Mariota and Mularkey have explosive Titans thinking playoffs

The 47-25 drubbing that the Tennessee Titans laid on the Green Bay Packers on Sunday may have surprised some fans, but the Titans have flown under the radar and into playoff contention.

Unlike some other surprise teams that are performing well this season, like Oakland and Dallas, nobody really thought that the Titans were going to be very good this season. After all, they were coming off back-to-back seasons in which they finished 2-14 and 3-13 respectively; in the putrid AFC South, no less. But after Sunday’s victory moved them up to 5-5 on the season, Tennessee is finally beginning to look like a real NFL team.

 

The Titans have brought themselves back into the fold of competitive play thanks to an explosive offense. After a poor start in which they only averaged 15.5 points per game on their way to a 1-3 record, the offense has been one of the league’s best. Since Week 4, the Titans are 4-2 and have yet to score under 26 points in a game and are averaging an obscene 33.6 ppg.

Part of the reason for that rise has been the development of Marcus Mariota. The second-year QB was okay during his rookie season, standing out for his athletic potential but also making plenty of mistakes. But during their recent run when the Titans suddenly turned into an offensive juggernaut, Mariota has put up MVP-like numbers, throwing for 17 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions while completing 67 percent of his passes. He also still possess the superb athleticism that made him the #2 overall pick a year ago.

 

What is even stranger is that Mariota’s future in the NFL looked bleak just a couple weeks ago. After Ken Whisenhunt was fired midway into last season, he was replaced by Mike Mularkey, a coach with a career record of just 18-39. Mariota starred at Oregon and came into the NFL as the premier runner of the spread/read-option offense, an offense that has flamed out in the NFL just like its biggest proponent, Chip Kelly. Mularkey wanted to scrap that idea, introducing a system he dubbed “exotic smashmouth” which sounded like a buzzword for a coach getting perhaps his last head coaching gig trying to excite people using all the aplomb of a snake-oil salesman.

The idea was to institute a downhill running attack with some tricky looks to keep the defense off-balance. Despite the physical running attack fading away in most corners of the league, the Titans have managed to make it work. The offensive line has played very well despite losing Guard Chance Warmack in Week 2 to injury, and the acquisition of DeMarco Murray has been a revelation. After bombing in Philadelphia, Murray was traded to the Titans for a fourth round pick and has been stunning; having already run for 930 yards and 8 touchdowns through ten games. He has also wisely executed some of the trickery that Mularkey promised, including this gem during yesterday’s victory.

 

For Mariota, the change in offense seemed puzzling because instead of being the ultra-modern, athletic NFL QB he was now being asked to be more a traditional QB who stayed in the pocket and thrived off of the play-action. As the numbers suggest, Mariota, along with first-year offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, have made it work and suddenly Mariota doesn’t just look like a competent NFL QB, but a future league MVP. His ability to stand in the pocket and make big throws was questioned when he first came into the NFL, but now he is exuding confidence from that position.

With the offense chugging along, the Titan defense is the area that is in dire need of improvement. They rank 22nd in points allowed and have struggled against good offenses, surrendering 34 points to Indianapolis and 43 points to San Diego, both losses. The team has been pretty stout against the run, allowing opposing ball-carriers 4.3 yards per carry, but they have struggled against the pass, as teams are completing 62 percent of their passes against Tennessee.

Playing in the AFC South opens the doors for a playoff bid. Their remaining schedule is road heavy, but games @Indianapolis, @Chicago, @Jacksonville and home against Houston are winnable and 8 or 9 wins might be all that it takes to win the division. Thanks to unconventional moves by Mularkey and the development of Mariota, the Titans have already equaled their combined win total from the last two seasons and at their current pace have a real shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 2011.