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VOL. 39 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 2, 2015

Three games in, how much better are Titans?

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Tennessee Titans wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham celebrates after a touchdown against the Colts in the second half of Sunday’s home opener. With two touchdowns in the past three games, the rookie has become one of quarterback Marcus Mariota’s favorite targets.

-- Ap Photo/Weston Kenney

At some point, the Tennessee Titans have to grow up. After blowing an opportunity to take the early lead in the AFC South by letting it slip away against the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday, the Titans now head into their bye week on a downturn with two consecutive losses.

It’s early, but the doubts of “Are we headed for a repeat of 2014?” have surely crept in on some level with the team’s fan base.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt promises it’s not the case, even though he doesn’t yet have much to show for things being different in the win column.

Whisenhunt points to his offense being much improved over a year ago, much of which seems to be centered on rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, who should only get better as he continues to figure out how the quarterback position is played in the NFL.

“Let’s be real, let’s not even compare it to last year offensively,” Whisenhunt says. “We’re doing a lot of things better.

“I think that there are a lot of positive signs on our offense of things that we’re doing, and we have to build off of that. I mean, listen, we can’t turn the ball over. We’ve got to correct some mistakes. We’ve got to do a better job of protecting the quarterback.

“There are a lot of good signs. We’re running the ball better than we’ve run it before. We’re a good red zone team. We’re scoring more points. We’ve probably got more points now than we had maybe the whole year last year.”

OK, not quite. Last year, for the record, the Titans scored 254 points. And they have 89 in three games this season.

And for all his growing pains, the Titans do look to have the most critical piece of the rebuilding puzzle in place right now in Mariota.

Of course, that rings hollow in the short term, until it starts turning into victories. Just ask Butch Jones at the University of Tennessee. Being better is all well and good, but it doesn’t count for much until you take advantage of it.

Whisenhunt, who is 3-16 in his one-season-plus with the Titans, can’t deny that.

“Really you have to get over the hump. You have to win one of those games and you have to keep pushing,” he says.

“I feel like we’re close. To do what we did in Cleveland (getting within seven points in the fourth quarter)... and take a game (Sunday) and flip it against a team that played in the AFC Championship Game last year shows signs of us being able to get there.”

And it is the getting there that appears to be the toughest part, as evidence by why the Titans are 1-2 today and not 2-1 as they could have – or should have – been.

“We’re tired of learning. It’s a matter of playing football,” center Brian Schwenke says. “We need to go hard on every play and win on every play, no matter what play is called. We should win the game, and we didn’t do that.”

Part of it is youth. As Whisenhunt pointed out, the Titans had five rookies on the field at one point in Sunday’s game on offense in the fourth quarter. But at some point, even that excuse begins to wear thin as fans want to see results.

“As you grow you go through these situations, you learn from them,” Whisenhunt says. “Make no mistake about it.

“We’ve got to win one of these games when we get into these situations, and I believe we’re going to do it.”

Three things we’ve learned in three games:

1. Marcus Mariota has the look of a franchise quarterback.

Through three games, and yes that is an extremely small sample size, Mariota has shown the “it” factor, that rare combination of being unfazed even when chaos is going on around him. The great ones have it.

If Manning, Brady or Rodgers make a mistake, you know they’re going to come back even stronger on the next series and do whatever is necessary to keep their team in the game. It was on display by Andrew Luck Sunday against the Titans.

And truth be told, it was on display with Mariota as well, not only leading a late TD drive, but even beckoning for the ball when Jalston Fowler was being chased down on the final two-point try.

It will still take some time and some experience, but the feeling here is that Mariota is much farther along than Vince Young and Jake Locker were at the embryonic stages of their careers.

2. The defense has improved, but has it improved enough?

With Dick LeBeau running the show, the Titans are doing a better job of getting to the quarterback.

They sacked Jameis Winston four times, got Johnny Manziel twice and took down Luck three times. But there are still many areas that need improvement. Linebackers seem to miss too many tackles, and the secondary, beset by injuries, has been spotty, making a few big plays, but also giving up way too many.

3. The culture seems to be slowly but surely changing

In the past few years, the Titans talked a good game, but rarely played one, especially in Ken Whisenhunt’s first season.

Losing becomes an infectious culture inside a locker room, and once it sets in, it is difficult to remove. The hope that Mariota has brought in the early going has eased some of that negative mentality that inundated the team a year ago.

But positive results have to become a reality soon, or the positive energy will give way to the losing culture again.

Three questions that remain going forward:

1. Can the Titans protect Mariota?

The Titans have already allowed Mariota to be sacked 12 times in three games.

In case you’re keeping up with what type of pace that is, it is 64 sacks, something that is completely unacceptable.

While Zach Mettenberger might be a capable backup, and might even do well as a starter eventually, the Titans simply cannot afford to get Mariota hurt.

But operating behind a line that has been inconsistent thus far, makes this an area that must be addressed in the off-season.

2. Will any of the young receivers emerge as a consistent threat?

For two-plus seasons, the Titans have waited for Justin Hunter to show that he can be a consistent deep threat who can take the top off the defense with big plays, which also should help open up the run game and the short-passing attack.

But while the Titans haven’t yet given up on Hunter, it is beginning to look like that rookie Dorial Green-Beckham may instead be the guy who becomes Mariota’s big target downfield and in the red zone.

DGB already has two touchdowns in his first three games, but can he master the playbook enough to take on that role?

3. Will fans continue to be patient with Whisenhunt and Webster?

The Titans may be headed in the right direction. Only time will tell on that one.

But a frustrated fan base that has not tasted the postseason in seven years can only be patient with a rebuilding effort for so long.

The Titans are saying – and occasionally doing – the right things in terms of being more competitive, but the days of the four-year rebuilding projects in the NFL are long gone, and if the Titans don’t show marked improvement, one or both of GM Ruston Webster and Coach Ken Whisenhunt could be affixed to the hot seat in 2016.

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

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