NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Marcus Mariota has a great excuse for a rough start to the first NFL preseason game of his career, and the rookie quarterback shook off three bad plays pretty nicely.
Now if only the Tennessee defense could say as much.
Mariota rebounded from being sacked, intercepted and fumbling a ball returned for a touchdown in the span of five plays by driving the Titans to a touchdown Friday night in a 31-24 loss to Atlanta.
The defense that added veteran coach Dick LeBeau this offseason gave up an opening TD drive, something the Titans struggled with last preseason.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt said Saturday he was more disappointed by how his Titans played, not keeping their eyes in the right spots and losing players on some of the Falcons' bootlegs.
"That disappoints me more than anything because we worked so hard on that," Whisenhunt said. "On the other side of that, you got to also say that they didn't run the ball on us very well, which is one of the things we needed to do. We needed to be better against the run, and we were effective last night until the fourth quarter."
Well, the Falcons didn't have a run for more than 2 yards on the opening drive. They didn't have to run with Matt Ryan, who played only one series against Tennessee, completing all six of his passes with only one for less than 12 yards. Ryan drove them 91 yards in 10 plays for an efficient drive.
"Those are things we've got to clean up," Whisenhunt said. "We've done a good job trying to get those done in practice, and when you get into a game for the first time and you don't know what the opponent's going to do it's difficult. We didn't handle it very well. So we'll hopefully learn from that and do a little better this week."
That will be Aug. 23 when the Titans and Mariota play their preseason home opener hosting the St. Louis Rams.
The Titans ranked 27th in total defense last season, giving up 373 yards per game. They were next to last giving up 137.2 yards rushing. That's why they signed linebacker Brian Orakpo, cornerback Perrish Cox and safety Da'Norris Searcy this offseason
But the Titans didn't game plan for the Falcons, and the preseason isn't the place to show off all the zone blitzes LeBeau and coordinator Ray Horton can call. They also played without starting cornerback Jason McCourty, who has missed the past week with a sore groin muscle, and cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who has been competing with Cox to start opposite McCourty.
Luckily, the Titans have the Heisman Trophy winner as they try to rebuild the offense. Whisenhunt said Mariota had the ball knocked from his hand on the fumble when the rookie already was looking at tight end Anthony Fasano — his third read in the progression on that play.
Mariota played 20 snaps, and the rookie from Oregon was 7 of 8 for 94 yards essentially staying in the pocket this game. On the touchdown drive, he dropped back and found Harry Douglas for a 17-yarder on third-and-12. Mariota also converted another third down with a pass to Antonio Andrews.
"The questions, if we all remember, is can he do it in the pocket?" Whisenhunt said. "And I think he's shown that he's made a lot of strides that way."
Notes: Whisenhunt said they were getting MRI exams Saturday on a pair of undrafted rookie linebackers. Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil hurt a hamstring, while J.R. Tavai hurt a knee. Whisenhunt said the injuries are disappointing because both linebackers have played well in training camp.
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