NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The look of momentary worry on Mike Mularkey's face echoed the emotions of an eerily quiet Tennessee Titans crowd as Marcus Mariota was slow to get up. He took off for the first down and then the end zone before being tackled from behind by a chasing Bengals defender. His body hit the ground hard. They've all been here before, and it felt as empty as a person's stomach while going down the steepest roller coaster.
"I was [worried], yeah, I was. I was," Mularkey said. "But he’s about as tough as they get. He wouldn’t come out."
Mariota ended up OK, finishing that game-winning touchdown drive and suffering just a sore shoulder and sprained ankle, but this was another reminder of the Titans' tricky balance between unleashing Mariota to be his best dual-threat self and keeping him healthy. There's no manual for it, even though the Titans have done a good job finding a middle ground.
It's no secret that Mariota's health is the single biggest variable in the Titans' season. The arguments over whether Mariota is being handcuffed by the Titans scheme or put in too much danger when he runs don't seem to stop even as the team wins.
Take a deeper look at how the Titans and Mariota have navigated this dilemma and you'll see it's more than meets the eye.
Mariota's legs are a big part of the Titans' explosiveness and offensive creativity. They're a weapon defenses have to prepare for even when he doesn't use them. He had six rushes for 51 yards vs. the Bengals,, including a 28-yard rush off a beautiful run-pass option that only one or two other NFL quarterbacks could do. We see that again for the first time in over a month, now that the hamstring injury is behind him.
"They do an awesome job of utilizing his skill set, highlighting his skill set," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said about Mariota. "His mobility is an asset."
But even as Mariota's designed runs increase, he has been smart and early to slide on designed runs. The Titans have used RPOs, read options and Adoree' Jackson in the backfield to create bigger, outside running lanes for Mariota when he chooses to run. It's also significant that, outside of his hamstring strain, most of his NFL injuries haven't occurred on designed runs.
"It’s when he’s having to escape out of the pocket or in the pocket, it’s been all about dropback passes," Mularkey said of Mariota's injuries. "So, I don’t know how you can change anything, he’s got to do that to help us win games. We’ve got to drop back to throw the football. We’ve got to protect him."
The Titans didn't do a great job in terms of protecting Mariota on Sunday, allowing four sacks, seven quarterback hits and 16 pressures vs. the Bengals. That has been an outlier for this Titans offensive line, but they'll certainly have to revert back to strong pass protection to keep their quarterback healthy through January.
So as the Titans get a nicked-up Mariota ready for the Steelers on a short week, they'll continue to navigate this arena in hopes of keeping Mariota explosive and healthy and improving their winning streak to five.