The Titans were eager to deliver a better performance in their second preseason game and that's exactly what they did Saturday, racing to an impressive 17-0 first quarter lead en route to a 34-27 win over the Panthers.
After a frustrating 7-3 loss to the Jets in their preseason opener, the Titans were determined to start fast against Carolina. On the first play from scrimmage, Marcus Mariota connected with rookie Taywan Taylor for 20 yards. Mariota then scrambled for nine yards on the next play. The two playcalls, selected by a fan who won an auction for charity, demonstrated further that Mariota is fully recovered from the fractured fibula he suffered at the end of last season.
— Steve Layman (@SteveLayman) August 19, 2017
Mariota went 4-5 on the team's opening drive, which ended in a 34-yard field goal by Ryan Succop. The third-year quarterback finished the day 6-8 for 61 yards and a short touchdown toss to Delanie Walker to cap the Titans second possession which was set up when Logan Ryan punched the ball free from receiver Devin Funchess on the Panthers' first play from scrimmage and Kevin Byard scooped up the fumble and returned it to the Carolina 13.
"I thought we came out fast, made a couple big plays and were able to go down and score," Mariota said of the offense's fast start. "The defense got a huge, huge turnover. For us to go down and score after that was big."
Byard continued his terrific preseason with a nice tackle to help force a three and out on the defense's second series.
It looked like the special teams would get in on the act when Adoree' Jackson fielded a punt at the Titans' 37, made a move and showed the speed and explosiveness that made him the 18th pick in the draft with a 63-yard return for a touchdown, only to have it nullified by a pair of penalties.
But the Titans defense was not done. On the first play of the Panthers' next series, another rookie, Jayon Brown, tipped Derek Anderson's pass and Justin Staples intercepted it and returned it to the Carolina 17.
The focus all offseason for the Titans' defense has been making game impacting plays and forcing turnovers. The two they forced against the Panthers in the first quarter led directly to 14 points as Derrick Henry scored the first of his two touchdown runs on the very next play.
"It's a great sign," Titans head coach Mike Mularkey said. "That's what we have to have. That's our intent. When you have a lot of guys around the ball where they're supposed to be, good things happen, and that's exactly what happened. If you can score points off turnovers, that's the whole thing. These are things that's we're learning how to do."
The Titans defense forced three turnovers in all. Outside linebacker Aaron Wallace delivering a strip sack late and the fumble was recovered by Jimmy Staten. David Fluellen capped another solid day as he battles for the number three running back position with a three-yard touchdown run to give the Titans the lead with just 1:55 to go.
It was not close early as the Titans left their first string offensive line in for much of the first half, pounding out 113 yards on 23 carries while building a 24-10 halftime lead. The offensive line performed much better as a whole, protecting the quarterbacks much better than they did a week ago against the Jets when they surrendered a whopping eight sacks.
"You know what? We didn't play our best in week one, the first preseason game against the Jets," Walker said. "We vowed to each other that we were going to come out here and play better, protect the quarterbacks and put points on the board. We did that."
Tennessee played once again without DeMarco Murray and Corey Davis as they nurse hamstring injuries. Eric Decker and Jurrell Casey also sat out Saturday as a precaution, but this team continues to show a depth that sets it apart from previous editions.
After leading the team in receptions last week, Taylor caught three more balls for 41 yards and fellow third round pick Jonnu Smith continues to show out as the heir apparent to Delanie Walker, chipping in five receptions for 47 yards.
And Jackson appears to be a force on special teams and a versatile guy in the defensive backfield that could start at outside cornerback opposite Ryan, who's first place forced fumble helped redeem himself after a shaky debut last week, or as the team's nickelback.
There's still a long ways to go, even on the preseason, with training camp having just wrapped up Thursday. But Saturday's performance looked much more like the Titans team expected to compete for a division title and playoff appearance this fall.
"We've just got to build this momentum," Mariota said. "Build the foundation and get ready for the season.
They took a step closer to that goal Saturday.