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Marcus Mariota’s pocket play is actually his defining trait

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A perspective from an outsider to the Titans

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Being a Cleveland Browns fan for my entire life has allowed me to appreciate good quarterback play whenever I see it.

Most of you guys probably know about my work on Marcus Mariota (It’s why I’m here at Music City Miracles today), so I won’t go into great detail about what you already know about how bad the 2017 Tennessee Titans offense was. Head coach Mike Mularkey and his loyal minion offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie ran an offense from the 70s’, the receivers kept dropping passes, the run game went nowhere, and the trick plays—don’t even get me started on the trick plays—were brutal.

Truth be told, I would probably go into detail about the previous season if not for the optimism provided by new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, previously of the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams provided a forward thinking blueprint for quarterback Jared Goff that made the offense the most explosive in 2017. It should be obvious that LaFleur will easily get a head coaching job if the 2018 Titans offense is also successful.

So with that in mind, LaFleur should provide a change of style in the passing game for Mariota.

The fourth year starter is primarily known as a running quarterback by fans and media. The irony in this is that Mariota’s amazing red zone statistics (47 touchdowns to zero interceptions) would suggest otherwise. I mean, these are 47 passing touchdowns, and I’m pretty sure a large majority of them came in the pocket.

So what’s the deal with this narrative?

Well, it comes from Mariota’s days at Oregon. We all know it was a read option heavy offense that encouraged quarterback runs and had a spread offense. With this, Mariota to this day is still being referred to as just a running quarterback. Besides the fact that it’s not true, what bothers me about this narrative is that running quarterbacks are heavily talked down upon.

I assume this has something to do with running stats not showing up in the passer rating (duh), because passing isn’t the only thing a quarterback can do. Hell, Cam Newton earned his MVP season in 2015 because of a dangerous combination of pocket passing and running.

Besides, Mariota isn’t that great of a runner to begin with. Sure, he’s got the speed, but he doesn’t have the strength and footwork of a guy like Newton on the run. He’s also not as mobile as guys like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or Carson Wentz, so his damage on unstructured plays doesn’t define him.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The truth is Mariota’s pocket play is his best trait, and I’m going to go a step higher with that statement. Marcus Mariota is one of the best pocket passers in football period.

When Mariota came out of college, he drew comparisons to guys like Johnny Manziel and Colin Kaepernick because of his dual threat. However, Mariota’s skill set matches elite pocket passers like Tom Brady and Philip Rivers more than it does Manziel or Kaepernick.

Kill them with quickness.
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The reason I compare Mariota to Brady and Rivers is simple. He combines the quick field processing of Brady with the quick throwing motion of Rivers for a style of passing that’s pleasing to the eyes. He also dominates in the intermediate level of the field like these two greats.

So what’s the first thing people look for in pocket play? Making multiple reads. Needless to say, Mariota’s ability to go through his progressions has gone far under the radar.

On this play action pass, Mariota quickly scans the field after turning his head around. He understands the options downfield are covered, so he holds and progresses through his reads. The cycle at which he progresses is so quick that he’s able to find an open Eric Decker on the right sideline for a first down. Combined with the quick throwing motion, his ability to find another option is done in the blink of an eye.

“This is not a 90s-esque play.” -Jon Gruden
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Another example of Mariota’s quick style of passing is shown on this touchdown to Delanie Walker, again on play action. This time, we get the added bonus of a touchdown under pressure. With the nose tackle in his face, Mariota has limited time to sit back. He’s able to anticipate Walker’s opening and gets the ball out while remaining cool under pressure. It’s a play we’ve come to expect a guy like Brady making, and Mariota’s ability is in the same ballpark.

This should be the foundation for the Titans offense in 2018. LaFleur is extremely familiar with providing an offense that allows his quarterback to get the ball out of his hands on the spot, so he should have little issue making this possible.

This is an excellent running play by a running QB.
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The best quarterbacks in the league are masters in situations that go against their comfort zones, and of course, pressure is the big test. When it comes to standing in the pocket and delivering against pressure, Mariota’s ability is incredible.

Despite facing pressure from the defensive tackle, Mariota’s mechanics don’t break down on this play. He’s not a quarterback that will constantly backpedal in fear of getting hit, affecting the accuracy of his pass. He looks off linebacker Telvin Smith (#50), creating an opening for Walker. The quarterback’s footwork remains smooth in the process, allowing for a beautiful throw under duress into a tight window.

Speaking of which, Mariota is also an outstanding tight window passer, and that’s a good thing because in Mularkey’s offense that’s all he got. The Titans would often sell out and keep a lot of blockers behind the line of scrimmage, and whatever receivers they did have running were isolated and ran predictable vertical routes.

Mariota wasn’t letting Mike Mularkey ruin the Titans chances of making a playoff appearance.
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This is a horrible route combination, and it highlights what Mariota was required to be to make the Titans passing offense work: Perfect. So despite having great protection, there’s still zero margin for error for the quarterback because of the window he’s presented.

Thankfully, perfection is exactly what Mariota provides here. He manages to fit an absolute dime in quadruple coverage for one of the most mind blowing throws of the 2017 season.

It gets better. Inside #8 is a trait that has a chance to go down as one of the most dangerous we will ever see from a quarterback. Marcus Mariota’s absolute defining, trademark ability is how he’s able to move defenses with his eyes while he’s in the process of throwing the ball, or in layman’s terms, executing no look passes. It’s one of the most insane things I’ve ever witnessed from a quarterback, and it can only be truly appreciated on All-22. (as you won’t get a good depiction of it on the broadcast angle)

The two plays I have to show are from 2016. That year showed Mariota doing the no look pass a lot more, but 2017 still showed enough of those that LaFleur can look at the film and implant an offense that heavily encourages this.

When Mariota sees a throwing lane that the defense does not (insert Patrick Star meme here)
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On the broadcast angle, this pass completion looks like busted coverage from inside linebacker (and not former legendary Browns left tackle) Joe Thomas (#48). On the end zone All-22 angle, however, it reveals that this play was all Mariota. Thomas thinks the quarterback is staring down receiver Rishard Matthews. In actuality, Mariota is staring down Thomas.

In doing so, Thomas’ movement shifts him outside, exactly what Mariota wanted. You can tell this is planned because Mariota’s left foot is planted to where he’s throwing Walker open. It’s an insane talent for a quarterback to have, and frankly I’m not sure it can be coached.

This is the same guy that supposedly isn’t a pocket passer?!?!
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But it’s this no look touchdown that may be the finest of Mariota’s career. I’ve already mentioned how lethal he is in the red zone, and he brings his no look talents to this area of the field.

This is just ridiculous. There are four defenders in the middle of the field when the ball gets into Walker’s hands. Walker isn’t open. At least, not for a lesser quarterback, not in the abstract sense. Guys who are supposedly better or on the same level as Mariota wouldn’t come close to attempting a pass like this, let alone make it work.

Doing the same thing he did to Thomas in the previous GIF, Mariota draws the middle linebacker away from the middle of the field as he’s throwing the ball. This creates a tiny gap on the dot as his quick motion releases the pass for the sensational touchdown. A journeyman quarterback doesn’t make this throw. A running exclusive quarterback doesn’t make this throw. Blake Bortles with his slow throwing motion doesn’t make this throw. This is money.

The sooner we move on from the idea that Marcus Mariota is not a pocket passer, the better. Unfortunately, unless he produces the stats he had in 2016 (which were nearly impossible in Mularkey’s offense to begin with), this likely won’t happen. Fortunately, Matt LaFleur looks like a forward thinking coordinator, and for the first time in his career he will have an offensive scheme all to himself.

And LaFleur will get a top ten quarterback at his disposal. With his quick motion, poise, ability to diagnose the field in a flash and his no look passes, Marcus Mariota is a great pocket passer that deserves much more credit than what he gets.