The Tennessee Titans boast the third-ranked running game (144.2 yards per game).
Christopher Hanewinckel/Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Marcus Mariota’s mobility presents a predicament to the Green Bay Packers’ pass rush.
Go after Mariota too aggressively and the Tennessee Titans quarterback might break free for a big gain with his legs.
The chess match on the football field takes place on Sunday when the Packers travel to Nashville to face Tennessee.
"Stay in our rush lanes, just be as disruptive as we can," Packers pass rusher Datone Jones said after practice Thursday. "Just got to rush smart."
Coming off two straight close losses, Green Bay (4-4) faces a critical game in Nashville. It’s the first of three straight road games , a stretch that could define the season following a disappointing .500 start.
After getting 14 sacks over the first four games, the Packers’ pass rush hasn’t been as productive with seven in their last four. One of their most important players on the edge, linebacker Clay Matthews, has missed the last couple weeks with a nagging hamstring injury.
Tennessee’s third-ranked running game (144.2 yards per game) rightfully draws a lot of attention. But between Mariota’s mobility and the Titans’ focus on protecting the quarterback, whether the Packers generate pressure — and how they do it — will be important, too. The Titans have allowed 12 sacks this season, tied for the second-lowest total in the league.
"They’ve got big, physical runners. And then you combine that with the quarterback’s mobility because he can certainly make plays with his feet … to where that’s an extra gap you have to handle because he can pull the ball at any time and take it outside on the perimeter," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
This is an area where the athletic Matthews could especially help. He moved back outside this year after spending much of the last two seasons at inside linebacker to help shore up the run defense, with the goal of letting the long-haired linebacker wreak havoc again from the edge.
More Packers Coverage
Matthews has three sacks. He looked like he was inching closer to returning at midweek last week before McCarthy said Matthews had a setback.
He seems unlikely to play Sunday after missing the first couple days of practice this week.
The Packers remain hopeful that they can generate enough of a rush if Matthews misses another week. When Matthews is in the lineup, his versatility allows the Packers to use him in ways other than rushing the passer.
The coaches do like how the defense is getting into the backfield, at least. Last week , the Packers had eight hits on shifty Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
Mariota, though, is more of a runner, with the ability to slice through defenses. With a four-man rush, the rest of the defense will have to hold coverage and remain patient, inside linebacker Blake Martinez said.
"As long as we can do that, I think we’ll get the right amount of pressures," Martinez said.
PRACTICE REPORT: The Packers appear closer to getting two key pieces on offense back after running back James Starks (knee) and tight end Jared Cook (foot) practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day. Cook has been out since Week 3, while Starks has missed about a month.
Green Bay has been without an experienced running back with the injuries to Starks and starter Eddie Lacy (ankle). Receiver Ty Montgomery has taken over as the lead back, though coach McCarthy has had to get creative with his game plans.
The 6-foot-5 Cook gives quarterback Aaron Rodgers a big, physical target over the middle. Cook, whenever he returns, could help open up a passing game that has faced more man-to-man coverage of late.
"Those are the most fun games. You’re usually going to have a safety or a linebacker covering you, so either you’ve got an ability to beat him one on one, or you’ve got the ability to open somebody else up," Cook said.
INJURY REPORT: CB Damarious Randall (groin) returned to practice on a limited basis after missing the last few weeks. … WR Randall Cobb (hamstring) was limited for a second straight day.