After sitting out Week 5 with an injured hamstring, Marcus Mariota returned to action at home for a Monday Night Football battle with the team’s only remaining yet-unplayed divisional rival, the Indianapolis Colts.
This was the famous “from the pocket” game as announced by Jon Gruden, in which Mariota led a comeback victory to put the Titans’ record at 3-3.
But before all of that happened, Mariota threw his fourth interception of the season. In this article, we will break down exactly what went wrong on that play.
(That’s right, Mariota threw his first four interceptions of the season against the three division rival teams.)
If you missed the previous articles, I suggest reading them first before continuing:
- Breaking Down Every Marcus Mariota Interception from 2017: Introduction
- Breaking Down Every Marcus Mariota Interception from 2017: #1 (at JAX)
- Breaking Down Every Marcus Mariota Interception from 2017: #2 (at HOU)
- Breaking Down Every Marcus Mariota Interception from 2017: #3 (at HOU)
Coming out of halftime, the Titans trailed the Colts 13-9. After the defense forced a quick three-and-out, the Titans were given a chance to take control of the game.
On 1st and 10 from their own 26-yard line, it took the Titans one play to turn their 4-point deficit into 10.
John Simon snags this pass from Mariota and takes it to the house for six. Fortunately for the Titans, it was only six, as Adam Vinatieri missed the extra point.
Out of a 5-2 defensive look, the Colts drop back into a Cover 2 Zone.
With five down linemen, the Colts can create confusion amongst the Titans offensive line. They need to be ready for all five guys to rush, or for anyone to drop back into coverage.
In this case, Jabaal Sheard drops into coverage and the rest of the linemen rush the quarterback upon recognition that it is a pass play.
The two outside rushers appear to have edge contain assignments, evidenced by the fact that they don’t simply pin their ears back and go full speed at the quarterback.
Meanwhile, the Titans are in Singleback Ace formation with 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends). Delanie Walker was taking a breather on this play, so we see Jonnu Smith lined up tight to the left of the formation and Phillip Supernaw on the right.
Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews, the two outside receivers, take outside releases on their fly patterns to draw the attention of the curl/flat cornerbacks away from the out-breaking tight ends.
The tight ends are then meant to break towards the sidelines with outside leverage over the inside backers trying to defend them.
The Titans’ playcall should be effective against this coverage. Because of the offensive alignment, the strongside linebacker, lined up inside the formation and off the line of scrimmage, has to cover a lot of ground to reach his zone.
Thus, Mariota’s first read is Phillip Supernaw. With John Simon rushing the quarterback, the inside linebacker Antonio Morrison (#44) has to cover a lot of ground to even be close to Supernaw at the time the pass is thrown.
Meanwhile, Sheard is jamming Jonnu Smith on the other side and the cornerbacks are pressing Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews. Despite the receivers being severely overwhelmed by Indianapolis’s underwhelming secondary, they do their job of opening up space for the tight ends to work.
Even so, I want to draw attention to how badly Eric Decker is beaten on this play by cornerback Vontae Davis.
Eric Decker of course has not yet been signed to any team.
Anyway, as you can see, Supernaw is absolutely the correct read on this play. Mariota makes an instant diagnosis of the coverage, finds the open man, and delivers the pass on time.
Unfortunately, recognizing the coverage and making the correct read are not the only components to a successful NFL passing game.
What Went Wrong
The number one thing that went wrong on this play was simply Marcus Mariota’s pass being too low to make it over the defensive line.
Granted, John Simon makes a terrific read on this play. He doesn’t overpursue as an edge rusher. After a brief chip on Supernaw, Simon nearly loses his footing as he sets up in contain. He recognizes Mariota is looking to throw the ball and jumps up, extending into the passing lane to not only get a hand on the pass but actually haul in the interception.
This play is very reminiscent of the Titans’ horrid 2016 streak of allowing defensive turnovers to be returned for touchdowns against them.
This also marks the second consecutive interception of the season that occurred on a one-play drive for the offense.
While it is undoubtedly a great defensive effort, it’s ultimately Mariota’s fault that this play was able to be made. From a defensive lineman’s standpoint, Mariota’s eyes are very telling here. Against air, it would be a perfect pass. But NFL games aren’t played against air.
Some people will wonder if DeMarco Murray should’ve done more to take John Simon out of the play. The answer is... maybe. But it’s not really the back’s responsibility in this instance to hunt down a defensive linemen. The back is supposed to read the defense and pick up any free rushers that have a shot at getting to the quarterback.
Maybe Murray could’ve moved forward more and taken out Simon, but that would’ve put him at risk of letting another player through.
I do feel that Murray overpursued a bit and got stuck in “no man’s land” a little too near the edge of the pocket. At that point, maybe he should’ve just plowed through Simon. He really wasn’t prepared to help Josh Kline handle Henry Anderson.
But it would be letting Mariota off the hook too easily to put any blame for this interception on DeMarco Murray. Mariota needs to avoid throwing a pass that is easily batted down (or intercepted) by the defensive line. Credit the defender for making a great play, but blame Mariota.
In case you’re worried that Mariota has a problem with batted passes, I crunched some numbers that should alleviate any concern. Mariota threw a total of 7 passes that were batted down at the line last season according to Pro Football Focus. This gives Mariota a batted pass percentage of 1.55% in 2017, good for 12th-best in the NFL. Not a huge concern.
(For reference, Blake Bortles had his passes batted down on 2.86% of attempts last year. Interestingly, shorter quarterbacks Drew Brees and Russell Wilson had the 3rd and 5th-best batted pass percentage with .93% and 1.08%, respectively, of their pass attempts knocked down.)
I’ll skip the “What Mariota Should Have Done” section here and just reiterate that Mariota simply needs to make a better throw on this play. All in all, this could be considered a “fluky” interception.
Mike Mularkey was asked the day after the game about the interception. Here’s what he had to say via Titans Online:
(on if DeMarco Murray needs to engage John Simon on Marcus Mariota’s interception, or if it was just a bad throw)
Simply a good play by (John) Simon. That’s not one of those where the blind’s gaping and the backs cutting, that’s a protection, he’s got more than one guy he’s responsible for. We would’ve liked to see him step up more, but I say it’s a better play than it was anything. He was kind of stumbling, staggering there on the release of (Phillip) Supernaw and just made a good play.
This interception is another example of a defender making an outstanding play on the ball to force a turnover.
The good news to takeaway from this play is that Mariota didn’t force this pass while missing an open checkdown option, and his footwork is fine. The bad news is that he obviously needs to be better than this.
Stay tuned for the breakdown...