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Is Marcus Mariota turning corner in time to save Titans’ season?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With four games left in the season, the Tennessee Titans find themselves in contention for the final playoff spot in the AFC. The Titans probably have to win out, starting with their matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night, to punch their postseason ticket.

To beat the Jaguars (4-8), the Titans (6-6) will have to stretch the field to open up the rest of the offense. The bulk of that responsibility falls on quarterback Marcus Mariota, and he is starting to complete passes down the field.

His completion percentage this season (68.6) would be by far the best of his career thanks to a steady diet of short throws, but over the past couple of weeks, he has started to connect with his pass-catchers for more explosive plays. Through 12 games, Mariota has completed 30 passes of 20 yards or more. Five of those plays were good for 40 yards or more (tied for 14th in the NFL), and four of those five have come over the past two games.

Receiver Taywan Taylor exploded for 104 yards on three catches in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets on Sunday, when Tennessee rallied for a 26-22 win. Taylor and Mariota connected for plays of 44 yards and 55 yards, respectively, that fueled the comeback.

The big plays brought the fans at Nissan Stadium to their feet and lit a fire under an offense that was struggling until that point.

Those explosive plays are back-breakers for a defense because they flip the field quickly, and more importantly, they force opposing teams to play the Titans differently. The dink-and-dunk passing by the Titans that was prevalent for most of the season allowed teams to condense the field because they didn’t respect the deep passing game. Defensive backs would squat on routes by Tennessee receivers because they weren’t worried about getting beat deep.

Head coach Mike Vrabel wants to make sure that doesn’t happen going forward.

“We have to do more of that, just to keep teams from sitting on you and bodying up at the top of the route,” he said. “It was good to see Taywan be able to stretch the defense and go make a play. To be able to hit two of those to change field position and momentum. Certainly, we would like to have as many of those every week as we could.”

The vertical threat Taylor presents will help open things up underneath for players such as wide receiver Tajae Sharpe to work the middle of the field. Running back Dion Lewis also will have more space to run choice routes out of the backfield. The tight ends can have a more significant impact with more space as well.

“It definitely helps,” Mariota said. “When you’re able to have that threat, I think defenses have to keep on us, and not really just hang on everything and play tight on all of our routes underneath.”

These are the areas that Tennessee tends to attack in third-down situations. Mariota likes to make the high-percentage throws between the hashes where Sharpe can create separation.

Stretching the field also will help the running game. When Tennessee wasn’t hitting deep throws, opposing safeties played closer to the line, making it tougher to run. Finding balance on offense by establishing the run makes offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur’s scheme go, and fewer defenders close to the line of scrimmage is important in LaFleur’s zone scheme. Running backs will have a more open cutback lane leading to big plays on the ground.

Success on the ground makes play-action work, and that produces big plays because it provides max protection so the receivers can run longer-developing routes. Those explosive plays make defenses back up, which makes it easier to run the ball effectively.

A stout Jaguars defense, fresh off pitching a shutout against the explosive Colts, will make it difficult for Tennessee to keep up its recent trend of hitting big pass plays. The highlight reels have been focusing on Mariota and his receivers, but the quarterback says the big plays can’t happen without protection.

“They’re huge,” Mariota said about the offensive line. “To give us the time to be able to do that is so important. Those guys, they don’t get a whole lot of credit for what they do, but they are definitely the focal point of this offense.”

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