Marcus Mariota, ball-hungry D show Titans have tools to contend in AFC

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It took a game to knock off the rust, but the Tennessee Titans looked like the AFC contender they were built to be -- and more -- in their second preseason game. The Titans defeated the Carolina Panthers on Saturday 34-27.

Marcus Mariota came closer to the quarterback the Titans saw during their peak last season by accurately completing passes, using his legs to make plays and having the pocket presence to make correct reads. In the first quarter, he hit tight end Delanie Walker in the back of the end zone; it was the first touchdown of the preseason for each player.

Titans coach Mike Mularkey challenged the offense after its lackluster preseason opener against the New York Jets. Mariota, running back Derrick Henry and the Titans' bevy of receiving options responded with up-tempo play, long chain-moving drives and touchdowns.

"It was a lot better. I thought we came out fast, made a couple big plays, were able to go down and score," Mariota said. "We've just got to continue to build this momentum, build the foundation and get ready for the season."

Mularkey agreed, saying he was "pretty pleased" with the Titans' response, particularly from the starters who jumped out to a 17-0 lead during their first-quarter action.

As Mariota said, "That was the blueprint for how we can be successful this year."

Henry pitched in big time, punching in two touchdowns to finish off impressive drives.

The biggest positive outside of the offense's resurgence was how often Tennessee's defenders got their hands on the football. Two first-quarter turnovers led to 14 Titans points. That's a recipe for winning.

QB depth chart: The Titans' backup quarterback battle continued Saturday, with Matt Cassel looking solid in his first action of the preseason. He was 8-of-13 for 88 yards and found Tre McBride for a would-be touchdown in the end zone, but the pass was dropped. Cassel also turned heads by running through a tackle attempt by Panthers linebacker Jeremy Cash. Meanwhile, Alex Tanney improved upon his two-turnover performance in the opener, going 7-of-12 for 85 yards. Cassel appears to be the No. 2 quarterback, and the question is whether Tanney will remain on the active roster as the No. 3 quarterback.

When it was starters vs. starters, the Titans looked ... invigorated. Mariota started the game by hitting rookie receiver Taywan Taylor for a 20-yard completion over the middle to get the crowd involved early. Tennessee's offensive line showed drastic improvement and kept Mariota completely clean. The defense was the biggest catalyst of the day, forcing two turnovers in the Panthers' side of the field. The Titans simply looked faster, more physical and better than they did last week.

One reason to be concerned: Penalties were one of the few negatives for the Titans on Saturday. Tennessee committed 11 penalties for 93 yards. A couple of penalties in early drives forced them to work harder for scores, and it was an apparent issue late in the game. The preseason is a good time to work out those issues, and Mularkey will certainly monitor it.

Rookie watch: Taylor splashed from the first play and throughout the game. The third-round pick out of Western Kentucky has taken advantage of injuries to Eric Decker, Corey Davis and Tajae Sharpe by making plays in each game. Taylor finished with three catches for 41 yards. He will force the Titans to figure out ways to put him on the field.

Meanwhile, rookie cornerback Adoree' Jackson had a solid game on defense, and he again opened eyes on special teams when he returned a punt for a touchdown. The play was called back for holding and a block in the back, but that didn’t take any air out of Jackson's sail. "They asked me why I don’t celebrate. I told them, 'Wait until regular season,'" Jackson said. "We’re going to have some fun -- me and the teammates are going to have a lot of fun."

Bounce back: Cornerback Logan Ryan gave himself an F after a rough performance last week against the Jets, giving up three completions, including a 53-yard catch. He responded Saturday by forcing a fumble on the Panthers' first drive. That turnover led to a Titans touchdown. The starting secondary didn't give up any big passing plays, either. There was a lot to be excited about for Ryan and the Titans' defense. "Excellent," Ryan said. "But that's what we expect."

Injuries to watch: Running back DeMarco Murray did not play, a mild surprise after Mularkey said earlier this week that he anticipated Murray would suit up. Murray suffered a hamstring injury on Aug. 2 and returned to full practice action this week. Mularkey said it was his "executive decision" to hold Murray out and give him one more week before trusting that hamstring completely.

Decker (ankle) and Davis (hamstring) also sat out on Saturday. Fullback Jalston Fowler suffered a thigh bruise during a Titans kickoff return and did not return.

Locking up a roster spot? No Titans player had a better day than running back David Fluellen, who had 10 rushes for 76 yards and two catches for 15 yards and a touchdown. He also made a great tackle on special teams. Fluellen is the leader for the No. 3 running back spot, and his leading competition, seventh-round pick Khalfani Muhammad, had one carry for 1 yard.

No-overtime award: Fluellen had the best day, but Aaron Wallace is the true award winner, because his strip sack -- and Tennessee's subsequent recovery -- with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter saved everyone from preseason overtime. One play later, Fluellen punched it in for a 3-yard touchdown to put the Titans up 34-27.