NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Marcus Mariota's boys at Oregon are still trying to test his speed. The race is coming, he says, just not yet. He has a playoff run to prepare for in the coming months. After that, game on.
"I'm sure we'll get it at some point when we get back in Eugene together," Mariota said, referring to his challengers, former Oregon teammates and opponents. "It's always fun to get a challenge. I'm super competitive. I love to do that."
Smart money is on Mariota. Sometimes, it looks like NFL defenders are still caught off guard by how he can change gears and speed past them. The versatility of the Tennessee Titans run game makes their read option and run-pass option plays even more devastating when Mariota decides to keep it.
"He's fast and maybe deceiving fast," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "You don't really see a lot of good angles on him; that's been the case since he's been here. You just don't see a lot of good angles. You don't see really any good hits unless you're a perfect mathematician to time up where he's going to be. He gets it going. He's fast."
Mariota isn't sure if his speed has returned to the same level it was before the injury or if he still has a 4.5 40-yard dash in him, like he did coming into the NFL. But he loves seeing green grass in front of him.
Last month, I wrote about Mariota's Year 3 slump, which he's trying to work out of. But that slump hasn't included his rushing ability. He has five rushing touchdowns so far this season after putting up four in his previous two NFL seasons.
The Titans haven't been putting Mariota into many risky situations. They've been selective, protective and effective on the plays where he runs. A perfect example was Sunday vs. the Houston Texans when Mariota scored a 9-yard touchdown off a read option fake, following his lead blocker into the end zone.
"We do a good job of scheming it up," Mariota said. "We create advantages because teams aren’t looking for certain things, or we make a different look. It puts defenders in tough situations."
The overall numbers still aren't impressive (15-of-23 for 150 yards, 23 rushing yards, two total touchdowns), but Mularkey saw better play from his quarterback Sunday. There's a calmness around the juxtaposition that Mariota is working through his struggles while the Titans are 8-4 and likely headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
"Confidence is high," Mariota said. "We can still improve, though. When we can win football games when we're not playing to the best of our abilities, it's huge. ... If we start pushing it to all cylinders and our defense continues to play well and special teams continues to do its job, this team can be very good."
Mariota circled his footwork, specifically not stepping into his throws, as one of the main causes for his increased interception rate (career-high 12 this season). He spent a lot of time with quarterbacks coach Jason Michael trying to address the issue last week. Mariota said it was "a lot better, more consistent" Sunday. The result was an end to his four-game run with at least one interception (eight in the span).
It's a step in the right direction, Mariota said, we'll see if it can lead to another good game.