Someone who doesn’t watch Marcus Mariota on a daily basis would almost have to conclude he’s in regression, halfway through his third season in the NFL.
He’s 27th in the NFL in passing yards and has six touchdown passes against five interceptions. He has a quarterback rating of 85.4, which ranks 23rd among starters. He’s way off last season’s production pace and is only superior in one area, completing 63.2 percent of his passes vs. 61.2 percent in 2016.
But he’s better. This will be a difficult argument to make if the numbers don’t make a jump in the second half, which the 5-3 and AFC South co-leading Titans will begin Sunday at home against 3-5 Cincinnati. It is based right now strictly on the “eye test,” a mysterious evaluation wholesale nfl authentic jerseys device normally invoked by college basketball and football selection committees when needed to justify controversial choices.
One drive from Sunday’s 23-20 win over the Ravens, and one play in particular on that drive, lend data to the belief. Mariota had just committed a mistake that let Baltimore back into the game. He sailed a third-and-4 pass to Rishard Matthews, into the hands of Ravens safety Eric Weddle.
Matthews was covered closely, Weddle was helping over the top and the pass never should have been thrown. The Titans were up 16-6 in the fourth quarter, and it was almost like their second-half futility to that point – 13 plays, 39 yards, one first down – frustrated Mariota enough to take a needless risk.
This is not helping the argument, is it?
Ah, but the follow-up to that play does. Mariota reacted as he always does to mistakes. As he does to most of what he encounters.
“Things don’t get to Marcus,” Titans tight end Delanie Walker said afterward.
“He doesn’t let things like that affect him, that’s one thing about him,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of Mariota. “It never has.”
On the next, absolutely critical possession with the lead now at 16-13, Mariota started things with a slant to Matthews, covered closely again with safety help nearby. It was batted away. Too risky? Maybe. A statement that the pick didn’t rob Mariota of his aggression? Definitely.
He picked up third-and-3 on a quick swing pass to Derrick Henry. Two plays later on second-and-7, Mariota did what winning NFL quarterbacks have to do.
Offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie called a play to take advantage of a Cover 2 look – two safeties deep – from the Ravens, a second-and-long tendency of theirs. Cover 2 means the middle of the field is open. By contrast, Cover 1 (man to man with one safety deep) and Cover 3 (three defenders splitting the deep part of the field in thirds) mean the middle is “closed.”
The Ravens tried to disguise their coverage. Safety Tony Jefferson was the only safety deep as Mariota surveyed the defense. Weddle was close to the line of scrimmage, at linebacker depth, looking like he might be assigned to cover Walker man-to-man on the play. That would not be an ideal matchup (though throwing to Walker in any situation is usually a good bet).
A half-second before the snap, Weddle bailed and took half of the deep part of the field. Jefferson had the other half. Cover 2. Middle of the field open. Linebacker C.J. Mosley had man coverage on Walker underneath.
Mariota saw it and exploited it, with rushers in his face, a bang-bang read and precise throw that went for 25 yards and set the Titans up for the touchdown to ice the game. It had to be precise – Jefferson was there to pop Walker as he gathered the ball. Even when the diagnosis and execution are there, throwing windows are often tiny in the NFL.
“It was just perfect,” Walker said of the play. “That whole drive, Marcus put us in great situations. He’s the heart of this offense.”
It was just one play on one possession. But it was the vision of a seasoned quarterback rising to a pressure moment. He did the same countless times last season. But he also has more control at the line this season and made a key check on the next play – diagnosing man coverage – to get DeMarco Murray 17 yards on a swing pass.
“He just took control of it,” Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan said.
That’s called progress. You can’t find it yet in the numbers, which have been influenced by a hamstring that cost Mariota a game and left him gimpy in two others, and by a sputtering rushing attack. But you can see it if you look closely enough, and Titans coaches are probably going to have to let Mariota show it more in the second half.