NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker smothered the ball on the onside kick attempt inside the final two minutes.
And then the Titans were set up to punt with 11 seconds left on the clock. But the Seahawks were penalized for having 12 men on the field. And when the final flag flew, the Titans celebrated by signaling the game-clinching first down.
Not too long ago, the Titans botched those crucial plays while finding new ways to lose as one of the NFL’s worst teams. Now they are showing signs they have learned how to make the plays that finish off victories.
Call it a sign of growing up.
“I think we have,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said Monday. “It’s been a pretty good schedule here these first three weeks, and it’s just going to continue on. They’re competing, they’re not intimidated by anybody, and I think that says a little bit about the maturity.”
The Titans finished last season 9-7, a six-win improvement from going 3-13 in 2015 to pick up the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
General manager Jon Robinson flipped that selection into a handful of other players , and Mularkey has tried to mold the Titans into a physical group that competes hard every minute.
The combination has the Titans off to a 2-1 start and atop the AFC South. It’s the franchise’s best start since opening 3-1 in 2013, though that squad finished 7-9 with coach Mike Munchak fired at the end of the season.
The Titans are doing it in the “exotic smash-mouth” approach Mularkey wants too. They rank second in the NFL averaging 156.3 yards rushing after running all over Jacksonville in a 37-16 win in Week 2 followed by 195 more in a 33-27 win over Seattle . They also have allowed quarterback Marcus Mariota to be sacked only twice this season.
“That’s our smash-mouth football,” right tackle Jack Conklin said. “The first half, we are trying to break teams down, trying to wear them down. That’s what we did last week. We came out here, and that is what our plan was for this week and we were able to carry it out and stay physical the whole time.”
Credit Mariota with perhaps the biggest growth. Mularkey said Monday the third-year quarterback managed to get the Seahawks, better known as the “Legion of Boom” on defense, to jump five times.
Frank Clark jumped offside, and the Titans took advantage with Mariota’s screen pass to Rishard Matthews. The receiver finished off a 55-yard TD that put Tennessee ahead to stay.
The added bonus came with the Seahawks not managing even one hit or sack on Mariota.
“Not only do you get obviously the penalties, but you also get them to a point, how aggressive do they want to come off the ball based on the cadence,” Mularkey said.
Mularkey also said Mariota helped coaches get their receivers to run better routes after a struggling start on eight of the Titans’ first 12 plays.
The Titans face their next test Sunday when they visit Houston (1-2), the two-time defending AFC South champs, in the first of a two-game road swing.
Mariota said the Titans are expecting to win games now thanks to the culture Mularkey and Robinson have built.
“As we continue to get better, that’s the expectation and the standard,” Mariota said. “We’ll find ways to improve and always get better.”
NOTES: Mularkey called Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s late hit on Mariota “totally unnecessary” after looking at it again. Mularkey said worse, the Seahawks got the benefit of a clean shot on their quarterback with no penalty when officials ruled offsetting penalties on both teams when the Titans defended Mariota. Mularkey said they may bring that up to the competition committee for a rule change. … The Titans brought WR Zach Pascal back to the practice squad after waiving him last weekend.