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Keeping Up With Marcus Mariota: Week 9, 2018

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Mariota silenced his critics coming off the bye with a masterful performance on Monday Night Football at Dallas.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

So last week my old phone broke and I had to purchase a new one. Because I use the Google Authenticator App to login, it didn’t recognize my new phone and I was unable to get an article in last week.

Coincidentally, I managed to get my account back the week the Titans end their losing streak, so I showed up in time. That about describes the Titans’ 28-14 victory over the Cowboys on Monday Night to put them back in the win column and back to .500.

Coming off the bye, the Titans desperately needed this victory, as the Texans managed to get by on a missed field goal from Broncos kicker Brandon McManus as time expired to win their sixth straight. Marcus Mariota also needed a strong game statistically to silence his critics, and that’s exactly what he did.

People coming away surprised from Mariota’s performance (21/29 for 240 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 picks, and 32 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown) didn’t get a taste of who Mariota can become, but rather who he is. Prior to this game, the Titans’ receivers were tied with the Browns for the highest drop rate in the league according to ESPN. Along with the hand injury he suffered in week 1, don’t you think that’s been affecting his stats just a little bit?

Truth be told, if Tennessee’s receivers catch with the consistency they showed on Monday Night, Mariota would be getting more praise. But since they haven’t been, this game is supposedly a “growth in development” for Mariota or an “outlier game” instead of being used as proof that he’s been consistently capable of making the throws. It’s just that the receivers remembered to bring their hands following the bye.

So despite two giveaways on their first two drives (almost three), the Titans played and looked like the better team all the way through, with Mariota saving one of his best performances yet under the big lights at Jerry World. For more on that, let’s take a look at his Monday Night tape in this week’s edition of Keeping Up With Marcus Mariota.

Taywan Taylor caught a pass in tight coverage you guys!
gamepass.nfl.com

The Titans converted 11 of 14 third downs last night, with Mariota being involved on at all of them (whether passing or running). On the first scoring drive alone the Titans went a perfect 4 for 4 on third down conversions.

One of these third down conversions came on this 3rd and 9 on Tennessee’s own 21-yard line. Taywan Taylor has mostly been a liability when trying to win at the catch point, being responsible for several of Tennessee’s drops this season. But he made up for it with this great catch to move the chains.

Last night ESPN’s broadcasting crew mentioned on a few occasions how impressed they were with Mariota’s anticipation on some of his throws. Indeed, his quick throwing motion is sublime and he has lighting fast instincts whenever he’s cycling the field, much like Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Philip Rivers.

DeMarcus Lawrence, responsible for a strip sack on Tennessee’s first drive of the game, came back to try and get Mariota again on a four-man rush, but Mariota is able to stand tall here and deliver this ball into a tight window to a spot where only Taylor can make a play on it. The result is a perfect throw on third and long to keep the first of four scoring drives on the night going.

THIS JUST IN: Mariota is capable of doing this.
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During the preseason it was noted how Mariota had a significantly high passer rating under pressure, in fact one of the highest, of the 2017 season. There’s been some brutal stretches for this Titans offense on third down, but Mariota made sure to shoot those complaints out of the stratosphere, responding extremely well to pressure.

On another 3rd and 9, Dallas sends a two-man blitz after the fourth-year starter, who recognizes it right away without flinching. Instead, Mariota keeps his eyes up, tucks the ball in slightly, and shuffles left to adjust to the blitz, delivering this ball on time to Corey Davis. Keep in mind this also came on the first scoring drive.

Mariota would eventually convert the final two third down situations of this drive on the ground, one being on read option and the other being on a quarterback sneak. Derrick Henry would finish off the drive extending the ball over the goal line for a touchdown to tie the game.

Mariota would then save his best throw of the night on the Titans’ second scoring drive—coincidentally following the first scoring drive—and it was a beauty.

gamepass.nfl.com

The Cowboys initially look to be sending a six-man rush on this play, but two “rushers” drop back and it turns into a four-man rush on a zone blitz. Mariota is able to process this and knows where he wants to go with the ball.

Keep in mind this is on another third down.

If this play looks a little familiar, it should. Remember back in 2017 at Indianapolis when Mariota made a crazy, mind altering throw to Delanie Walker in quadruple coverage? This is kind of the same throw, expect over the middle of the field and into triple coverage. But that doesn’t make this any less impressive.

Somehow, Mariota puts phenomenal touch on this pass to Darius Jennings, who thankfully catches it for 36 yards and the first down. Isn’t it strange that Mariota’s accuracy looks all the better when his receivers actually catch the ball? It’s an innovative concept, but Mariota’s accuracy has never been the issue with his “development.”

In the previous three games the issues with Mariota came from lousy protection, receivers dropping passes, a poor scheme, or all three at once. But coming out of the bye, Matt LaFleur came in with a more defined approach on his game plan, giving Dion Lewis the majority of the RB snaps and allowing Mariota to take more shots downfield. The protection and rhythm were not there on the team’s first two drives, but since then the team responded beautifully, rarely missing a beat.

This is who Marcus Mariota is, not who he can become. The sooner we separate his completion percentage and raw stats from his actual play, the sooner we can realize he’s actually putting together a fine season. His masterpiece of a performance from last night would show up more consistently if his receivers continue to catch his passes and the game plan continues to be as defined as it was against the Cowboys.

Last season Mariota was required to play perfect in order to carry the Titans to the playoffs in Mike Mularkey’s scheme. Prior to Monday Night, the previous three games required the same feat. But Monday Night’s game showed what could really happen down the road if Mariota and his receivers are on the same page and the scheme allows him to take more shots downfield.

The Titans’ next five games on their schedule are as follows: Vs. New England (I guess they’re an okay team from what I’ve heard...), at Indianapolis, at Houston, vs. the Jets and vs. Jacksonville. The matchup against the Patriots is massive, but the following four are very winnable games. The Texans are 6-3, but have just been barely getting by in their wins, while the Colts, Jets and Jaguars have not played that well this season (although the Colts are picking up a little steam coming off a two-game winning streak).

We’ll know who this Titans team truly is these next five games and how much help they can give Mariota. But if last night’s victory is of any indication, they’re attempting a step in the right direction with a quarterback coming off an excellent display of quarterbacking.