Four games into Tennessee’s season, Marcus Mariota has jumped out as the lead candidate for Rookie of the Year. The rookie passer has shown a veteran’s poise, and holds a passer rating of 99.7 heading into this weekend. But it was only two months ago, in his preseason debut, when the NFL looked too big and too fast for the kid from Honolulu.
Now the Atlanta Falcons defense, the one that humbled him in his first big league action, will visit Tennessee next weekend (1:00 PM Eastern), looking to put their first loss of the season behind them.
The Falcons starting D harassed Mariota into an ugly interception and a fumble that went back for six in Week 1 of the preseason, long before we actually believed Dan Quinn’s defense was for real.
Atlanta ranks middle of the pack in most defensive categories – a massive upgrade over previous years when they were near the bottom. This revamped defense has also been exceptional at generating takeaways in the early going, with ten on the year so far, including three that have gone back for TDs.
Mariota has done a 180 since that Falcons game, though, and were he working with a better supporting cast, might even be in a playoff hunt in the lowly AFC South. Alas, when you’re drafted by a team that went 2-14 the year prior, you don’t have the luxury of being overrun with talent. So the priority for the Titans franchise this season will be growing their young QB and keeping his confidence up, something the Falcons could destroy pretty quickly if the defense continues its run of takeaways.
But as good as the Falcons record is, there are many who don’t believe in this team. This young Titans group could be the bunch to notch a big upset at home and provide fans with one of the few highlights of the past two seasons.
Why do the Titans have a shot?
For starters, they rank first in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game with just 166.5. Granted, facing Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, and Tyrod Taylor minus his top receivers isn’t exactly a murderers row. But offseason additions Da’Norris Searcy and Perrish Cox have bolstered the secondary, and the D is receiving a better push up front from the pass rush. With Julio Jones taking a beating early this season, Atlanta could find more issues with their passing game next week.
Offensively, while Tennessee’s backfield isn’t that frightening – certainly not enough to challenge a much-improved Falcon run defense – their running backs are all capable of making plays in the passing game; they’ve combined for 18 catches, 201 receiving yards, and two touchdowns. In a game where Mariota will likely have to throw the ball early and often to win, those check downs will be a big help.
Atlanta is also yet to face a quarterback with Mariota’s mobility. It will be interesting to see how the Atlanta front seven contains him. After all, they allowed Eli Manning to rush for 23 yards.
Mariota has seen firsthand what this defense can do if he’s not careful. For a quarterback that has looked mature beyond his years, we’ll see how much progress he’s truly made since early August. But certainly Tennessee is worth a look as an upset pick next week.
Straight-up pick: Titans.
(Photo Credit: Erik Drost (Originally posted to Flickr)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].)