This should probably go without saying in today’s NFL, but if the Tennessee Titans want to beat the Denver Broncos on the road Sunday afternoon in the Mile High City, fifth-year quarterback Marcus Mariota needs to be the best version of himself.
Seriously though, there might not be a more Jekyll and Hyde-like quarterback in the NFL than Mariota. Some weeks he looks like an all-world beater. Other weeks, well, he looks like he wouldn’t even start in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football.
Coming out of Oregon, Mariota was arguably QB1 ahead of Jameis Winston in that draft class. Going No. 2 to the Titans, Mariota was expected to be the savior of the Music City franchise. He has been, in spurts. That’s not been good enough, though.
Should Mariota look like he did in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons on the road, well, look out Denver. No De’Vante Bausby in the secondary, Isaac Yiadom playing starter-level snaps again, and facing a team that is run-heavy and can work in play-action?
If Tennessee wants a real puncher's chance on Sunday on the road against a good defense that flew around in Week 5 on the road against a good Chargers offense, they’ll need to get Mariota in a rhythm early with play-action throws, one-read concepts, and routes designed to get the football out quickly.
One problem Mariota has is that he holds onto the football too long, leading to a number of sacks. Throughout his career, I’ve noticed most of the sacks come on plays that take too long to develop down the field.
Against Atlanta in Week 4, I saw just what Mariota could become moving forward if the Titans would stick to the script.
Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith schemed up a great game plan for Tennessee, working in a ton of RPOs and play-action throws early.
When It All Clicks
When Mariota runs the play-action, can fake, reach the top of his drop, whip his head around and fire away, he’s pretty darn accurate.
Sure, rookie wide receiver AJ Brown does the rest of the work on this 55-yard touchdown to make it 7-0 Titans, but I just love the fluid, on-time drop and throw by Mariota. It looks pro-caliber.
An RPO Threat With His Legs
Working off of the RPOs and play-action fakes, Mariota is still so dangerous with his legs. He doesn’t run often, but when he does it’s usually for chunk yardage.
Because of the ground-and-pound style the Titans play, the run fake here to Derrick Henry draws all the attention of the Falcons’ front 7. That allows Mariota, thanks to a great block on the edge, to scamper for 11 yards and a first down.
If Atlanta could have stopped the run earlier in the game with Henry, maybe all of the attention isn’t focused on Henry on the RPO and maybe Mariota doesn’t run for a first down.
It’s cliché to say it every week, but stopping the run is the first priority for Denver.
He Can Throw With Anticipation
When not running play-action and RPOs, Mariota showed the ability to throw guys open with some anticipatory throws, which he’s rarely done in his career.
This fade to Brown for his second touchdown of the game is a thing of beauty. Nobody but Brown can get to this football. That’s great touch, accuracy, and anticipation that Brown will win to that area of the field.
Later in the game, Mariota and former top-5 pick Corey Davis hooked up for a pretty looking touchdown on an anticipatory throw by the former Oregon Heisman Trophy winner.
Mariota lofted this ball to the left sideline well before Davis even reached the top of his stem to break outside on the out route. That’s next-level anticipation. The accuracy of the throw is gorgeous as well.
Those are throws you really only see at the pro level.
Poor Accuracy On The Move
However, when Mariota is bad, he’s very bad. The key to getting the bad Mariota is causing the pocket to break down, forcing him to try and make throws while on the run.
When he’s on the run, he’s surprisingly inaccurate and lacks any semblance of touch despite being a guy known for his mobility.
This throw came a few weeks ago on Thursday Night Football against the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road. The pocket broke down quickly, forcing Mariota to drop his eyes and wiggle free. Once he did that you can almost see the panic in his body language.
If this is a touch pass to tight end Delanie Walker, it’s a touchdown. Instead, he lacks any sort of touch, allowing Jacksonville’s linebacker to get a finger on it, wiping out what could have been a much-needed touchdown for the Titans.
How Denver Wins
The Broncos need to get a consistent rush from the outside and up the middle, and the key is having rushers disciplined to stay in their lanes and force Mariota to hold the football. If they can do that, the Broncos should rack up the sacks on Sunday.
Also, stopping the run early takes away the ability to do play-action, which will force Mariota to read route concepts and, again, hold onto the football longer than he wants to.
Teams have done it for five years now against Mariota and he still hasn’t figured it out. Denver needs to borrow things from the last five years of film and force the Titans to try and win ugly without an efficient Mariota.