By David Kang
Paradoxical is one way to describe the 2017 Tennessee Titans and Marcus Mariota. Despite a solid start in his first two seasons in the league, Mariota’s 3rd year has proven to be quite the stumbling block as he suffered significant downturns in his statistics. Specifically, his interception total as well as his interception rate has been the most troubling. Although heralded for his ability to take care of the football while at Oregon (our brains were thoroughly seared with the 42 TDs and 4 INTs stat line in the 2014 draft season), his interception percentages of 2.7% and 2.0% have been around the average in the league. However, his interception percentage of 3.6% ranks 4th worst in the league ahead of Jay Cutler, Trevor Siemian, and DeShone Kizer with a .8% difference between Mariota and the 5th worst in the league. Mariota has also been throwing many less TDs this season and has seen his TD% drop from 5.1% and 5.8% from his first two seasons to a putrid 3.1% this season. With more INTs and TDs thus far this season, some are even starting to question Mariota’s ability to be a franchise quarterback.
Mariota’s decline as predictably coincided with the decline of the Titans offensive production. In 2016, they ranked a solid 9th in offensive DVOA% with 2.16 points per drive (which ranked 10th), but both numbers have dropped as they are so far 19th in offensive DVOA% and are scoring 1.87 points per drive (which is ranked 16th). Combined with their mediocre defense, one might think that the Titans would be one of the more mediocre teams in the NFL, and that would be a 100% correct assertion. However, with the volatility of NFL scheduling and the oblong shape of the ball, the Titans currently sport an 8-6 record and control their own destiny for a playoff spot. They likely need to win out the rest of the season in order to guarantee a playoff spot, which might prove to be quite difficult looking at their schedule. They face two of the best teams in the NFL in the Los Angeles Rams and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
One bright spot looking at that buzzsaw of a round of games for Jaguars fans is that Mariota had his best game of the season against the San Francisco 49ers. He was an efficient 23 for 33 for 241 yards (7.3 Y/A) with 2 TD and 0 INTs, and he displayed all the great traits that made so many people hail him as the next great, young quarterback.
This is well designed play (hold on a sec Mularkey haters, I’ll get to him later) by the Titans here. They line up in 13 personnel, and the 49ers line up in a single high Cover 3 look. The EMLOS directly facing the #2 receiver is the curl flat defender and the CB lined up on the outside has #1 (the outermost TE) vertical. What the Titans run here is essentially a slot fade concept with the outside receiver running a short curl to hold the outside CB and the #2 receiver running a slot fade. Because of the CB playing #1 with outside leverage and the #1 receiver carrying him deep outside, there is too much ground to cover between him and the fade. The curl flat defender becomes confused because his responsibility is the #1 running the curl route, but he displays good recognition to carry Walker vertical, but not without being behind a couple of steps. The TEs lining up close to each other creates a switch release situation. The #3 receiver here runs a seam or a post route in order to influence the deep safety, and he holds him just long enough for Mariota to throw a perfect ball to Walker. Unfortunately for the Titans, Walker does not track the ball well and loses it for a drop.
These next two plays showcased an example of a mid-game adjustment a QB might make during the course of a game.
This is a fairly simple concept for the Titans to beat both man and zone. The outside receivers run out routes to hopefully beat man coverage, and the inside receivers run sits in a zone i.e. just find the open space in the defense. The Titans come out in a 2×2 set with the TE and RB on the right, and the 49ers show up in a single high look and play their predictable Cover 3.
The key player here is the curl flat defender on the left side. Look how aggressively he widens to the flat and how the weak hook curl bites on the TE sit route and doesn’t widen to the left #2 receiver. This allows Decker to become wide open, but Mariota just misses him.
Same scenario here. Titans come out in essentially the same formation except the TE is detached, and the 49ers flash a single high safety look, but with the strong safety cheating a little bit deeper. The Titans run a similar play design. Mariota looks to the out route on the right as his first read as this is occurring at the end of the half on a 2-minute drill. When he sees that it’s not there, he quickly adjusts to the #2 receiver on the left for a good 13-yard gain. Walker runs a drag instead of a sit route, but it still accomplishes its purpose as a high low concept on the linebacker.
Two of the best traits that Mariota possess are his intermediate accuracy and his anticipation with the football. He displays both of those traits in this next play.
This is 3rd and 10 early in the 3rd after a string of incomplete passes. The 49ers have run primarily man coverage or Cover 3 up to this point, and Mariota sees the amount of cushion that the CB gives Decker, who is running an out route. For the 49ers, #54 is split out wide against the TE Jonnu Smith, and the Titans do not account for him in their protection. He gets a free path to the QB, but Mariota manages to get the ball out before Decker even starts his break and puts it in the perfect spot for the first down.
Here is another beauty of a throw. This is a simple corner route against Cover 1 Man coverage from the slot. Decker beats his man pretty handedly, and Mariota makes this throw from the far hash to right near the sideline 17 yards down the field in perfect stride.
The Titans run inverted smash here with the slot receivers running flat routes, and the outside receivers cheating inside than cutting outside on corner routes. Luckily for them, the 49ers play Cover 2 despite showing Cover 3 pre-snap with the single high safety, and the inverted smash play was designed to beat Cover 2. The window is tight since they are lined up on the hash, so Mariota has to throw with anticipation to make sure the ball gets to the receiver before he reaches the sideline. Pause the video as soon as Mariota starts his throwing motion. The receiver has not even started making his break, but Mariota throws a perfect strike to Rishard Matthews.
On 3rd and 4, the Titans come out in empty and run a simple stick concept to the trip side on the right and a slant flat on the left versus the 49ers Cover 2. The defense does a good job of covering the stick routes. The outside CB is squatting the #2 route hoping to trap it while getting enough ground to discourage the QB from throwing to the downfield route from #1. Mariota quickly recognizes the coverage post-snap and knows that he has a tiny window to fit in the fly route by the #1 in between both the safety and the CB. Mariota times the throw perfectly with good accuracy, and the safety is too late to get over in time. The result is a 21-yard gain and a 1st down.
Later in the drive, the Titans run another cool play here. On the redzone, the 49ers show 2 high safeties playing a form of Cover 2. The Titans have sort of a smash concept to both sides of the field. The outside receivers run snag routes while the inside receivers run corners. With the RB running a flat route, it becomes a snag concept on the left side. However, the slot receiver on the left does not run a snag route. He runs a snag and go double move. The corner routes on the outside occupy both deep safeties, which leaves the middle open. The only thing standing in the way is the MLB dropping into it like a Tampa-2. The snag and go makes the LB bite hard on the snag, which leaves a significant amount of space in the middle of the field. With the curl flat defender passing off the receiver to the MLB, this amounts to an easy touchdown throw for Mariota.
Here comes the negative.
My biggest grip with Mike Mularkey and the design of the offense is how he tries to get too cute and use constraint plays when he has not even set it up in the first place.
The prime example is this play in the 3rd quarter.
The Titans run a fake bubble screen deep pass here. I’ve gone through a cursory view of the Titans last 3 games, and I have not seen a single bubble screen out of a inside zone look. The 49ers because they have not been burned by the bubble screen thus far this game do not buy into the fake at all. They line up in man coverage, and all their men handle their responsibilities capably. Mariota basically has to throw up a prayer to Corey Davis, whose man is completely in phase with him. Even the #2 defender manages to slide off his man into being close to making a play.
Here comes another gripe. The Titans have RPO-ish looking plays built into the offense, but it’s more window dressing than an actual option as the QB does not read the defenders at all. The Titans have struggled rushing the ball somewhat this season (although that is partially on Murray’s failing body than the Titans offense as a whole), and opposing defenses have been very aggressive in attacking downhill whenever they read run. A good way to keep the defense off balanced is to run RPOs as constraint plays off of your runs. The Titans have some of this action build in, but they don’t throw out of them at all even when they have a numbers advantage
The Titans have an inside zone RPO with a bubble screen on the outside. The general rule for RPOs is that you throw the ball when there are more defenders in the box than there are blockers. As you can see from the picture. There are only 6 blockers with 7 men in the box. The 49ers are playing very soft coverage on the outside, which leaves more than enough room to throw the bubble for a good gain. However, Mariota just hands the ball off instead for a 3-yard gain.
Here’s the same thing occurring later on in the game
This is another inside zone RPO with a bubble screen. There’s 7 in the box with the safety cheating up and only 6 blockers. The 49ers play off coverage again, so there’s plenty of room for Decker to catch and make a move in space.
The offensive line does a good job here getting push, which allows for Murray to gain solid yardage, but the bubble had a lot more potency in this play with plenty of open field to make the CB miss.
Also, these plays have been concerning run plays out of shotgun while most of the rush offense is based off of under center formations. That is another gripe about the offense. They run the whole exotic smash mouth offense with a markedly spread quarterback, and the constraint plays for those run plays are often deep shots off of play action instead of the typical bootlegs you would see from an outside zone heavy offense, the latter of which would exploit Mariota’s athleticism the former does not.
In summary, Marcus Mariota had a very solid game against the Titans, where he showed off his great accuracy and anticipation. Even though he did not throw an interception this particular game, he came awfully close with an ill-advised pass due to poor scheming by the offense. It is likely a long shot the Titans win both of their two games, but they might steal a game from the two and sneak in the playoffs. Considering their lack of running game and a good defense, they are unlikely to make it very far if they do get in the playoffs, and the Titans should think long and hard about which direction they want this franchise to go, specifically in handling Marcus Mariota. While exotic smash mouth is a somewhat catchy phrase, it is antithetically opposed to their franchise quarterback’s strengths. Seeing a change to a more modern and spread offense would facilitate Mariota’s development and in turn, possibly legitimize the Titans as perennial threats in the AFC.