Marcus Mariota’s first interception of 2017 came in Week 2 on the road against the division rival Jacksonville Jaguars.
If you missed the introduction to this series breaking down Mariota’s interceptions, I suggest giving it a quick read before continuing. You can find that article here.
Midway through the second quarter, Titans outside linebacker Brian Orakpo strip-sacked Blake Bortles, and Erik Walden recovered the fumble at the Jaguars’ 39-yard line.
After a Taywan Taylor end-around gained 17 yards, the Titans set up a first-and-ten play at the Jags’ 24-yard line with the score tied 3-3 and 7:40 left in the first half.
Mariota took the snap, scanned the field, and threw an interception into double coverage.
Mariota processes through his progressions quickly and settles on his fourth read, Jonnu Smith. There is clearly a miscommunication between Mariota and Smith on this play, which leads me to believe that Smith had the option of sitting on a curl route or breaking inside on a dig route.
The Titans lined up in 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) in an Ace Tight Shotgun formation. Note how tight to the line the two receivers are.
While it’s possible that Corey Davis and Delanie Walker also have options on their routes (depending on the defensive look), I only noted the option run by Jonnu Smith.
And I’m assuming it’s an option route based on the clear miscommunication between Mariota and Smith. It’s equally possible that Smith simply ran the wrong route entirely.
The Jaguars rushed four with a very standard single-high safety man-to-man defense, including two underneath linebackers with responsibilities likely determined by the offensive routes.
Depending on how Delanie Walker and DeMarco Murray release, the linebackers’ responsibilities could change.
What I’ve drawn above is the way the offensive and defensive calls played out.
Corey Davis is meant to take his man, Jalen Ramsey, vertically out of the play and take with him the free safety Barry Church. This opens up the field for Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews to fill the right side on a “sail” concept and give Mariota a high-low read.
But Myles Jack is matched up with Delanie Walker in man coverage, and Walker’s route carries Paul Posluszny upfield as the two defenders initially bracketed him.
A.J. Bouye has man coverage on Rishard Matthews, and Telvin Smith also starts to crash on Matthews’ drag route.
Then, as Matthews crosses the left hashmarks, Telvin Smith passes that responsibility off to Posluszny, who leaves Walker and moves downhill to take away Matthews on the shallower route.
Had the Jags been in zone, the strongside curl/flat defender would’ve been conflicted. However, because it’s man coverage with the linebacker underneath, the high-low read doesn’t come into play, and Mariota moves on.
On the other side of the field, Tashaun Gipson is manned up on Jonnu Smith. As Jonnu comes out of his route stem, he has a step on Gipson and looks like he could be coming open...
What Went Wrong
Mariota’s first read was deep. If Church had stayed shallow, blitzed, or abandoned the deep zone in any way, Mariota is likely letting it fly for Davis one-on-one down the field.
But the safety takes that option away, so Mariota moves on to Walker. At the time of the read, Walker is bracketed by double coverage.
As Mariota moves to his third read, Telvin Smith comes crashing down on Matthews to eliminate any possible yards-after-catch, and together, he and A.J. Bouye have Matthews double-teamed, as well.
Which brings Mariota to Jonnu Smith, who appears to have a window of open opportunity.
Because Telvin Smith flows towards the strongside, away from Jonnu Smith, Mariota expected Jonnu to sit on a curl route and come back towards the ball. Instead, Jonnu Smith breaks his route inside.
And then Telvin Smith, reading the routes and understanding his responsibilities, lets Matthews run out of his zone and into Poluszny’s territory. Reading Mariota’s eyes, Smith sees that Mariota has moved on from Matthews, so he stops and peels back to follow the quarterback’s sightline, continuing to work underneath on his side of the field.
Jonnu Smith does not make the same read on the play as Mariota and cuts inside. Had he instead come back to the ball (I.e., towards Mariota), he might’ve had a chance to break up the interception. These things happen sometimes when third-round rookies are playing in just their second career NFL game.
Mechanically speaking, Mariota does a nice job sliding in the pocket to maximize his protection. He went through his progressions and found what he thought would be an open man. But he didn’t account for Smith (Telvin, not Jonnu) coming back across the field when he let the pass fly.
Mariota does not step into the throw the way he should. He clearly wanted to fire the ball quickly into a closing window, leaving little time to step into the throw. While it’s technically poor footwork, I don’t think it affects his accuracy on this pass. If you watch closely, you can see that he knows it was a poor decision as soon as the ball leaves his hand.
Ultimately, the root of the problem was not the miscommunication between Mariota and Jonnu Smith, but rather Mariota not recognizing Telvin Smith’s change in coverage. In this single-high man-to-man defensive look with two underneath linebackers, Mariota should’ve known that Smith would be coming back to cover the weakside.
I do think it’s worth noting that had Telvin Smith stayed with Rishard Matthews, the route miscommunication would’ve resulted in an interception anyway because of Gipson’s coverage.
Mike Mularkey was asked about the interception in the post-game press conference. Here’s what he had to say:
(on if tight end Jonnu Smith needs to sit in the zone hole more than complete his route on the play where quarterback Marcus Mariota threw an interception)
He needs to be a little bit deeper. Again, you’re short on the route, that had nothing to do with the throw. Marcus (Mariota) just didn’t see them. Again, even after watching the tape there’s some things we can do offensively to put Jonnu (Smith) in a better position and Marcus in a better position. You can put scheme on that as much as anything, but they defended the play and Marcus didn’t see it.
These comments make sense schematically - if Jonnu Smith had run his route a few yards deeper, it would’ve further stressed the amount of space Telvin Smith was required to cover. But ultimately, I think that detail was irrelevant, as Mariota didn’t throw the ball “too far” expecting Jonnu Smith to be deeper. He threw the ball based on the way the play was unfolding. Again, the bottom line was not seeing Telvin Smith change direction.
What Mariota Should Have Done
In my opinion, Mariota had two alternative options that he could’ve targeted to avoid this interception.
The first would have been to simply throw the ball to Matthews when he got to his third read. There wasn’t going to be much YAC, but given the game situation, score, and the fact that it was first-and-ten, the quick and easy short gain would’ve been perfectly acceptable. A completed pass here would’ve picked up at least 5 yards, and if Matthews can make a move, perhaps more.
I think in Mariota’s processing, he saw the linebacker flowing away from Jonnu Smith and quickly deduced that Smith should be open. However, Mariota should’ve seen Telvin Smith’s movement and not thrown that pass.
At that point, he had another option to avoid throwing an interception; he should’ve moved on to his fifth read.
DeMarco Murray was wide open leaking out of the backfield. A checkdown to him would’ve kept the offense ahead of the chains, even if Murray had been unable to make anyone miss after the catch. Telvin Smith is technically the Jaguars player assigned to cover Murray, based on the side of the field to which Murray ran.
Mariota had plenty of time with good protection to cycle to his next read. With Telvin Smith obviously not covering Murray, Mariota should’ve keyed on the running back.
This will be a common theme throughout these breakdowns. Many of Mariota’s interceptions last year occurred when he tried to fit the ball into a tight window downfield looking for a big play with an open checkdown option underneath.
Incorporating the running backs into the passing game will likely be a point of emphasis for Mariota and the offense this year from the new coaching staff, especially considering the receiving production of Todd Gurley in 2017 and the combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in 2016. I expect Dion Lewis will help with that, as well.
Anyway, interception breakdowns will continue in the next article...