Innovation can come in many forms and Mike Mularkey is going about it in Nashville by combining an old-school smash-mouth approach with the zone-read techniques that made Marcus Mariota so imposing in college at the University of Oregon.
We all understand the preseason is what it is but your eyes couldn’t help but open up a little when the Titans piled up 288 yards on the ground against what was a hapless San Diego run defense during their preseason opener.
The context that no one is actually game-planning yet should couch this whole discussion but anytime you pile up nearly 300 yards rushing at 8.7 yards per tote in this kind of pass-happy environment, others are going to take notice.
“When you watch what they’re doing on tape, you see them spread people out, move people around, shift in motion, and then they’re still running the ball,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said before the team’s preseason game on Saturday night. “It is smash-mouth, because there are a lot of inside runs, inside zone. You see some power plays, some counter plays, some gap-scheme stuff.”
If the concept ultimately fails Mularkey is going to be criticized for trying to serve two masters but the philosophy makes sense on paper because of the talent Tennessee has assembled.
Mariota is the prototypical zone-read quarterback because of his athleticism and ability to keep the defensive end at bay when the Titans go to those zone-read mechanics. The team’s running backs, DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry, meanwhile, are big, punishing one-cut-and-go option who aren’t necessarily comfortable taking a step east or west out of an offset-shotgun look.
So marrying the two running schemes and taking some of the good from both seems like a sound strategy.
The better test for Tennessee came Saturday as Rivera’s strong front-seven stood in front of Mariota and Co and predictably the 15-1 team from last year trumped a team that’s won a total of five games over the prior two seasons, 26-16, in a game interrupted for a bit by lightning in the Nashville area.
The coach of the reigning NFC champs, though, still got a steady diet of what the Chargers received.
The results weren’t the same with Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short anchoring the front seven early for Carolina and things were a lot more difficult to come by for the Titans but the mentality remained with both Murray and Henry handling it five times each for a combined 51 yards, still a very solid 5.1 yards per attempt.
Establishing a running game is important to Mularkey because Mariota is still a work in progress when it comes to learning the normal progressions in an NFL offense after spending his college career in a one-read-and-go, up-tempo style.
The more successful the Titans are running the football will make things far easier for Mariota, who faces enormous and some say even unfair expectations after being the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft.
On Saturday Mariota was razor-sharp, finishing 9-of-10 for 104 yards and the ball actually never hit the ground as his lone incompletion was an interception Bene Benwikere.
Furthermore, with players like Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Kendell Wright and descending veteran Andre Johnson manning the receiving corps, the strength of Tennessee’s roster leans toward the backfield and the offensive line, which features three first-round picks, tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conlin , as well as right guard Chance Warmack.
So Mularkey’s strategy remains the most logical path he could have taken and now it’s time to see if something new and something old can turn into something meaningful for the Titans.
-John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com and TodaysPigskin.com. You can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @JFMcMullen — Also catch John each week during the NFL season ESPN South Jersey, ESPN Southwest Florida, ESPN Lexington, KDWN in Las Vegas, and check @JFMcMullen for John’s upcoming appearances on SBNation Radio, FOX Sports Radio, CBS Sports Radio as well as dozens of local radio stations across North America.