for 74 yards. Last week, it was Dexter McCluster handling for 98 yards on 10 carries. The Titans rushing attack has been improved this year, thanks to better run blocking and a running back-by-committee that has worked thus far.

4. The defensive line must dominate. The Titans defensive line is a strength of the team, and the play of Jurrell Casey and Al Woods has been spearheading that in the early going. Casey is a known commodity, having been the Titans best defender the past three years. But Woods has been playing well filling in for Sammie Hill, and the Titans need to win this battle up front to help a secondary that is still missing pieces due to injuries, though Jason McCourty should return at least to practice this week.

5. Can the Titans make a statement? It won’t be easy, as the Colts come in 0-2. But the Titans have a chance to actually take control of the AFC South if they can hold serve at home. As crazy as it sounds, Sunday’s game might be the first meaningful NFL game in Nashville since sometime toward the end of the 2011 season. Are the Titans ready for it?

Three key matchups

Andrew Luck vs. Dick LeBeau

Luck has looked extremely mortal in the Colts first two games, as both the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets made him run for his life and throw the football to places he didn’t want it to go – like to Darrelle Revis last Monday night.

Luck, uncharacteristically, has thrown five interceptions in the first two games of the year after having just 16 all last season.

But the question for the Titans defense is can they somehow replicate some of what the Bills and Jets have done against the Colts’ vulnerable offensive line to get to Luck without him making them pay. After all, the Titans secondary, when it played single coverage last Sunday against the Browns, was burned twice for long touchdowns by Johnny Manziel and Travis Benjamin, which made the difference in the game. LeBeau will be creative for certain to try and rattle Luck and get him out of his comfort zone.

Titans offensive line vs. Colts front seven

The Titans allowed Marcus Mariota to be sacked seven times in Sunday’s loss to the Browns and to be hit four more times. That is way too often, as Coach Ken Whisenhunt admitted in his Monday press conference.

The Colts pass rush was supposed to be a strength of the defense this year, with the addition of Trent Cole and the return of Robert Mathis at the outside linebacker positions. But the defense has been vulnerable to the run and has not been getting to the quarterback as often as the Colts would hope.

The place to watch is the right side of the line where rookie Jeremiah Poutasi had a rough day in pass protection against the Browns with their innovative schemes. And with Chance Warmack out, the Titans will be counting on journeyman Jamon Meredith to step in at right guard.

Titans receivers vs. Colts cornerbacks

Other than Kendall Wright in the opener, the Titans receivers have taken a back seat to the tight ends in terms of production. The Colts cornerbacks are decimated by injuries, as their top four corners are all dealing with injuries after Vontae Davis – their best cornerback – went out with a concussion Monday night.

Tennessee’s receivers had trouble winning outside matchups against Cleveland’s press coverage, but this week is the time for young receivers Dorial Green-Beckham, who did have a TD catch Sunday, and Justin Hunter to step up and be counted, playing against backup type defensive backs across the line of scrimmage for them.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is a blogger for 247 Sports NFL Insider.

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