NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Marcus Mariota's impressive 87-yard touchdown run against Jacksonville reminded defenses that the Tennessee rookie quarterback can be just as dangerous with his legs as his arm.
"We'll run him, and we'll design runs that we'll have enough guys to block all their guys because as soon as the quarterback can run, the playing surface is even ...," Titans interim head coach Mike Mularkey said. "And that puts the threat on defenses because if you're not where you're supposed to be, you're going to get creased."
Take heed, New York Jets.
Mariota ran for a career-high 112 yards last week, and the Titans finished with 210 yards for their best rushing performance since Nov. 23, 2009. An offense that has shuffled starting running backs and offensive linemen all season finally seems to be gelling. The Titans Sunday visit the Jets, who feature the NFL's stingiest run defense allowing just 83.5 yards per game.
Jets coach Todd Bowles has seen enough of Mariota's running to get his attention.
"It's a big concern because he can run like a halfback," Bowles said. "He can throw it and beat you in the air, and he can beat you on the ground. Anytime you have a dual-threat quarterback as he is, you have a problem with the run and the pass game because you know your defensive linemen aren't fast enough to catch him."
Mariota has helped rev up a run game that has had its issues this season. The Titans have started three different running backs with Bishop Sankey, the second-round draft pick out of Washington last year, benched in favor of Antonio Andrews, an undrafted free agent in his second season.
Mularkey also shifted starters on the offensive line to better protect Mariota and become more physical up front. Byron Bell has settled in at right tackle, while undrafted free agent Quinton Spain will be starting his third straight game beside fellow rookie center Andy Gallik on Sunday.
"They are huge up front," Bowles said of the Titans' rookie linemen. "Those guys are big, huge run-blockers, and they understand. They keep it very tight-knit when they run their power run game. They do a lot of things that can hurt you."
Tennessee (3-9) hopes to get Dexter McCluster back against the Jets after missing two games with an injured right knee. McCluster not only handles punt returns, he ranks third behind Andrews and Mariota in yards rushing. McCluster said Thursday he thinks the Titans all are on the same page now and confident running the ball.
Having Mariota around certainly helps, and the rookie is as healthy as he's been since spraining the MCL in his left knee Oct. 18. His two touchdowns rushing have come in the past three games, and he is averaging 8 yards a carry. Mariota is running more both by design and when the rookie feels he can take off, something Mularkey wants to use the quarterback's strengths.
"If you looked at that long run, there were some really bad angles taken on him, and that happens a lot when guys with his kind of speed are breaking the pocket," Mularkey said.
If a defender comes too close when Mariota is running, Mularkey has only one word of advice.
"Slide," Mularkey said. "Do not take hits."
Notes: Mularkey said LB Derrick Morgan likely will not play Sunday because of his injured left shoulder. WR Kendall Wright (ribs) will try to run Friday to test himself after not practicing the past two days. ... The Titans added WR Tre McBride (abdomen) and LB Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil (knee) to the injury report Thursday.