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USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Ja­son Wolf The (Nashville) Ten­nessean USA TO­DAY Net­work Con­tribut­ing: Kyle Mad­son

Mar­cus Mar­i­ota’s growth could con­tinue to push Ten­nessee ahead. Play­ers aside from star QBs might hold keys to Su­per Bowl runs by Fal­cons, Saints.

Three ques­tions fac­ing the Ti­tans:

Can new coaches spark Mar­cus Mar­i­ota’s resur­gence?

Mar­i­ota, who spent the off­sea­son af­ter 2016 re­hab­bing from surgery to re­pair a bro­ken leg, is com­ing off his worst statistical sea­son as a pro in which he threw more in­ter­cep­tions than touch­downs. But the of­fense thrived in no-hud­dle sit­u­a­tions when he was tasked with call­ing the plays at the line.

This led some to blame the coaches’ play-call­ing for the team’s of­fen­sive strug­gles and to vet­eran de­fen­sive play­ers pulling Mar­i­ota aside and telling him to run more. Mar­i­ota has yet to play a com­plete 16game sea­son be­cause of in­juries but for the first time didn’t spend his off­sea­son re­hab­bing.

The Ti­tans picked up his fifth-year op­tion, keep­ing him un­der team con­trol through 2019, which was a no-brainer. The big pay­day comes next off­sea­son, when Mar­i­ota is en­ter­ing the fi­nal year of his con­tract. First he must pro­duce on the field. New head coach Mike Vra­bel and of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Matt LaFleur have vowed to tai­lor the of­fense around his strengths, mean­ing fans should ex­pect a greater em­pha­sis on spread for­ma­tions, tempo, play ac­tion and run-pass op­tions.

Mar­i­ota is at his best on the big­gest stages. He stands to take a big step for­ward.

Is the re­ceiv­ing corps suf­fi­cient?

Three of the team’s top four wide re­ceivers are en­ter­ing their sec­ond sea­son on the field, and vet­eran Rishard Matthews re­mains the team’s No. 1 wide­out a year af­ter the Ti­tans drafted for­mer West­ern Michi­gan star Corey Davis with the fifth over­all pick. Davis, who bat­tled in­juries for much of his rookie sea­son, came on strong late.

Ta­jae Sharpe, a 2016 fifthround pick who missed last sea­son with a foot in­jury, and Tay­wan Tay­lor, a 2017 third-rounder, should bat­tle for the No. 3 job.

Pro Bowl tight end De­lanie Walker could re­main Mar­i­ota’s fa­vorite tar­get, and tight end Jonnu Smith could take a step for­ward in his sec­ond sea­son. For­mer Pa­tri­ots run­ning back Dion Lewis should also con­trib­ute by catch­ing passes.

The run­ning game will help. Der­rick Henry and Lewis com­bined for 1,640 yards on 356 rushes. They’ll be the best back­field in the di­vi­sion if they av­er­age 4.6 yards per carry again.

Have Ti­tans done enough to ad­dress pass de­fense?

The Ti­tans were stout against the run last sea­son but ranked 25th in pass de­fense. GM Jon Robin­son bol­stered the sec­ondary by sign­ing ex-Pa­tri­ots cor­ner­back Mal­colm Butler, who will team with Lo­gan Ryan and 2017 first-round pick Adoree’ Jack­son to give the Ti­tans three po­ten­tial No. 1 cor­ners.

But even the best sec­ondary will strug­gle with­out the front seven con­sis­tently dis­rupt­ing op­pos­ing quar­ter­backs. The Ti­tans had the fifth-most sacks in the NFL last sea­son, but Robin­son saw the pass rush as a po­ten­tial area of im­prove­ment, trad­ing up three times to ad­dress the de­fense in the draft.

Line­backer Rashaan Evans should re­place for­mer starter Avery Wil­liamson, who signed with the Jets. Harold Landry should con­trib­ute heav­ily. For­mer Ari­zona de­fen­sive back Dane Cruik­shank could pro­vide depth at cor­ner­back.


Mar­cus Mar­i­ota led the Ti­tans to the play­offs last sea­son de­spite throw­ing more in­ter­cep­tions (15) than TD passes 13.

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