Titans bid to fix ailing offense vs. 49ers
As they won six of seven games to join a first-place tie with Jacksonville in the AFC South, the Tennessee Titans did so while walking a tightrope not even a Wallenda might attempt.
Three times in that span, Tennessee wiped out double-figure deficits and made key plays in the fourth quarter to win. The run of success seemed to be built with a foundation of chewing gum, duct tape and baling wire.
The flimsy foundation finally fell apart last week in Arizona, but with a twist. This time, the Titans squandered a 7-0 halftime lead and lost 12-7, dropping a game behind the Jacksonville Jaguars in the division race.
And as they prepare for what they hope is a bounce-back game Sunday at the San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee (8-5) faces some real questions about its offense in general and quarterback Marcus Mariota in particular.
"It's very fixable," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "There are things in life that aren't. This is one that is. We've got a good group, a veteran staff that has been in a lot of meetings, a lot of rooms and a lot of games, and been with a lot of players.
"These guys trust what we're going to do. We're looking at it all over how we can get better. Everybody is. It's being addressed."
It was anticipated that after the second half of last year, when the Titans were one of the NFL's most explosive offenses, that its power running game would continue to lead to favorable one-on-one matchups for Mariota.
Instead, Tennessee's running game has slipped from top five to top 10, hampered by injuries on the offensive line and to running back DeMarco Murray. Mariota's slide has been more pronounced, particularly in the last four games, when he's tossed eight of his 14 interceptions.
Mariota threw two picks at Arizona, one in the third quarter at the Cardinals' 5 as the offense was driving for a score to extend a tenuous 7-6 lead, and the other in the fourth quarter that led to Phil Dawson's fourth field goal of the day.
Mariota has dealt with injuries and inexperience at wide receiver, as well as his own ailments, including a knee injury in the first half last week that affected his level of play in the second half. But it's hard to blame that solely for four more interceptions than touchdowns going into Week 15.
"It affected a number of things," Mularkey said of Mariota's injury at Arizona. "It limited us game plan-wise, more than you can imagine. I know it was on his mind. He missed some throws he usually doesn't miss."
While Mariota missed throws, San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo didn't. In his second start with the 49ers on Sunday at Houston, the former New England Patriots' backup threw for 334 yards and a touchdown in a 26-16 win.
Garoppolo has won all four career starts, including his first two for San Francisco, but first-year coach Kyle Shanahan said his presence isn't the sole reason for consecutive victories.
"To put all of that on one person, I think, would be unfair to him and the rest of the guys," Shanahan said. "I think Jimmy's played very well these last two games. I think the guys around him have played pretty well, too."
Case in point: Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who caught six passes for 106 yards at Houston, giving him 783 yards on 41 grabs this year. In four previous seasons with Buffalo, Goodwin amassed 780 receiving yards.
Talk about your breakout seasons. Goodwin, with help from veteran Pierre Garcon, who's now on injured reserve, is having one.
"That's what we believed he could be, and I still believe he can be more," Shanahan said of Goodwin. "His ceiling is extremely high. He has the speed that scares people. He can break down very well. His hands are much better than people realize."
While the 49ers (3-10) will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year, they could have an impact on who does. After this week's matchup, they finish the year by hosting Jacksonville and visiting the Los Angeles Rams.
Shanahan might be publicly downplaying it, but the presence of Garoppolo certainly makes San Francisco a tougher out than it's been most of the year.
Especially for an opponent whose quarterback is still searching for the form that stamped him as a rising star a year ago.