Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans came into Thursday night's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars reeling from a recent disappointing home loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and show the home fans what they've been waiting to see for more than a season. The offense ran up 27 first half points and 354 yards (more than any other team this season for a half of football). The defense held the Jags to zero points and only 60 yards in the first half. Even the special teams didn't make any first half mistakes.
In the last 4 games, the offense has been scoring the number of points this team needs to win (30, 28, 34, and 36). Mariota has thrown 10 TDs with only 1 interception and 949 yards, Murray has rushed for 406 yards and 3 TDs, Walker has 146 yards receiving and 2 TDs, Matthews has 177 yards receiving and 3 TDs, and Wright has 229 yards and 2 TDs. In the game against the Jaguars, Mariota was particularly sharp and now seems to be in complete sync with Offensive Coordinator Terry Robiskie. The offensive line has been especially strong in their part of the "Exotic Smashmouth" scheme. Although both Murray and Derrick Henry are slow starters in each game, they finish with a kick, and in most cases have had strong performances. Although there isn't a huge stand out in our receiving corps, there are a cohesive unit without huge egos to get in the way.
The defense has been cranking up the pressure on the QB too. Although the secondary has shown some definite cracks and the linebackers have had trouble covering the running backs and tight ends, the defense as a whole has kept the team close enough to win every game. Derrick Morgan has 5 1/2 sacks, and Brian Orakpo and Jurrell Casey have 3 sacks each in the last 4 games. They have only allowed 220 total rushing yards as well, with Avery Williamson getting 28 tackles alone.
The only piece of this team that seems to be seriously lagging behind is the Special Teams unit. They have allowed returns for touchdowns, missed extra points, failed to recover onside kicks, and received critical penalties. All of this has actually cost the team points and very likely cost the team at least one win. In all likelihood, this team could be sitting in first place if this unit were to stop making so many mistakes. It has already cost one job on the team. It might cost more before the end of the season if things don't get better.
Even with one of these units not pulling their weight, this team looks poised to take over the AFC South.
The fan base for the Titans has a serious case of sore toes. Their dance partner is still learning their moves, and has stepped all over the feet of their fans. This season has felt like the team has a serious case of two steps forward and one step back. The team was coming off the high of back-to-back wins for the first time since 2013 and facing a struggling Colts team. Then the Titans took a step back when they should have continued forward, and proceeded to lay an egg against a division opponent.
People are beginning to question whether Marcus Mariota is the long-term solution for the team, but his numbers continue to show otherwise. According to NFL Research (@NFLResearch on Twitter), he has the highest career passer rating of any active QB in the red zone (min. 50 att.) with a 115.2 rating and 24 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. This is significant! However, it cannot be ignored that he is still struggling with turnovers, specifically fumbles. Yes, we don't want interceptions, but interceptions happen for every QB. He just needs to ensure that the touchdown-to-interception ratio is at the very least 2-to-1. Currently, he is right at this ratio with 12 TDs and 6 INTs. The fumble problem looks worse because of the 3 fumbles he has lost, 2 have been returned for touchdowns (Vikings and Colts). He also has a growing problem of overthrowing his receivers. If you will look at 2 of the touchdowns against the Browns, he forced both of the receivers to stretch to the full length of their reach in order to make the catch. In the past we might have been able to blame the offensive line, but according to Pro Football Focus our offensive line has graded out as one of the best in the league. Another thing we shouldn't forget, this is the first season that Marcus has with Offensive Coordinator Terry Robiskie, and usually the first season in any QB-OC relationship starts slow. So, this comes down to the maturation of Mariota as a QB at the highest level.
On the defensive side of the ball, the true weaknesses were exposed by the Colts. The linebacking corps cannot seem to cover any running backs or tight ends, and the defensive backs are a mess all the way around. Perrish Cox was already the goat of many fans, but he was the best we had at that position. Then he left the game under concussion protocol and we saw just how bad the backups were. Both Valentino Blake and Brice McCain are seriously struggling to keep up with receivers, and this could be partially forgiven if they didn't struggle on special teams too. Neither can seem to cover the receiver they are assigned, but seem confused about the play on several instances. Also, neither seem to have the ability to tackle anyone at any time. It has gotten to the point where I wonder why they are even on the roster. They seem slow, confused, and immune to contact. Even Jason McCourty struggled in this game. I'm not sure he would be the number one corner if the team were to sign someone with any skills whatsoever. Going back to the linebackers, both Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson struggled against the pass, but Williamson is the one that really concerns me. This issue showed itself in the preseason, but now when it really counts he cannot be counted on to be in the right spot or to be fast enough to keep his assignment from catching the ball.
Fear not fellow Titans faithful! The season is far from over and the AFC South title is well within reach. The Titans are still only one game out of first with very winnable games coming up on the schedule. As they say, "Rome wasn't built in a day," so don't expect this team to be dominant just yet. All we can hope for right now is improvement, and if we get one more win we have already improved over the last two seasons.