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Titans interim coach vows to keep Mariota ‘upright’

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NASHVILLE — Change abounds for the Tennessee Titans, who pulled the plug on the Ken Whisenhunt regime Tuesday and replaced him with interim coach Mike Mularkey.

The primary and short-term reason for Whisenhunt getting the ax was his terrible 3-20 record in one-and-a-half seasons at the helm. The secondary and more long-term reason for his dismissal came about because of his inability to adapt his scheme and keep his quarterbacks upright. During last Sunday’s 20-6 loss to the Houston Texans, the Titans allowed backup Zach Mettenberger to be sacked seven times and to be hit a total of 14 times in the game.

Much of that was due to protection schemes, which inexplicably left Texans star J.J. Watt in easy one-on-one situations a good part of the day. Watt had 2.5 sacks and was credited with 10 hits on Mettenberger.

With prized rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota poised to come back after missing two games with a sprained MCL, owner Amy Adams Strunk, who was at the game in Houston, apparently had seen enough to provoke her to make the change.

Though Strunk was not at the press conference to discuss Whisenhunt’s firing and Mularkey’s ascent into being the interim head coach, interim team president Steve Underwood admitted that Mariota’s long-term health and Whisenhunt’s apparent inability to protect him was a factor in the coach’s dismissal, along with his dismal coaching record.

“She’s very concerned about making sure that we do everything that’s necessary, including keeping him out of games in order to avoid making his current injuries any worse,” Underwood said of Strunk’s concern for Mariota.

Mularkey, who has a nine-game audition to try and convince management to remove the interim tag, has already set about making changes, saying he spoke to Mariota shortly after taking over the team and promised to keep him “upright.”

“It was positive. I just told him we were gonna do a couple of things different with him. We are gonna try to make sure he stays upright, and it was really not in depth, but we’re on the same page,” Mularkey said.

As for Mariota, who has been sacked 19 times this season in five games, he said he bears some of the responsibility as well.

“It’s also in the quarterback’s job to get rid of the ball quick and do our best to avoid sacks. It takes all 11 of us and I’ll do my best to hold up my end,” Mariota said.

Mularky has promised to reshuffle the offensive line in an effort put his best blockers in the best positions to perform better, and also added that the Titans would be running the football more often than they did in Whisenhunt’s tenure.

“I like to run the football, and I challenged our offensive line this morning. If we do run it, then you’re getting what you want and you’ve got to give in return. Move the line of scrimmage,” Mularkey said.

SERIES HISTORY: 14th meeting. Titans lead the series 7-5-1. These teams only meet every four years in the regular season, but have seen each other almost annually of late in the preseason. The first ever matchup in 1971, when the Titans were still the Houston Oilers, ended in 13-13 tie.

GAME PLAN: The Titans are under orders from ownership to protect Marcus Mariota, which means overhauling the offensive line in midseason and putting more emphasis on the running game and shorter, quicker passes to help the quarterback avoid costly sacks and injuries.

The Titans will rely on an improving defense to try and slow down a high-powered New Orleans Saints passing attack, as Drew Brees struck for seven touchdown passes last week against the New York Giants.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

–Titans CB Perrish Cox vs. Saints WR Brandin Cooks. The Saints have been explosive of late, and they must get pressure on Brees. With Cooks hitting his stride as a weapon in the passing game, the Titans may try to match up Cox on him as much as possible. Cox has performed well when he has been healthy this season, but is coming off a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two-plus games.

–Titans offensive line vs. Rob Ryan’s defense. Ryan obviously has seen what everyone else has seen recently with the Titans offensive line – that it has been a sieve in pass protection, allowing 28 total sacks. The Titans should try to run the ball more to keep defenses more honest and have shuffled personnel to try and find the right combination. They must do a better job of protecting the quarterback, or they will have no chance of winning on Sunday.


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