Here are five keys to the game heading into the Week 9 match between the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans.
1. Mark Mariota – Marcus Mariota burst onto the scene a year ago with a standout rookie campaign. At the midpoint of his sophomore season, he's elevated his game to new heights. Mariota is 157 of 248 (63.3%) for 1,874 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions for a 95.1 rating. He's also dangerous with his legs, running 32 times for 221 yards and another TD. Defensive Coordinator John Pagano emphasized how all 11 players must be mindful of the multiple ways the quarterback can make an impact:
"(He's playing) at an extremely high level. 63% completion percentage. I think he has only been sacked about 12 times. We have to do a good job of if we have an opportunity to (intercept) it, catch it. If we have an opportunity to go for a strip, make those things happen. Those numbers are low (for them)… He does a great job of moving in the pocket (and) staying in the pocket. He is accurate with the football. Their rankings are high across the board; red zone offense (and) third-down offense, I think they are both third in the NFL in those so we have to do a good job of really trying to contain him because he is a threat when he gets outside of the pocket because he does run with it."
2. Rally in the Red Zone – The Bolts are fresh off a game in which their defense came through clutch in the red zone, forcing a pair of turnovers deep in their own territory. They will once again need to rise to the occasion on Sunday as they face a Titans offense that thrives once they cross the 20-yeard line. Mariota is virtually flawless inside the red zone, throwing 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions since entering the NFL. His 114.9 passer rating inside the 20 is tops in the league over that span. Pagano explained how the Bolts need to rally in the red zone like they did against Denver:
"It's huge anytime you can do something like (forcing two red zone turnovers). It has been a point of emphasis of ours. You've got guys creating those types of plays, sack-fumbles, strip-fumbles in that situation like Korey (Toomer) made when the running back was going for the flat. It's huge. Keep points off the board. It is always something you have to emphasize, but the guys and the coaches that have really been emphasizing (it) throughout the weeks has been good."
3. Wrap Up Murray and Henry – Perhaps no team boasts a better pair of strong, physical runners than the Titans. DeMarco Murray is up to his usual tricks as the 6-0, 217-pound running back has carried the ball 160 times for 756 yards (4.7 ypc) and six touchdowns. He's also surpassed the 100-yard plateau on the ground in four of his last six games. When it's time for a change of pace, Tennessee brings in 6-3, 247-pound rookie Derrick Henry to further lay down the hammer. The Alabama product has 53 carries for 221 yards (4.2 ypc) and one TD. Head Coach Mike McCoy knows the Bolts are in for a challenge trying to slow down the Titans rushing attack, emphasizing a need to wrap them up when they have the chance:
"Tennessee wants to run the football. You see how they play the game and how they throw the football, but they've got the two backs in there and they just pound it. They do a nice job with it. (They are) very creative with how they do things formationally to get you in the right type of front and the right scheme defensively to expose what you do. They've got two physical backs that go downhill. You have to do a great job in having run fits and be a great tackling team."
Meanwhile, Pagano chimed in with the similarities and differences in their running styles:
"They are similar. DeMarco is really fast. He has great vision; everyone talks about him being a downhill, one-cut type runner but he bounces it (too). You see things of people saying you want to get him going sideways, but sometimes he goes sideways pretty quick and gets out either side of the back door. It's something you have to be disciplined across the board with these guys. And Henry is a guy that is just a big, physical runner that hits the hole, sees it and goes. It's a good combination; it is a luxury they have to have two great runners like that that do the things they do. They are similar in styles but different in a way of one having more experience and one having less experience."
4. Big Play Benjamin – Travis Benjamin is questionable to play Sunday against Tennessee. The Titans are likely still suffering nightmares from facing him a year ago as a member of the Cleveland Browns when he scored three touchdowns against them. The speedy wideout leads San Diego with 38 catches for 509 yards and a trio of TDs, including last week's acrobatic one-hander. Having Benjamin in the fold would be a boost to the Bolts. Regardless, Titans' Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau bluntly explained how he expects his team to face Philip Rivers at his best no matter the weapons at his disposal:
"He consistently moves his team (up the field) and scores points. They are right up near the top in both categories and he does that every year. It doesn't seem to matter who is around him; he is just a great player."
5. Open the Gates – He may be 36-yeards old and in his 14th season, but Antonio Gates continues to make a major impact week in and week out. Always one of the most targeted Chargers, his looks may even see an increase with Hunter Henry out and Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin questionable. Tennessee has had their struggles with tight ends this year, so Head Coach Mike Mularkey explained the importance of limiting number 85:
"He's very crafty. They're using him the right way. They're using him on third down. They're using him in the red zone. He finds ways to get open. It doesn't look like he's lost a beat, but he's not playing the number of reps that he used to play, so he's a guy that can come off the bench and wreck your game just in the red-zone scenario. He's phenomenal still to this day."