This will not be a traditional film review, because, in my mind, Sunday was not a typical Titans performance. The focus will be exclusively on Mariota. As the season rolls on, we'll dig into other aspects of the team.
I’ve been here before. Brimming with optimism. I remember it from last year coming out of week one. The analyst in me wants to temper expectations, being that it’s just one game. Yet, this game was….different. Of course, a look at the scoreboard reinforces this point, but beyond this there was a level of execution offensively that - if we’re being totally honest - we haven’t seen in over a decade.
I should clarify: Our quarterback showed a level of execution that we haven’t seen in over a decade. Our rookie quarterback. In his first NFL game.
That statement may scream hyperbole, but I believe it to be the truth. Some of that has to do with the state of our QB position over the last 10 years, but much of it has to do with Mariota.
I was bullish on Mariota during the draft period. I thought he looked like the best player in the draft, and the best QB to come out in a long time. Even still, nothing could have prepared me for this past Sunday.
On Monday, I broke down the early touchdown to Wright.
You can read about that play here. It's probably a good place to start.
The Titans did a good job of mixing in "traditional" NFL looks with packaged plays from the Oregon scheme. Before the game, my hunch was that we'd see some things that hadn't yet been put on film. Even though I had some expectation of wrinkles, I didn't expect the breadth of which was shown on Sunday.
Let's take a look at the near touchdown pass to Fasano as an example of adopting some of Oregon's plays.
Tampa Bay typically runs a cover 2 defense. In this defense, the cornerbacks are the force players. What this means is that, on plays to the outside, the corners have run responsibilities. It's their duty to make the play, or to spill it back inside to help. Each coverage has a different force player on the edge, which is a long topic on it's own. For now, the important point is that if a rusher gets to the edge in this play, it's Alterraun Verner's responsibility to contain him.
The Titans run a zone read with a pass option. The run is just a basic outside zone play with the backside TE sneaking out into the flat as a passing target. There are two reads here. First, Mariota will read the EMLOS (end man on the line of scrimmage). If he crashes on the running back, Mariota will keep it. If he stays home, Mariota gives it off.
The end steps down to defend McCluster. Mariota and McCluster are at the mesh point where Mariota must make the decision to keep or give. He correctly keeps it.
Now, the second read. Remember, Verner is the force player. And, at this point, he's in a terrible bind. Mariota is his run responsibility, but Fasano is also his coverage responsibility as the flat corner. If Verner cheats up, Mariota passes to Fasano. If Verner sinks on Fasano, Mariota keeps it.
"That play is impossible to stop — it’s impossible," Sensabaugh said. "I don’t know how to stop it. I’m pretty sure if Vern didn’t come off (Fasano), Marcus probably could have run for 20 or 30 yards anyway. So Vern had to come off coverage and he made a heck of a throw.
"As a defender it’s impossible to stop it, I guess unless the defensive end helps you or something. But one guy trying to cover two men — that’s a lot to ask."
Verner cheats up, and Mariota delivers to Fasano who has a wide open field in front of him.
Adapting the offense to Mariota's skillset is an encouraging sign, especially with Whisenhunt's history of sticking to his guns when it comes to keeping the core components of his system in place. It doesn't come as much of a surprise, though. Mariota can execute the baseline concepts within the framework of a traditional offense. And, for players that can operate the core offense, Whiz has a history of adapting scheme to the player. This is precisely what we saw Sunday. The general framework was still there, but a few tweaks were mixed in that really took the offense into overdrive.
To that point, it wasn't so much the packaged plays that jumped out at me. It was the execution we saw from Mariota in traditional concepts that really took the offense to a different level.
On the Titans first drive, they faced a 3rd and 10. Walker had an intermediate read on his route, which is where Mariota elects to go with the ball. Here's what Walker had to say about the play:
Tight end Delanie Walker pointed to a few examples in Sunday’s game. On the Titans’ first drive, they faced a third-and-10 from their own 26-yard line. On a play called "Ocean," Walker made the decision to "sit down" his route underneath the zone coverage, an adjustment that Mariota expected to see without needing to communicate the change. Two defenders converged on Walker, but Mariota confidently stood tall in the pocket and placed his throw high, knowing it was the spot where only Walker could go up and get it. The result: A 22-yard gain, setting up the 52-yard touchdown to Wright on the next play.
Both defenders are breaking on the ball. Mariota places the throw high where only Delanie can make a play on it.
The beauty of the throw is beyond just the placement, however. Mariota is fast with his eyes. Certainly faster than his age would suggest. Wright was also a viable option here, but had a flat footed corner with the potential to make a play on his flag route. Mariota quickly moves to his next read and delivers with precision when he sees a window.
The next play we'll review is my favorite throw of the entire game. On 2nd and 5, the Titans are in 11 personnel with trips right. The two interior receivers, Douglas and Wright, run switch verticals. The switch also functions as a rub, and ends up freeing Douglas.
All 22 and endzone view to give a better perspective. The design of the play is to bind the single high safety. Wright gets vertical on one side of him, and Douglas on the other. You can see from the endzone view that Wright is the first read here, but the linebacker sinks on the route. The second this happens Mariota has the ball out to Douglas. Moreover, he's thrown Douglas open by leading him inside and out of the reach of his defender.
This quickness with reads is perhaps the largest distinction between Mariota and his predecessors (which also includes Mettenberger). His processing speed is at a level rarely seen by a rookie. Some had fears about Mariota throwing into tight windows coming out of an offense that often had players running wide open. Throws like this help to put those fears to bed.
The final play we'll look at is the goal line throw to Walker to end the half.
Titans line up in 23 personnel (2 backs, 3 TEs). It's a very basic play. Walker runs a spot route, and Fowler runs a flat route. Prior to this play, on other goal line looks, the Bucs ran man coverage. Douglas scored on a slant earlier in the game against man coverage. So, I think the expectation was to see more man which would have allowed Fowler to out leverage the inside defender to the flat.
The play doesn't work out this way, but Mariota quickly diagnoses it and throws a strike to Walker.
Whisenhunt cited a touchdown pass last Sunday in which Mariota threw to a secondary receiver, tight end Delanie Walker, when his primary receiver was covered and the Buccaneers gave Mariota a defensive look that he hadn’t seen in practice.
"Quickly he assessed it and went to the second one, which was Delanie, and it was a quick throw and an accurate throw," Whisenhunt said at a news conference Monday. "And that’s not always easy to do for a young guy. … Some of these things that we do, they have answers or they have counters that are built in. So it’s a matter of processing a lot of things pretty quickly and getting to the next thing. Some of them, we’ll change up. Some of them, we’ll keep with it, knowing we can go to the next option and it has a chance to work, too."
For a QB in his first start, the ability to identify this change, make the adjustment, and throw a strike is important. In the scope of his play Sunday, this play isn't near the top, but it highlights what's been missing in the Titans offense for so long. The little things. Not just the highlight plays, but checking the basic boxes.
That's the real story here. It's not a flashy Sportcenter highlight. It's not a QB hiding behind gimmicks. It's a quarterback executing with such precision and speed that everything begins to look easy. Designed plays aside, Mariota put together one of the best rookie QB performances in recent memory. It's that execution that's inspired the confidence of his playcaller. And, the reality is, the things we saw Sunday are just scratching the surface of what they can potentially do together.