Broncos' D to test Titans' improved protection of Mariota
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee left tackle Taylor Lewan has made no secret of his desire to be considered the NFL's best at his position, the kind of reputation built by playing well against the top pass rushers.
Not only has Jack Conklin been one of the league's most impressive rookies, he's already considered one of the league's top right tackles.
Lewan and Conklin, along with the rest of the Titans, have allowed just 18 sacks, fifth fewest in the NFL, after allowing Tennessee quarterbacks to be sacked a league-worst 54 times in 2015.
Their protection of Marcus Mariota will be tested heavily Sunday when Von Miller and his NFL-high 13 + sacks and the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos (8-4) visit looking to pad their league-leading 36 sack total.
''They're unbelievable pass rushers, and they're great football players, not just pass rushers,'' Lewan said Wednesday. ''Having this opportunity is huge, and it's awesome. I can't wait.''
Mariota missed four games as a rookie after being hurt in the pocket. Through the 12 games he played in 2015, he was sacked 38 times. This season only Oakland (12) and the Giants, Pittsburgh and Washington (all tied with 16) have allowed fewer sacks than Tennessee. The Titans also rank seventh allowing a sack per pass attempt on 4.7 percent of passes.
The quarterback has noticed how much less he finds himself scrambling away from pass rushers.
''Those five guys up front have done an incredible job,'' Mariota said. ''As we go forward, we can always improve in certain areas. I can always get the ball out quicker, throw the ball away, but those guys up front have done a great job and have made my life a whole lot easier.''
Improving the offensive line had been at the top of Tennessee's to-do list in recent years, and first-year general manager Jon Robinson made the key moves to set up this unit.
Robinson signed veteran center Ben Jones away from Houston to anchor the middle, then traded back up to No. 8 overall to take Conklin out of Michigan State. Conklin has started every game at right tackle, helping bookend the line opposite Lewan.
''He doesn't look like a rookie,'' Miller said on a conference call. ''He doesn't look like a rookie for sure - very athletic. He has all the abilities to be an elite tackle in the National Football League.''
The Titans have protected Mariota so well that they've now kept him from being sacked at all in four of their last eight games. That has coincided with Mariota throwing at least two touchdown passes in each of those games, with Tennessee going 5-3 in that span.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak is very familiar with Jones, having coached the lineman in Houston. Kubiak also credits Mariota's improved play with helping the Titans quarterback avoid some sacks.
''Obviously, as coaches, you try to protect your quarterback as best you can,'' Kubiak said. ''At the same time, as quarterbacks play more and more, they can protect themselves, too. I think all those things go hand-in-hand, but you see how much more comfortable he is and, obviously, they're very good up front.''
Conklin watched Miller earn MVP honors at Super Bowl 50 in February and now is preparing to face the linebacker who has posted double-digit sack totals in five of his first six seasons. Yes, Conklin says that feels a little weird. The rookie insists he's over being star struck this deep into the season.
''What we focus on is everyone's just another player,'' Conklin said. ''If we stop focusing as much of who they are and just what we have to do on each play, it takes a little bit away from it.''
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