Ground game delivering Titans toward playoff drive

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Tennessee Titans turned from a 13-loss team to a playoff contender in one season by building around second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, yet the young signal caller says it’s his team’s rushing attack that makes the offense go.

Aug. 28, 2015; Kansas City, MO; Chiefs defensive lineman Hebron Fangupo fights to get around a Tennessee Titan player during a preseason game at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs defeated the Titans 34-10 after the game was called because of the weather with 3:50 remaining. (Emily DeShazer/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

Aug. 28, 2015; Kansas City, MO; Chiefs defensive lineman Hebron Fangupo fights to get around a Tennessee Titan player during a preseason game at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs defeated the Titans 34-10 after the game was called because of the weather with 3:50 remaining. (Emily DeShazer/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

“I think if you’re able to run the football it’s going to open a lot of different things,” Mariota said. “whether it’s the play action game, doing some different things, naked boots, so there are a lot of different things that come off of just running the football.”

Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, leads the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense. The attack takes full advantage of Mariota’s ability to move the football through the air and on the ground. The two-headed running back monster of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry leads a backfield totaling 144.5 yards on the ground.

Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton sees a running attack long on physicality with the depth to deliver and absorb punishment.

“They do a really good job at finishing runs, what we say – coming out the backend,” Sutton explained. “Maybe hit them for three (yards), and they end up with five.”

Murray leads the AFC in rushing with 1,135 yards. His arrival in Tennessee injected new life in the Titans run game that last year ranked 25th in the NFL. Henry has 354 rushing yards, while Mariota adds 348 more.

“The guys up front have done an awesome job of creating holes,” Mariota said, “and when you have guys like Derrick and DeMarco that can really run the football and can score at any point on the field it really makes our offense that much more explosive and dynamic.”

The Titans excel in moving the ball down the field, something the Chiefs find difficult to stop defensively at times. The Chiefs defense ranks 27th against the run, allowing 122.9 yards per game.

Titans coach Mike Mularkey believes the numbers fail to paint an accurate picture of the Chiefs defense.

“I think they’re very tough against to run and they’ve given up some chunk plays, and they’ve given up some big runs that skew that statistics where they’re ranked,” Mularkey said.

The red zone, however, is where the Chiefs defense earns its keep. The team ranks fifth in red zone scoring, allowing a touchdown on just 47 percent of opponents’ trips inside the 20-yard line. The Titans offense leads the NFL in red zone offense, scoring a touchdown 71 percent of the time.

Mularkey credits his quarterback as the difference maker close to the goal line.

“I think a lot of it is because of his thought process, how quickly he thinks down there,” Mularkey said. “He has a very quick release and there’s not a lot of room for error down there, a lot of tight windows and I think he’s been very good with that.”

Mariota stands on the brink of becoming the seventh quarterback in league history to reach the 6,000-yard passing mark and 600-yard rushing level in his first two seasons.

That’s despite coming off the worst start of his career in Tennessee’s 13-10 win over Denver Sunday. Mariota complete just six of 20 passes for 88 yards.

Much of the Titan’s success this season stems from running the ball. But Chiefs coach Andy Reid said his team respects Mariota’s arm as well and how the Titans use the run to setup the passing game.

“They’ve done well throwing the ball,” Reid said. “They’ve done well running the ball, which is obvious. I think either one, they’re capable of doing. You’ve got to play the whole game and whatever they dish to you, you have to go and play it.”

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Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and the Topeka Capital-Journal. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @MattDerrick.


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