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Breaking Down Every Marcus Mariota Interception from 2017: #2 (at HOU)

Let’s take a closer look now at Mariota’s second interception of the 2017 season.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Mariota’s second interception of 2017 came in Week 4 on the road against another division rival, the Houston Texans. For the next article in this series, we’ll take a closer look at that play.

If you missed the previous articles, I suggest reading them first before continuing:

The Situation

Coming off of consecutive weeks of “slow starts” (6 first half points against Jacksonville, 9 first half points against Seattle), the Titans were looking to get things going quickly in this Week 4 divisional matchup with Houston, sitting at 2-1 on the season.

Adoree Jackson’s kickoff return gave the Titans a 1st-and-10 at their own 22-yard line to start the game. After his first-down pass was batted down at the line, Mariota gained 4 yards on an RPO keeper to set up 3rd-and-6 with 14:10 to play in the 1st quarter.

What Happened

The Texans showed a single-high defensive look pre-snap. Mariota looked left and fired a pass for Delanie Walker...

After the snap, the Texans move to a Cover 2 shell. The Titans have a Cover 2-beater play called. So why was the end result of this play a turnover?

The Playcall

In 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end), out of a shotgun trips bunch set, the Titans give Mariota a three-level high-low read route combination.

Rishard Matthews and Taywan Taylor are essentially running curl routes, but because the formation is so condensed, the route stems are angled towards the strongside sideline.

Delanie Walker has a flag (or corner) route, with Decker running a square-in (or deep dig) on the backside of the play. DeMarco Murray holds in the backfield for a moment, looking to pick up any blitzers, but leaks out after seeing the Texans only bring 4 pass rushers.

Meanwhile, the Texans are attempting to deceive Marcus Mariota and the Titans offense by disguising their coverage before the snap. They lined up with one deep safety and seven players at or near the line of scrimmage.

After the snap, the Texans dropped the entire weakside of the line into coverage and only rushed 4. Look how much ground linebacker Zach Cunningham (in the middle) has to cover.

Despite the disguised coverage pre-snap, the Titans called play should be effective in this situation with two corners conflicted on the strong side of the field.

The strongside curl/flat corner has to decide whether to cover Taywan Taylor on the short route or drop back with Rishard Matthews. The nickel corner has a similar conflict between Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker. Both corners choose to cover Matthews. This leaves Delanie Walker open with the safety over the top.

Mariota’s reads progress high to low, starting with Walker. If the cornerback drops to take away Walker, he moves to Matthews. If the corner on Matthews had stayed in the flat zone, Matthews is open. If not, he moves to Taylor. Excluding the safety, there’s two defenders to cover three receivers.

In this instance, Taylor would be catching the ball well short of the sticks with at least two defenders to beat before picking up a first down, and the Texans know this. That’s why he’s left open.

According to the play design, Walker is the first read, and he is open. So technically, Mariota makes the “correct” decision.

What Went Wrong

While the route combination works in theory to beat this defense, the routes are very compressed, which makes for an extremely limited window for Mariota to throw to.

After diagnosing where to go with the ball, it’s on Mariota to deliver an accurate pass into this very condensed window - the throw must travel over the heads of the cornerbacks but drop before it reaches the closing safety.

Although it’s a very difficult pass to complete, it is actually a throw we’ve seen Mariota make countless times in his career.

This beautiful throw from 2016 demonstrates Mariota’s pinpoint accuracy and ability to drop the ball into a spot.

Unfortunately, with J.J. Watt and Marcus Gilchrist collapsing the pocket, Mariota doesn’t step into his throw, and the pass sails.

So a throw that needed to be extremely accurate to be completed ended up traveling too high for its intended target, and Andre Hal tracked the ball to snag the interception.

The overthrown ball is the ultimate reason that this pass is intercepted. It’s not a bad read, and it wasn’t the fault of his receiver. It is, however, an example of the offensive design requiring Mariota to be perfect in order to function.

What Mariota Should Have Done

In this instance, Mariota could’ve done things a bit differently to avoid this interception.

The obvious improvement is to just deliver an accurate pass to his target. The throw isn’t off by much, but the margin for error is too slim to allow for any wiggle room.

The alternative option was to not attempt this extremely tight-window throw. That area of the field was pretty congested to begin with, and I suppose it’s possible that Mariota didn’t see the deep safety coming across (although I’m of the opinion that he did see the safety and simply threw an off-target pass).

If Mariota had determined the left side of the field was too crowded, he likely would’ve slid to his right to buy more time in the pocket. That’s when he would’ve (and should’ve) found DeMarco Murray leaking out of the backfield.

The offensive routes against this Tampa 2 defense pulls all of the linebackers and corners away from the short middle of the field, which leaves a huge opening for Murray. He likely would’ve picked up the first down even with no elusiveness or yards gained after contact.

Taywan Taylor’s route really bothers me. It’s completely useless. The Texans know they can leave him there in the flat with full confidence that they can tackle him before he gains the first down, so he isn’t providing anything on this play. His route doesn’t even work to free up other players.

Had Taylor instead been given a “divide” route assignment up the seam (turning this three-level read into a Smash-Divide route combo), he likely would’ve occupied the attention of the safety who picked off Mariota. The “divide” route run out of the trips bunch is especially effective against Cover 2 (remember that for the next article breakdown).

This image from the Smart Football article (linked in the above paragraph) diagrams a Smash-Divide concept, with the inside-most receiver running down the seam.

If Matthews had run his route a tad shorter (stopping at the first down marker), and Taylor had run up the seam, there would’ve been much more space for Mariota to find Walker.

Further, this route combination out of such a condensed formation is very counterproductive and makes life easier for the defense. This type of formation should be used to stress the defense laterally. Having two players sprint towards the sideline and then stop on these curl routes takes away any horizontal spacing advantage.

Lining up Matthews and Walker so close together (rather than splitting Matthews out wide) further condenses an already tight window, as it briefly allows the corner to cover two players as he retreats to his zone.

But regardless of the play design, Mariota needs to make a better pass. His mechanics were bad (not stepping into the throw) and it was a risky proposition to begin with.

As we saw with the last article, the open checkdown option was ultimately the best place to go with this play. Defenses are going to be very conflicted trying to stop this offense when that’s Dion Lewis leaking out of the backfield... Once Mariota learns to take the checkdown, watch out, folks. Again, I expect that to be a huge point of emphasis this offseason.

To be continued in the next article...