NASHVILLE, Tenn. » New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is coming off a game in which he threw seven touchdown passes.
His counterpart on Sunday, rookie Marcus Mariota hasn’t thrown one TD in the last two games, he hasn’t had the opportunity. Mariota has been sidelined with a sprained left knee, though the Tennessee Titans certainly hope he can play against the Saints.
Mariota also just lost the head coach who had been grooming him since last spring.
But despite all that, Mariota believes playing against Brees will be a lot of fun.
“It’s definitely a challenge, and our defense is preparing like no other to face this guy,” Mariota said. “But again, I’m just going to do my best to focus on what my game plan is and prepare the best that I can.”
He’d better. This will be his test against someone of Brees’ stature.
Mariota has played against fellow rookie Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel of Cleveland, Andrew Luck of Indianapolis, Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Tannehill of Miami.
Brees is a 15-year veteran coming off one of the best games by a quarterback in NFL history. He completed 78 percent of his passes for 505 yards and those seven TDs in last week’s 52-49 win over the New York Giants. If Brees throws four TDs — or more — against the Titans on Sunday, that would give him the most TD passes after a seven TD-performance.
“You don’t go out and say I’m going to try to throw for 500 yards this week or throw for seven touchdowns,” Brees said. “I mean there are a lot of things that have to come together for that to happen, and so look how much football we have all played and that’s only happened very few times.”
Titans cornerback Jason McCourty said Brees has proven year in and year out that he is one of the NFL’s better quarterbacks. Brees already has 15 TD passes this season for the Saints (4-4), and the Titans will counter with a defense currently third in the NFL allowing 197.9 yards passing per game.
“Hopefully his arm’s a little tired from throwing seven touchdown passes he won’t be able to repeat it,” McCourty said.
That’s the kind of quarterback the Titans (1-6) hope they have in Mariota and why they made him the No. 2 pick overall out of Oregon in the draft. Mariota already has nine TD passes himself in five starts, and he has a 93.2 passer rating that puts him 14th in the NFL behind Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh and ahead of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.
Mariota needs three more TD passes to tie the franchise record for most TD passes in a season set by Vince Young in 2006, and the rookie has shown he’s very comfortable staying in the pocket using his arm first rather than his legs. Mariota is completing 64 percent of his passes and has run only 10 times for 72 yards.
“Obviously, he’s big and athletic,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said of Mariota. “He looks comfortable. I would say this, the one thing that’s been impressive is just his accuracy and location early on for such a young player.”
Now Mariota is facing a big test.
The coach who helped select Mariota last spring, Ken Whisenhunt, was fired Tuesday by a controlling owner unhappy with losing 16 of the last 17 games and allowing 28 sacks. Amy Adams Strunk watched as the Texans sacked Mariota’s backup, Zach Mettenberger, seven times. Mariota was hurt Oct. 18 when sacked five times in the first 30 minutes by Miami.
Mariota called the coaching change tough after he built a relationship with Whisenhunt.
“It’s a tough business,” Mariota said. “We’ve got to move forward. There’s still nine games left in the season. We’re not out of our division. We’ve just kind of got to dust ourselves off and get ready for the Saints.”
Strunk has made it clear protecting Mariota is a priority, even if it means keeping him out of games while he heals. Mariota practiced fully Wednesday and said he’s moving “fairly decent.” The rookie took his share of responsibility for all the sacks.
“It’s also within the quarterback’s job to get the ball out quick and do our best to avoid sacks,” Mariota said. “I’ll do my best to hold up my end.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.