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Breaking Down Every Marcus Mariota Interception from 2017: #3 (at HOU)

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

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

Marcus Mariota’s third interception of 2017 also came in Week 4 on the road against the Houston Texans. For the next article in this series, we’ll examine that pass, his second interception of the game.

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

The Situation

The Texans scored off of Mariota’s first interception of the game, beginning a streak of five straight possessions ending in points. After Adoree Jackson’s pass interference penalty set up Houston at the 1-yard line, Deshaun Watson ran into the end zone to extend the Texans’ lead to 30-14.

The Titans got the ball back with 1:19 left in the first half, all three timeouts, and a chance to start their comeback and take some momentum into halftime.

With an injured hamstring, Marcus Mariota came back onto the field for the Titans first-and-ten play from their own 25-yard line.

What Happened

In what appears to be a very similar play to the last interception, the Texans disguise their coverage pre-snap and roll into a Cover 2 shell. Mariota again looks deep left and again finds Texans safety Andre Hal rather than his intended target.

What’s most concerning about this play is that everything from the defensive coverage to Mariota’s throwing motion to the targeted area of the field looks nearly identical to the previous interception from earlier in this same game.

The Playcall

Tennessee has a similar formation as on the previous interception, but this time, Delanie Walker is the inside-most receiver, Eric Decker is aligned to the outside of the bunch (and doesn’t quite seem to know his assignment), and Taywan Taylor has been moved to the outside on the weakside of the formation.

In the previous interception, Rishard Matthews was the mid-level receiver with a ten-yard angled hitch route. This time, Matthews has what is essentially a corner route, but the stem is meant to mimic that of the previous play. You can see Matthews hesitate as if to sell this as the same hitch route before continuing upfield towards the corner.

Matthews and Decker have a classic smash concept, presenting Mariota with a high-low read. Eric Decker is the lower read, to be targeted if the coverage takes away the deeper pass.

Delanie Walker route makes this a three-man combination, a Smash-Divide concept. This should be familiar, as it is what I suggested the Titans should’ve done with Taywan Taylor on the previous interception. Well, this time, they try it. And it does not work as planned.

The Texans are actually running the exact same defensive look, both before and after the snap.

Presnap look at the Texans defense, showing single-high safety with seven on the LoS and secondary aligned over wide receivers.

After showing the same one-safety set with seven guys ready to rush the quarterback, the Texans drop seven into coverage and form the same Cover 2 shell as before.

Post-snap look at the Texans defense, now in a Cover 2 shell. And again the middle of the field is left uncovered.

Delanie Walker has to read the coverage here, as well. If there is a “middle of the field” safety, Walker would break the route across. Against a two-high look, he continues up the seam, “dividing” the two safeties and the defense in general (hence the name “Smash-Divide”).

The idea behind the Smash-Divide concept is to add another layer of stress to the defensive coverage, especially for the deep safety over the trips side of the formation.

Delanie Walker is the first look on this play. Marcus must read which deep option the safety will take away and then make his choice. In the above still, Matthews is in the process of hesitating in his route stem to create that separation.

Marcus Mariota has a bried chance to let it fly for Delanie Walker. The linebacker on Walker has his back to the quarterback and the safety has his hips pointed towards (and momentum carrying him to) the outside to take away Matthews.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a tight-window throw. But Mariota has shown great abilities to hit players when defenders have their backs to him. I would’ve expected him to drop the ball into Delanie’s arms on a play like this.

Perhaps the opposite safety coming across the field made him pass on Walker (excuse the pun). I wish that Taywan Taylor’s route was a “go” (or “9” or “fly”) up the right sideline rather than having him “dig” back across the field. By Taylor breaking his route inside, it gives the weakside safety the chance to stay within range of defending Walker.

So instead of testing the safeties with a deep seam throw, Mariota moves on to Matthews. We can see from the above still that Matthews does indeed have some room to operate towards the sideline.

The problem is that Mariota takes too long to throw the ball. He really has his choice between Walker and Matthews on this play. Both throws would require accurate, on-time passes, but both targets do have a step of separation. If Matthews is going to be the choice here, Mariota needs to have the throw out faster so that the safety doesn’t have time to get over.

Waiting as long as he did requires a laser pass traveling “on a rope” rather than the lofted touch pass Mariota delivers.

Despite more sloppy footwork from Mariota, the throw itself is fairly on-target and would have a chance to be a big completion if there was no defender present. Mariota, usually great at manipulating defenders with his eyes, fails to “look off” or move the safety before making this throw.

Watching the above GIF in slow-motion, you can see that the Texans ultimately have this play pretty well defended, especially deep. The defensive backs rotate well to take away Taywan Taylor. The safety is coming over to help on Walker, and Andre Hal is defending Matthews.

But underneath, Eric Decker actually has a bit of space, while DeMarco Murray is running completely free out of the backfield.

Mechanically, Mariota’s pass is a tad high, which is likely a product of him yet again failing to step into his throw. There is a bit of a build-up of linemen in front of him, but Mariota really does force this throw unnecessarily. He could’ve slid to his right, maximized his protection, and refocused his attention to the other side of the field rather than attempt this throw.

What Mariota Should Have Done

Again, this interception ultimately falls on Mariota’s shoulders. The play design can beat the defense that is called, but not in the way that Mariota attacks it.

In each of the last two interceptions, the Texans number one goal on defense is to eliminate the deep passing threats. The majority of the defense retreats, some of them downright sprinting away from the ball, immediately after the snap.

In both instances, Mariota looked downfield and, despite the retreating coverage, let his passes fly looking for big gains. With perfect throws and strong, contested catches, the passes could be completed. Unfortunately, Mariota does not achieve perfect ball placement in either instance.

Context is important, so let’s apply some.

On this second interception, the 30-14 score may have played a part in Mariota looking to press downfield.

Additionally, this interception took place after Mariota injured his hamstring diving into the endzone for his second rushing touchdown of the game on the Titans previous drive. This may have contributed to the poor footwork and mechanics.

But despite the score of the game and the injured leg, Mariota should’ve recognized the deep coverage and not attempted such high-risk throws on each of his last two interceptions.

There’s an old saying in sports, and it certainly applies here: take what the defense gives you. This interception occurs on a first-down play with 1:19 left in the half. With all three of their timeouts remaining, the Titans don’t need to pick up 20+ yards on this play.

You can see again that DeMarco Murray is running free underneath after leaking out of the backfield with the nearest defender still about 10 yards away from him. Mariota should’ve dumped it to Murray, let him pick up whatever yardage he could, and then either spiked the ball or used one of the team’s three timeouts to stop the clock.

What’s most troublesome to me is that the Titans’ offensive coaching staff may have neglected to instruct Mariota after his previous interception. You often see quarterbacks sitting on the sideline between drives with their position coaches looking at pictures from previous plays in the game, trying to diagnose what the defense is doing and how best to attack it.

The above image is a still from this intercepted play. The below image is from the previous interception. It looks like a mirror reflection. Below is the image the Titans coaching staff should’ve been showing to Mariota on the sidelines after the first interception.

So is this turnover on Mariota or on the previous coaching staff?

Well, obviously we can’t blame the coaching staff because we have no idea what they were teaching Mariota and the offense. It would be excuse-making to not ask Mariota to shoulder responsibility for this play, and he would tell you the same.

That said, we can deduce from Mike Mularkey’s post-game comments that Mariota is probably not being told to avoid pushing the ball deep.

I don’t want Mariota to become a checkdown Charlie, Alex Smith-like conservative player, but there is a difference between taking shots downfield and forcing tight-window throws into closing spaces when you have wide open options underneath.

Regardless of what the coaching staff was teaching, Mariota should learn from these experiences about the value of checking it down and living to fight another play.

I will say that a luckier quarterback might’ve gotten away with an incompletion here. Andre Hal does a remarkable job securing this ball for the interception, despite Rishard Matthews’ best efforts.

Andre Hal wrestles the interception away from Rishard Matthews.

This won’t be the last time we see a defender make an incredible play to grab a Marcus Mariota interception in this series of breakdowns.

Coach’s Comments

As I referenced above, Mike Mularkey was asked about the two interceptions from this game in the post-game press conferences. His answers were mostly related to this second interception.

From the Sunday post-game presser:

It looks like Mariota’s interceptions are coming off of high passes. What are your thoughts there?

“The second one, he had already done his hamstring, so he really had nothing to step into. That was one of the concerns of playing him in the second half. First one, I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him about it.”

And from the Monday day-after presser:

(on if Marcus Mariota tried to continue to play after he injured his hamstring)

He actually went back in the game after that and threw the interception, as we started the two-minute drill. Couldn’t step into the throw very well. Came out at halftime warming up like he was going to get ready to play. Just wanted to be, we’ve got a lot of football still to play and wanted to be smart with him yesterday.

I’m just pointing out for whatever you think it’s worth that never in either press conference did Mularkey suggest that Mariota and the offense would be better served by occasionally dumping it off to the running back or the checkdown option.

And I want to again point out that I believe the new coaching staff will place great emphasis on getting the ball to playmakers in space, most notably running backs leaking out of the backfield.

Mike Mularkey seemed to trace the cause of this interception to Mariota being unable to step into the throw downfield. I would trace it back even further to the decision to attempt the downfield throw in the first place.

I want to reiterate that with this look, the Texans’ defense is specifically focused on taking away the deep passing game. Whenever faced with this coverage, the Titans offense should be making a concerted effort to take advantage of the open space underneath.

So in each of the first three interceptions now, we’ve seen Mariota not step into his throw while attempting a tight-window pass downfield with an open checkdown option underneath.

It’s certainly not the kind of pattern you want to see, but it is at least encouraging to note that thus far, we’ve only discovered a couple of bad habits that needs breaking (occassionally not stepping into throws and missing open checkdowns), rather than uncovering an array of problems for Mariota and his new staff to sort out.

Will this trend continue with interception four?