Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Marcus Mariota

Film Room: Marcus Mariota
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

The Tennessee Titans have already more than doubled their win total from 2015. Last year, the Titans held the first overall pick in the draft. Now they are on the precipice of winning their division and returning to the playoffs

Seven Tennessee victories preceded last week's unlikely win against the Kansas City Chiefs, but none were bigger. Before beating the Chiefs, the Titans had come out on top against the Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, and Denver Broncos. Mike Mularkey and Jon Robinson have done a good job of bringing the Titans back to competitiveness by creating a run-heavy offense. DeMarco Murray has thrived after taking a pay cut as part of a cut-price trade, Jack Conklin has fit into the scheme perfectly, and Rishard Matthews has made some timely big plays. By relying on that base, the Titans offense has become a top-10 unit in DVOA.

After Week 15, the Titans rank 13th in DVOA as a team. The offense ranks eighth, and the defense ranks 23rd. Being above average on one side of the ball is enough to be a competitive team this late in the season. However, with the third-easiest schedule in the league behind them (and the third-easiest schedule ahead of them), there is some fraudulence to the Titans' win total. Six of the Titans' eight wins have come against teams ranked below them, five of those against teams ranked 19th or lower. The Packers, who are sixth in DVOA, are the highest-ranked team that the Titans have beaten, but the Green Bay defense was decimated by injuries at that stage of the season and it was a home game. Therefore, the Titans' victory over the eighth-ranked Chiefs is their best win.

It's hard to argue against results, and Mike Mularkey's offense has gotten results. He has moved the Titans from the basement into playoff contention. Results this year can be very misleading though. For example, the Detroit Lions are in position to win their division despite being the 26th-ranked team in DVOA. Mularkey's offense has so far worked against bad defenses, but struggled more than it should have against defenses that don't have clear deficiencies.

At halftime against Kansas City, the Titans were losing 17-7. Two DeMarco Murray runs then set up a first-and-10 at the Titans 35-yard line. Then, on the third play of the third quarter, quarterback Marcus Mariota threw an interception.

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On that play Mariota lined up under center, took a deep drop, and forced the ball to tight end Delanie Walker on a deep crossing route. Walker was one of only two receivers who ran routes downfield. The other eight offensive players on the field committed to selling the play fake and protecting Mariota.

This has been a trend for the Titans all season long. Mularkey wants his quarterback under center to facilitate the running game. More options open up from the running game under center. The problem is that Mariota's skill set is better suited to work from shotgun. That has been the case since the beginning of his career. His performances so far this season reflect that.

By DVOA, the Titans have the NFL's fourth-best offense out of shotgun formations, but they are just 12th with the quarterback under center. The Titans average 6.8 yards per play in shotgun, third-most in the NFL, but only 5.3 yards per play in all other snaps, 14th-most. The Titans have the fifth-widest gap between their shotgun DVOA and non-shotgun DVOA. They also have the fifth-widest gap between yards gained on each type of play. However, despite the wide gap in effectiveness, 26 teams in the league put their quarterbacks in shotgun formations more often than the Titans do with Mariota. Mularkey's ideals have taken the team so far, but the question now is, can he build on that foundation and adapt to get the most out of his best player?

If there were any lingering questions that Mariota is best suited to play in shotgun, the Chiefs game should have erased them. The Titans ran 21 snaps under center for 91 yards. They ran 40 snaps in shotgun for 297 yards. Unfortunately that balance isn't a reflection of Mularkey recognizing what works -- 24 of the 40 shotgun snaps came in the fourth quarter when they were chasing the game. Those 24 snaps gained 145 yards, 54 more yards than all of the under-center snaps on only three more plays. Up until Mariota threw that third quarter interception, the Titans had run 18 snaps under center for 87 total yards and just 12 snaps from shotgun for 125 yards. All three snaps in the third quarter to that point had come under center. It took the turnover, the deficit, and the dwindling clock to turn the play calling toward what worked for Mariota (something that has happened regularly this year).

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The problem with playing Mariota under center isn't that he can't do it -- he has shown fine footwork and comfort executing different types of handoffs. The problem is that Mariota isn't a strong-armed, deep passer. He's a technically astute, anticipation passer who thrives working the middle of the field and short/intermediate routes. Playing the quarterback under center in Mularkey's offense typically means keeping extra blockers in while sending fewer receivers vertically downfield. Those play designs limit Mariota's options and force him to hold the ball and throw deep downfield into tight windows. He has made that work against the worst defenses he has faced, the Jaguars and a beat-up Packers secondary, but for the most part he has had spotty deep ball accuracy this year. He has essentially been what Tom Brady would be if you took him out of Bill Belichick's offense and threw him into Bruce Arians' offense.

Running from shotgun makes you less diverse and hinders DeMarco Murray's effectiveness if you run laterally. However, you can still be effective running the ball from shotgun, and you can still direct Murray upfield from shotgun formations. The Titans offense repeatedly ripped off significant gains on shotgun runs during the second half against the Chiefs. The above GIF highlights how they used Mariota's run threat to hold the backside defender, creating an even numbers matchup of blockers and defenders inside.

Derrick Henry gained 14 yards on that play. Murray had gains of 9, 7, 10, 3 and 5 yards from shotgun formations in the fourth quarter. His longest play was a reception though. It came on a play where Mariota showed off the peak of his talent.

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After Mariota, Delanie Walker is the Titans' best offensive player. The Chiefs understood this and double-teamed him on this fourth-and-5. Walker released from the left side of the offense, immediately drawing the attention of the cornerback and strong safety to that side. They bracketed him while the other safety lay deep over the middle of the field, with man coverage across the board. That left four pass rushers to pursue Mariota in the pocket.

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Mariota diagnosed the coverage instantly. The Titans had Mariota in shotgun and ran all five eligible receivers into routes past the line of scrimmage. As soon as Mariota saw man coverage, he knew that Murray would be an option on the wheel route. He waited until Murray had advanced upfield and the safety trying to cover him had turned his back to the ball.

Because Murray has his eyes looking back to the quarterback and the defender doesn't, Mariota understands that he can put the ball in a spot where only Murray can get it. His quick diagnosis and release helps quell the advances of Dee Ford coming off his left side. Ford had jumped past Taylor Lewan and put himself in position to penetrate the pocket, but turned away once he saw Mariota begin his throwing motion.

Everything Mariota did to this point in the play was good, but the peak of his talent is the precision. He can't lead Murray upfield, because the cornerback to that side of the field is in position to peel off of Walker and run over the top. For that reason, Mariota has to throw to Murray's outside shoulder, leading him away from the safety trailing him and the cornerback coming up over the top. Mariota's placement into an extremely tight window is perfect.

The Titans only reached fourth-and-5 because Rishard Matthews had dropped another perfect play from the quarterback on third-and-5.

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Mariota's ability to throw receivers open against pressure in the pocket was evident throughout his rookie season. With the philosophy shift on offense this season, those examples have come about less often but the talent to do it is still there. That's why it's not a coincidence that the Titans are a significantly smoother offense when in hurry-up situations.

This throw is one of the better ones you will see all season. Mariota has to release the ball just as his right tackle is pushed beneath his feet. The quarterback doesn't react to the arriving pressure or let it impact his throw. Instead, he throws a strike to Matthews, who is perfectly covered by cornerback Steven Nelson.

Nelson reaches out for the ball, but Mariota has placed it on Matthews' outside shoulder. The arrival and placement of the ball shows off precision under pressure and an understanding of timing/anticipation. Like on the fourth down throw that would follow, Mariota had no margin for error with his accuracy. This throw required supreme precision to execute.

Matthews, of course, dropped the ball to set up fourth down.

Despite watching his quarterback march the team downfield in shotgun formations with receivers releasing into routes downfield, Mularkey reverted to his philosophy on the two-point conversion that followed Derrick Henry's 1-yard touchdown run.

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The two-point conversion featured a seven-man protection AND a rolling pocket. The seven-man protection took two options away from Mariota, while the rolling protection cut the field in half for the coverage and took away Mariota's opportunity to create with his legs if his receivers were covered. This hinged the success of the play on Harry Douglas getting open short of the end zone on a pick play. In other words, this play design naturally neutralized the quarterback's ability to make a play. That is the overarching issue with the philosophy that Mularkey is forcing onto his personnel. Plays like these limit the ceiling of the offense and of its quarterback.

After failing on the two-point conversion, the Titans got the ball back with 1:07 left in the game. Once again the Titans were forced into the offense that caters to their quarterback.

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The final drive began at the Titans 25-yard line. Mariota immediately moved the offense towards midfield with a precise throw from shotgun attacking the intermediate middle. The precision of the pass was excellent again, but this time Mariota had to manipulate the coverage to create a throwing lane. The Chiefs were sitting in zone coverage, and both underneath defenders were watching his eyes as he dropped back in the pocket. Mariota understood this. He took advantage of it by staring down Matthews to his left. This pushed the linebacker to that side of the field. Mariota kept his eyes there as he began his throwing motion (we can tell because the linebacker is still moving to the right as Mariota starts to throw). Mariota isn't throwing where his eyes are. He's throwing inside of the linebacker, leading Matthews towards the middle of the field behind him.

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It shouldn't be hard to understand how difficult it is to throw the ball with precision to a spot where you're not looking. You can try it sitting at home. Your target is probably stationary, and you can also take your time without the threat of being hit. Mariota's awareness and comfort to make this play is rare. It's the kind of thing on which Tom Brady has built his Hall of Fame career. Matthews gained 19 yards. Three more throws pushed the Titans into field goal range and the game was won.

The Titans will go as far as Mariota is allowed to take them. With an arsenal of draft picks to continue to invest into the roster next year, Robinson and Mularkey will be able to build a team to fit whatever philosophy they believe is best. If that philosophy continues to move the way it did this year, Mariota's impact will continue to be limited. That could work -- you could build a dominant running game and the best defense in the league -- but it's unlikely. The Titans will have a better chance at sustained success or building a contender if Mariota is at the center of every decision they make.


13 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2016, 6:56pm

3 Re: Film Room: Marcus Mariota

The answer to the question, "Why has Mike Mularky been fired everywhere else he's been?"

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

5 Re: Film Room: Marcus Mariota

Mularkey resigned in Buffalo. Looking back at everything that happened there since 2005, I can't say that was his worst decision. By the way the Bills had a dominant defense and solid running game, but also an aging Drew Bledsoe. He needs to adapt, like several other coaches in or out of hot water right now. Todd Bowles, I'm looking at you.

9 Re: Film Room: Marcus Mariota

Not denying that at all. Just pointing out he chose to leave Buffalo, partly because they fired the GM who hired him without firing him. He also had the best Bills season (9-7) until the Malone/Schwartz year a couple of years ago.

4 Re: Film Room: Marcus Mariota

I took your advice, and attempted to throw a clementine at a chair while staring somewhere else. I overshot the chair, and the clementine splattered against the wall. As such, I am billing you for the following:

1 clementine...........$0.21
Manual labor...........$0.28


Please inform me as to how you intend to pay for this. Thank you.

10 Re: Film Room: Marcus Mariota

Excellent article. But..."He has essentially been what Tom Brady would be if you took him out of Bill Belichick's offense and threw him into Bruce Arians' offence". This may be the first article I have seen about NWE ever that attributes their offense to BB.

13 Re: Film Room: Marcus Mariota

The problem with the comment by Fahey is that it presupposes that Brady can't throw accurately on deep passes. But he can, and if you study the issue, you'll find that deep ball accuracy often varies widely for individual players, season to season.

11 Re: Film Room: Marcus Mariota

I think you're wrong. Seattle has had success for a while now with a running game and a solid defense, without putting much of an emphasis on Wilson. Dallas is doing a bit of the same thing. It can work, and so far it worked for the Titans pretty well this year, if you look at where they were last year and where they are now. If this is Mularkey's philosophy, he has earned himself enough credit to be allowed to do it the way he thinks best.

As for Marcus, he sure showed a lot of good things, but there are plenty he could and needs to improve. His pocket presence is still not great, his accuracy even on short to intermediate throws has been shaky at times, other times he throws dimes into some crazy-tight spots. The talent is there, and eventually time will tell best, but I think he's in a great situation to thrive. Solid running game, solid offensive line that keeps defenders off him. His WR corps is not among the best, but most of the time it's just enough to do what's asked of them.

12 Re: Film Room: Marcus Mariota

Philosophically I was thinking something similar.

One of the difficulties of coaching is when you have players of different skill sets. It's impossible to write a playing system that plays to everybody's strengths.

It's therefore easy to criticise and say that Mularkey isn't using Mariota to his best potential, but without looking at the bigger picture of OL/RB/TE/WR skills it's hard to know what the best system is.