Titans spend bye working on issues with run game, red zone
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A four-play sequence sums up the Tennessee Titans’ season so far.
With first-and-goal at the Cleveland 1, the Titans ran DeMarco Murray twice without success. Marcus Mariota missed a wide-open tight end Delanie Walker in the end zone. Then they couldn’t reach pay dirt on fourth down with Derrick Henry running behind a line featuring Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan at left tackle and All-Pro Jack Conklin at right tackle.
A year ago, nobody in the NFL was better than Tennessee at scoring touchdowns inside an opponent’s 20. Marcus Mariota has thrown 33 touchdown passes from the red zone without a single interception in his career, and he owns the league’s second-best passer rating in that area since 2015.
But Mariota has yet to throw his first TD pass from the red zone this season. That’s why the Titans (4-3) are busy during their bye trying to figure out how to rev up their offense as they chase their first AFC South title and playoff berth since 2008.
“We are where we’re at for a number of reasons,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “We have a lot to do, we have a lot of work to do. There’s no question ... hopefully taking a step back and catching our breath, getting some guys healthy, I mean everybody, not just the guys on the injury report, I think will be good for us to start the second half.”
Injuries haven’t helped . Corey Davis, the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s draft, has been sidelined since the second week with an injured hamstring. Mariota missed six quarters himself — both losses — with a strained left hamstring that also severely limited his mobility in Tennessee’s two wins going into the bye.
The Titans have made too many mistakes. They sit atop the division with a tiebreaker advantage over Jacksonville, but winning the AFC South will be challenging if the Titans can’t fix an offense that has taken a big step back in key areas:
— Run game: After leading the AFC and ranking third overall last season, the Titans are tied for eighth averaging 124.6 yards rushing per game.
— Third down: The Titans rank 27th, converting only 34.8 percent in another stark contrast to 2016 when only New Orleans (48.6 percent) and Green Bay (46.7 percent) were better than Tennessee (46.1 percent).
— Red zone. Tennessee ranks 13th in scoring despite having the biggest drop-off being in this area. The Titans scored 36 TDs for a rate of 72 percent of red zone trips in 2016. No other NFL team was better than 68.2 percent.
Now the Titans are ahead of only Arizona with a TD percentage of 41.2, with seven TDs on 17 trips inside the red zone.
“As the season rolls on, we start playing playoff teams and we have to find ways to score points,” Mariota said. “I’m glad we have a week to figure it out.”
Mularkey is hoping to get the 6-foot-3 Davis back after the bye, possibly even Nov. 5 when Baltimore visits for the first of two straight home games for Tennessee. The Titans installed Davis instantly as a starter, and he has seven catches for 73 yards in very limited work. Mularkey says he has been impressed by how mentally prepared the rookie is. They just need him healthy.
“We have a lot of confidence in him,” Mularkey said.
Right now, Mariota is part of Tennessee’s issues, too. The third-year quarterback has four touchdown passes this season, ahead of only Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer and Indianapolis’ Jacoby Brissett. All four passes have come from 24 yards or longer, and Mariota has an interception to match each of his TDs.
Mariota missed a chance to add to his total last week in Cleveland when he couldn’t hit Walker with the short pass.
“He’s got to make those throws,” Mularkey said.
Mariota has plenty of company when it comes to making mistakes.
“I think it comes down to us,” Mariota said. “We aren’t executing to the best of our abilities. I think there are times where, including myself, we make mental errors. We have too many negative plays where we’re third-and-goal from the 9-or 10-yard line, which is not where you want to be. When it comes down to it, we’re doing a good job moving the ball, but just need to find ways to finish.”
If not, the Titans could find themselves missing the playoffs for a ninth straight season.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker