Following Sunday’s gritty 9-6 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Tennessee Titans moved into a place where few had expected them to be, given the circumstances that they have been through in the first three weeks of the season.
The Titans, short-handed as they are with injuries, find themselves at 2-1 overall and 2-0 in the AFC South, as quarterback Marcus Mariota came off the bench – limited as he was Sunday – and helped will the Titans to a victory over division favorite Jacksonville.
Mariota, still playing without feeling in two of the fingers on his throwing hand, replaced a concussed Blaine Gabbert in the first quarter, and proceeded to hit on 12 of 18 throws for just 100 yards, but also ran seven times for 51 yards, including a couple of key first downs.
On Monday, Titans coach Mike Vrabel was still praising the gutsy performance of his less than 100 percent quarterback.
“Make no mistake about it, Marcus came in and won the football game. We wouldn’t have won the game without Marcus,” Vrabel said. “That was really cool to see, it was cool to see him come in and compete for his team, to win the game. Not only throwing the football where he had to, but making some plays with his legs. It was a great win. We can thank Marcus for that one.”
Vrabel acknowledged that Mariota’s spark was undeniable, and that he possesses the type of intangibles that makes teammates want to play better for him, despite numbers that don’t necessarily wow you from a statistical perspective.
“I think that when you do those types of things, I think your teammates rally around you. They play a little harder for you,” Vrabel said.
Vrabel said Mariota still is limited and could be for a while as the Titans attempt to cobble together a game plan that can suit him in the interim, beginning this week against the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
“There’s just really certain throws that he can’t make right now. So, we’ll work our way through that, whatever those may be,” Vrabel said. “When he improves, we’ll be able to do some more things with him. He’ll talk with Matt (LaFleur), and we’ll figure out the best game plan for us going forward.”
Vrabel is hopeful that Mariota will improve enough to add a little more to his plate in terms of what the Titans can dial up from the playbook, assuming his arm improves enough during the week.
“Hopefully this week, the whole package will try to come back. That remains to be seen. It’s Monday. So hopefully, we can get more than what it was last week,” Vrabel said.
With Mariota playing well when thrust into an emergency role after Gabbert’s injury, signs would seem to point to the Titans having to go back to him as the starter, even at less than full capacity this week.
Gabbert is in the concussion protocol, something that will continue to be evaluated through the week, with the idea of needing to add a third quarterback to the roster being broached by the Titans. The most likely option would be to promote practice squad QB Logan Woodside to the roster, if Gabbert is unavailable, but he only has three weeks in the system himself.
The Titans, per a source, reached out to long-time Dolphins backup Matt Moore, but he is not yet scheduled to come in for a visit.
Gabbert isn’t the only Titans player in the concussion protocol, as cornerback Adoree’ Jackson is there, too, after being injured on a punt return.
Despite the injury, Vrabel is hesitant to take a potentially dynamic returner off that chore completely, even if he is a starting cornerback.
“I think those are critical plays. I think that you saw the difference that special teams can make. I think that we have to be smart about him, but he has the ability to change the game, whether it’s a big return or a touchdown,” the coach said. “We’ll try to make sure that we’re being smart with him, but I don’t know if it’s hesitant. We have to do everything that we can do to win the games on Sunday. By having a dynamic player back there returning punts, that could give you a chance to win.”