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Sacks piling up as Titans struggle to protect Marcus Mariota

November 29, 2018

FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) is pressured by Houston Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (59) during the second half of an NFL football game in Houston. The Titans need to do something to get the offense moving and keep their quarterback from taking so many hits having allowed the most sacks already this season in the NFL. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans have an issue protecting their quarterback right now with Marcus Mariota taking hits from defenses he hasn’t experienced since his rookie season.

Mariota was sacked 38 times in 12 games in 2015 with 17 coming in a four-game stretch early that season. With Mariota sidelined with an injured knee, the Titans gave up seven sacks in a loss at Houston that prompted controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk to fire then-coach Ken Whisenhunt less than 48 hours later.

Now the Titans are on their second different coach since Mariota’s first year in the league, and Tennessee has allowed an NFL-worst 39 sacks with 17 in the four games since the team’s bye. Mariota has been sacked 35 times this season, missing only one of the sacks over the past month after a stinger knocked him out of a 38-10 loss at Indianapolis on Nov. 18.

If the Titans (5-6) are to make a late run at a second straight wild-card berth, they have to protect Mariota better starting Sunday when they host the Jets (3-8).

For his part, Mariota has taken his share of the blame for the high sack totals.

“Getting the ball out quicker,” Mariota said Wednesday. “I can be more efficient in my reads just to allow those guys to get downfield and get the ball out quicker.”

That was a big issue Oct. 14 when Baltimore sacked Mariota a franchise-record 11 times and providing a reminder that throwing the ball away can be a quarterback’s best play at times. Mariota says it’s a happy medium knowing when to try to keep a play alive.

“It’s being able to make plays, but at the same time, knowing when the journey is over to avoid getting hit and finding ways to live for another down,” Mariota said.

But Mariota was sacked six times by Houston on Monday night despite setting a franchise record by completing 95.7 percent of his passes for the second-highest in a single game in NFL history with a minimum of 20 attempts. He finished with 303 yards and two touchdowns.

The Titans kept their offensive line together after allowing 35 sacks all last season, up only slightly from 28 in 2016. They made two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman during training camp with a five-year, $80 million contract, and right guard Josh Kline signed a four-year extension during the offseason.

Yet that line featuring a pair of first-round picks has started only six games together this season because of a variety of injuries, and Lewan hurt an ankle against Houston.

First-year Titans coach Mike Vrabel has his own take on the formula for keeping the quarterback upright.

Play better.

Run better too is a must with the Titans 29th in the NFL averaging 3.9 yards per rushing attempt without a 100-yard game from either Derrick Henry or Dion Lewis this season.

“We really need to concentrate on running the football and how we’re going to run the football, how we’re going to marry that with the play action and get back to our screen game,” Vrabel said. “We need to look at that and how we’re doing that.”

Notes: The Titans went through a walk-through coming off the Monday night game. Mariota was listed as practicing fully with an abdomen injury. CB Malcolm Butler was limited as he works his way through the concussion protocol.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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