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ESPN's Jon Gruden talks Marcus Mariota, Titans



NASHVILLE, Tenn. –** The Titans are back in the playoffs, set to face the Chiefs on Saturday in the Wild Card round.

ESPN's Jon Gruden will serve as the analyst for the telecast.

Gruden, a Super Bowl-winning coach with the Buccaneers, spent time with Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota during his annual quarterback QB camp leading up to the 2015 Draft.

Leading up to this weekend's game, Gruden said Mariota looks healthier than he did the last time he saw him, back in October, when he worked the Titans-Colts game at Nissan Stadium.

And that's a good sign for the Titans.

"I thought Mariota got off to a good start and then he hurt his hamstring," Gruden said in quotes provided by ESPN. "He missed some time and then he was questionable for our Monday Night game. He looks like he's moving explosively again. He's showing some fast-twitch movement in the pocket. That was the deciding factor in the win against Jacksonville.

"His legs are really important to his game because it allows him to make unscripted plays. It looks like he's getting healthy and he's getting used to Eric Decker, who came over as a free agent, and they're getting rookie receiver Corey Davis involved in the offense. So, Mariota is getting healthy and he's getting acclimated to his new weapons, and that's a good thing this time of year."

The Titans are 9-7 heading into the contest, coming off a 15-10 win over the Jaguars.

Mariota completed 12-of-21 passes for 134 yards in the game, with a touchdown pass against Jacksonville. He also ran 10 times for 60 yards, including a big 13-yard run on third down late in the contest.

"The Titans have struggled the last month of the season, putting it all together but they are still a very dangerous team," Gruden said. "Their defense is vastly underrated, they have a great field goal kicker in (Ryan) Succop, and they have a quarterback who can create offense. They just have to become more consistent and convert on third down."

Here's Gruden on other topics leading up to the Titans-Chiefs game:


On Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith …**

Smith looks like a veteran Marcus Mariota. The two quarterbacks in this game are very similar. They're smart, great competitors and they're athletic. They can create plays and I think that could provide the winning edge in this game. Smith has had a great year, perhaps his best as a pro. His deep-ball accuracy has improved. They ask him to do about everything at the line of scrimmage. He's had a Pro Bowl-caliber season for sure.

On the key matchups to watch …

Both defenses have to contain these two quarterbacks because they create so much offense scrambling for first downs, scrambling and throwing, they can run the zone-read, design quarterback runs. You have to have a plan for Mariota and Smith on the ground and keep them in the pocket. Both defenses also have to deal with a lot of different personnel groupings – plays that you can't really prepare for. There are so many uncommon formations, shifts, alignments. Andy Reid and Mike Mularkey are very diverse on offense.

I think the weather in Kansas City is a problem. Last time these two teams played a year ago, it was cold. It affected Mariota throwing the ball. It affected Smith throwing the ball. So, you have to keep an eye on the weather. First down in this game is the big down. I have a feeling it is going to be hard to throw the ball in Arrowhead.


On the Chiefs …**

The Chiefs seem to have found their groove. The win against the Chargers was eye-opening. They ran the ball with authority. The big three – (Travis) Kelce, (Tyreek) Hill and (Kareem) Hunt – is hard for defenses to deal with. How the Chiefs do in the playoffs is also going to come down to how their defense performs. They've had a lot of changes and the pass rush has struggled at times. They're missing some key players – Eric Berry for example is a huge loss. They're trying to plug in Darrelle Revis. Their inside linebackers have struggled at times in coverage and in space. I worry about the Chiefs defensively but they are going to be a tough out at home at Arrowhead.

On the atmosphere at Arrowhead Stadium …

This is as good as there is. Loud, passionate Chiefs fans. They have the right tailgating atmosphere – these fans are ready to go. They know the game. They know when to make noise. They know when to keep it quiet. Hopefully, the Tennessee Titans have worked hard on their silent count and their hand signals because I have a feeling they are going to need it.

Titans players take the field for Thursday's practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park. (Photos: Gary Glenn)

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