Is Marcus Mariota to blame for Titans' woes? It's complicated

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Two weeks ago it seemed Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was turning the corner and elevating his status as a signal-caller. His excellence as a passer showed in the Titans' Week 4 26-23 win against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Mariota made a big-time throw to wideout Taywan Taylor on fourth-and-15 and capped the performance with a perfect touch pass to receiver Corey Davis for the winning score in overtime.

The Titans haven't been in the end zone since. Two losses and eight ugly quarters of offensive football later, Mariota and the offense are searching for answers after a 21-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens -- the first time Tennessee has been shut out at Nissan Stadium.

Mariota has completed 24 of 41 passes for 246 yards over the past two weeks, including 10 of 15 for just 117 yards and no touchdowns against the Ravens, which raises the question: Is he to blame for the Titans' inept offense?

It's a fair question with no easy answers. Here is a look at some of Tennessee's problems:

Drops and missed reads: A dropped pass by Nick Williams in the end zone against the Buffalo Bills didn't help Mariota's cause in Week 5. However, on that same play, Mariota had a chance to hit tight end Jonnu Smith, who was open on a corner route, but Mariota came off that read and moved on in his progression. That is the kind of shot Mariota needs to take, and it's an example of what coach Mike Vrabel meant during training camp when he said he wanted Mariota to "let it rip."

No respect for the run: The Titans' running game has been virtually nonexistent, and Sunday proved no different. Tennessee had 55 rushing yards on 14 attempts, averaging 3.9 yards a run. Opposing safeties are not afraid to play closer to the line of scrimmage because there is no vertical threat. Through five weeks, Mariota had just eight completions of 20 yards or more. The Titans' inability to get the ball down the field has made it harder to run it.

"If we are making plays down the field, if we're making explosives, those guys have to back off a little bit. When you're running into tough boxes, it's tough to make plays," Mariota said.

Missed throws: Before the score got out of hand against Baltimore, the Titans squandered a chance to make an explosive play and tie the game on their second drive. The Ravens had just scored a touchdown after a drive of 94 yards that took more than nine minutes.

Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur went to the tempo offense and dialed up a play-action pass after a 2-yard run by Dion Lewis. Mariota had a clean pocket and saw Taylor separating from a Baltimore defender on a post route. The pass fell incomplete just out of Taylor's reach.

"I gave it too much," Mariota said. "It's something I'd like back. If I give him a decent ball, he has a shot to take it all the way."

The drive fizzled, and the Titans had to punt on consecutive series. Not completing that pass eliminated a great chance to score, and Baltimore seized control on its next drive with a 13-yard touchdown run by Alex Collins.

No answer for the blitz: Getting the early 14-0 lead put the Ravens in position to call an onslaught of blitzes. The pass-rushers were able to pin their ears back and come after Mariota with no regard for the rushing attack. They dared the Titans to pass, often deploying Cover 0, leaving the receivers in one-on-one coverage.

The rush suffocated Mariota as the secondary blanketed Tennessee's wide receivers. The result was 11 sacks by Baltimore's defense -- more than the number of passes Mariota completed.

Pass-protection woes: Although the offensive line was getting beat, Mariota insisted some of the sacks were his fault.

"It's a combination of a lot of different things," he said. "I can do a better job of stepping up in the pocket. I put our guys in a bad spot trying to run around too much. Those are things I have to do better."

Coming into their game against the Ravens, the Titans' offensive line had given up nine sacks all season, so the unit allowed more in Sunday's game (11) than the previous five combined.

That seems like an aberration and Mariota said he tried to run around too much, but there were many plays when that was his only choice. He had to flee the pocket because the pressure from the outside was forcing him to move.

Reasons for hope: Perhaps Mariota's best throw Sunday came in the third quarter when he stared down the blitz and delivered a precision pass to Davis on a deep in-breaking route before the receiver made his break.

The completion, which went for 24 yards, was far too little, too late, but it showed Mariota's resolve and offered an example of how the Titans can get their passing attack moving again.

Said Vrabel: "I don't think [Mariota] is shell-shocked, because I know the type of competitor he is, and he's won games for us."

If the Titans plan to salvage what's left of their season, Mariota needs to prove Vrabel right -- starting in London.