DUELING DUAL THREATS

Mo­bile quar­ter­backs Mar­cus Mar­i­ota and De­shaun Wat­son go head-to-head, chal­leng­ing the other’s de­fense with their legs as well as their arms

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SPORTS SUNDAY - By Aaron Wil­son STAFF WRITER aaron.wil­son@hcon.com twit­ter.com/aaron­wilson_nfl

WHEN: NOON TO­DAY. WHERE: NIS­SAN STA­DIUM NASHVILLE, TENN. TV: CBS.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ten­nessee Ti­tans quar­ter­back Mar­cus Mar­i­ota took off in a flash last sea­son, find­ing another gear as he ac­cel­er­ated away from Tex­ans line­backer Jade­veon Clowney for a long touch­down run.

A former track star and state cham­pion sprinter in Hawaii, Mar­i­ota is one of the most dan­ger­ous dual-threat quar­ter­backs in the NFL. Two games into his fourth NFL sea­son, the former Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner has rushed for 928 ca­reer yards and nine touch­downs, in­clud­ing three in two games against the Tex­ans last sea­son.

“He’s prob­a­bly the fastest back in the league,” Clowney said. “The guy’s fast. You’ve got to keep him in the pocket, make him throw out of the pocket. … We don’t want him run­ning around be­cause he can hurt us with his legs.”

When the Tex­ans square off with the Ti­tans on Sun­day, two of the most elu­sive quar­ter­backs in the league will com­pete.

Pair of es­cape artists

Tex­ans quar­ter­back De­shaun Wat­son and Mar­i­ota are true es­cape artists.

Mar­i­ota is a former zone-read sa­vant who ex­celled at Ore­gon.

Wat­son is a former con­sen­sus All-Amer­i­can and leader of Clem­son’s na­tional cham­pi­onship who be­came the first rookie in NFL his­tory with two games of 300 or more pass­ing yards and 40 rush­ing yards in a sea­son.

He was the first rookie quar­ter­back to hit those marks since An­drew Luck did it once for the In­di­anapo­lis Colts in 2012. And Wat­son is only the sev­enth quar­ter­back to do so since the AFL-NFL merger.

Just ask the Cincin­nati Ben­gals how dif­fi­cult it is to cor­ral Wat­son, who bolted across half the foot­ball field for a high­light-wor­thy touch­down run to win his first NFL start a year ago.

“It just gives us, as an of­fense, another weapon, another tool for the de­fense to kind of be aware of, be­ing able to move and try to ex­tend plays with my legs,” Wat­son said. “So I try to use that to my ad­van­tage and to help the of­fense get pos­i­tive plays.”

As dan­ger­ous as Wat­son and Mar­i­ota are for de­fend­ers giv­ing chase in pur­suit, their mo­bil­ity can be a dou­ble-edged sword.

Wat­son tore the an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in his left knee in col­lege and tore the ACL in his right knee last year in prac­tice, end­ing a dy­namic rookie sea­son.

Mar­i­ota is deal­ing with an el­bow in­jury suf­fered last week dur­ing a loss to the Mi­ami Dolphins and is slated to split time Sun­day with backup Blaine Gab­bert.

Mar­i­ota’s rookie sea­son was cut short due to a sprained knee. His sec­ond was shut down early by a bro­ken leg. And Mar­i­ota in­jured his ham­string dur­ing a 57-14 loss to the Tex­ans last sea­son, a game dur­ing which he scored on 34-yard and 2-yard touch­down runs.

Wat­son rushed for 40 yards on eight car­ries dur­ing a 27-20 loss to the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots to open the sea­son, emerg­ing un­scathed in his first reg­u­lar-sea­son game since get­ting hurt last sea­son.

The Tex­ans coach­ing staff em­pha­sizes to Wat­son that he should pick his spots as a run­ner and pro­tect him­self. Wat­son was sacked three times and hit a dozen times against New Eng­land.

“You have to do a great job of teach­ing him rel­a­tive to how you want him to play within the play that you’ve called, and then you’ve got to let him play,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s very smart about how he plays. Yes, he did last week, like we saw, he got hit a few times, but he’s gained a lot of strength in the off­sea­son. We have to do a bet­ter job of pro­tect­ing him, he has to do a bet­ter job.”

Wat­son is aware he has to choose his bat­tles and not ab­sorb po­ten­tially crush­ing hits.

“I know that,” he said. “I try to pro­tect my­self and get what I can. I get down and then when­ever I can’t slide or dive for­ward and not take a hit, I try to pro­tect my­self when­ever the con­tact is com­ing and just try to do what I can to stay healthy but also to get pos­i­tive plays.”

Wat­son has rushed for 309 yards and two TDs for his ca­reer, av­er­ag­ing 7 yards per carry.

Ti­tans coach Mike Vra­bel, the Tex­ans’ de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor last year dur­ing Wat­son’s first sea­son, re­calls how tough it is to bring him down and his im­pro­vi­sa­tional skills.

“He’s got a strong arm, he’s got the abil­ity to keep plays alive,” Vra­bel said. “His pocket pres­ence and his strength in the pocket — I think he’s got great play strength for a quar­ter­back. A cou­ple of times, even in the game, when the rush is bar­rel­ing down on him, he’s re­ally not even down.

“I think they’re just kind of blow­ing the whis­tle be­cause there’s three guys on him. One’s on his leg, one’s on his hip, another one’s around his shoul­der and he’s just kind of stand­ing there. It’s very im­pres­sive play strength.”

Beware his speed

Mar­i­ota has rare speed for a quar­ter­back. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 sec­onds in high school and 4.52 sec­onds at the NFL scout­ing com­bine. He also won a state ti­tle in the 400-me­ter re­lay in high school.

“He can do both things,” de­fen­sive end J.J. Watt said of Mar­i­ota. “He can run, he can throw. He can chal­lenge you on the ground, he can drop back and throw it, so you have to ob­vi­ously be alert and do your job and make sure ev­ery­body knows what they’re do­ing.”

The Tex­ans have sacked Mar­i­ota three times over­all. He has com­pleted 34 of 62 passes against them for 448 yards, one touch­down and three in­ter­cep­tions.

His mo­bil­ity has made the big­gest im­pact against the Tex­ans.

“My sen­ti­ments ex­actly,” Tex­ans de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Romeo Cren­nel said of Mar­i­ota. “He is fast, he can run, he runs an of­fense well. He scored against us last year a cou­ple times with his feet. We’re go­ing to have to do a good job of keep­ing him in the pocket and not let­ting him get out­side.

“They had a cou­ple of zoneread plays last year, and they prob­a­bly still have it in the reper­toire. So we’re go­ing to have to do a good job of tak­ing care of him.”

Brett Coomer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher; Marc Serota / Getty Images

Photos by Karen Warren / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Elu­sive Tex­ans quar­ter­back De­shaun Wat­son had Ti­tans de­fend­ers like Jur­rell Casey, right, grasp­ing for air dur­ing an Oc­to­ber matchup last sea­son at NRG Sta­dium.

The Tex­ans know first­hand how fast Ti­tans QB Mar­cus Mar­i­ota, right, is. He ran for three TDs against them last year.

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