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Wrapping Up the 2017 Marcus Mariota Interception Breakdowns

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Conclusions from a forgotten series...

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texan Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Over the summer I embarked on a rather ambitious quest - too ambitious, as it turns out - to break down in detail every single Marcus Mariota interception from 2017 in an effort to uncover the quarterback’s remaining flaws and pin down the blame for those interceptions, whether it fell on Mariota, the receivers, or the playcalling and overall offensive philosophy.

Sadly, I didn’t have the time I’d hoped for at the outset of that series, and thus the project fell by the wayside.

I now want to simply wrap up that analysis with a much less detailed look at the interceptions I never broke down, and give my final conclusions before the 2018 season kicks off on Thursday night.

If you want to go back and read the previous existing breakdowns, here are the links:

I had already dissected 6 of Mariota’s 16 interceptions from 2017. So very quickly, let’s go through the remaining ten...

Interception #7: 1 of 4 at Pittsburgh

Just a high, off-target throw from the quarterback. There was a mechanics breakdown here (thanks to Coach Gamble, @Gamble_15 on Twitter, for his insight):

Mariota didn’t plant his backfoot fully, disrupting his ability to drive through this throw. On ‘sit’ routes like this one by Matthews, it’s especially important for the pass to take a “high-to-low” path, here it instead goes “low-to-high.”

Interception #8: 2 of 4 at Pittsburgh

On this one, the wide receiver, Corey Davis, does not come back to the ball. Davis needs to use his body as a shield and stay between the ball and the defender. He fails to do so.

However, while Corey Davis could’ve made a better play to prevent this interception, Marcus Mariota also is late to release the pass. He needs to be throwing this before Davis makes his break. You can see he hesitates to release the pass, as if he doesn’t trust that his receiver will be where he needs to be.

I’m assigning 50-50 blame here between Davis and Mariota.

Interception #9: 3 of 4 at Pittsburgh

On this one, I actually think Mariota does a nice job progressing through his reads and working to extend the play in the pocket, eventually trying to hit Davis running across on the deep dig route.

Unfortunately, Davis again fails to use his body as a shield and allows the cornerback to disrupt the pass, which gets knocked into the air and picked off.

The pass was slightly behind the mark, but I don’t place the blame for this throw on Mariota. Davis needs to help his quarterback more than he does here.

Interception #10: 4 of 4 at Pittsburgh

From Mariota’s throw, I’m assuming that Walker has an option route where he could sit down in the zone or continue across the field. Mariota thinks one thing, Walker thinks another. Without knowing the specifics of the option built into this play, I can’t blame this interception on Mariota. The defender was fairly close behind Walker, but the pass would’ve been completed with either choice if the two Titans had just been on the same page.

Interception #11: 1 of 2 at Indianapolis

This is one of the few plays in the Mularkey-Robiskie playbook that actually utilized a bunch set to create open space. Here, the trips-left alignment frees the entire right side of the field for Harry Douglas to run to. This is the type of route that a receiver can win with pure speed.

Of course, Harry Douglas doesn’t possess “pure speed” to create that separation, and that combined with a poorly thrown ball resulted in the miss. The fact that this ball is then intercepted is actually a pretty phenomenal play by the defender to scoop it off the turf. I liken this one to the John Simon interception (#4) in that, yes, Mariota should’ve thrown a better pass, but ultimately you have to give credit where it’s due, and this really is a fantastic defensive play.

Interception #12: 2 of 2 at Indianapolis

I have no idea how this would’ve played out if Taywan Taylor had kept his feet, but him falling down allowed the safety to easily make this interception uncontested.

I don’t blame Mariota for this turnover, although I’m not sure the pass would’ve been completed even without Taylor falling down on the route.

Interception #13: 1 of 2 at Arizona

The simple diagnosis is that this appears to be a miscommunication between Mariota and Matthews. We don’t know if Matthews has a post/seam option, but he definitely runs a seam route while Mariota throws the post route.

The Cardinals appear to be running zone coverage, tipped off by Eric Decker’s motion with no defender following him. The Cardinals inside defensive backs have SCF responsibilities (meaning they first defend the “Seam” route, if it’s not there, stay in the “Curl” area, and then come up to tackle in the flat if necessary), so they carry Matthews’ and Decker’s routes upfield.

IF Matthews had the option to run the seam, he did so correctly. He is right to convert his route against a single-high safety like that. Mariota likely threw the route as called in the huddle, a post. Seems pretty similar to the preseason play that caused massive panic among Titans fans where Mariota missed Davis.

Ultimately, without knowing the playcall, we can’t attribute blame to Mariota implicitly. I’ll chalk it up to a miscommunication.

Special thanks to Superhorn for his input on this play.

Interception #14: 2 of 2 at Arizona

The Cardinals fooled Mariota with their coverage on this one. Delanie Walker easily beats the linebacker matched up on him, but unfortunately, this isn’t man coverage by the defense.

The Cardinals set up like they’re going to be in single-high man, but they quickly transition to a Cover 2 shell. The strongside linebacker runs first with Philip Supernaw, possibly adding to Mariota’s perception of man coverage. That strongside backer, reading the quarterback’s eyes, peels off of Supernaw to stay in his zone, placing him squarely in the passing lane of Mariota’s attempted throw to Walker. Clearly Mariota’s fault.

Interception #15: vs Los Angeles Rams

The Titans here run a classic Shanahan “Yankee” concept (Y-cross), which typically features a frontside post combined with a backside deep crosser.

Often, a tight end or H-back will run a very shallow route on the frontside to occupy the attention of the strongside linebackers. Watch the Shanahan-led 49ers execute this play against a similar defense here:

Pay close attention to how the linebackers react in both of these examples.

Because the Titans have no distraction in the flat, the linebacker is free to drop straight back into the passing lane and easily intercept the pass.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely Mariota’s fault for not seeing the defender waiting for this throw. He should’ve pulled it down and escaped the pocket, looking to dump it off to DeMarco Murray. But I do think having a tight end run to the flat here, instead of keeping him in to protect, would’ve massively helped this play and possibly prevented it from being a total disaster.

This concept is a staple of the Shanahan-based offenses, and with Matt LaFleur coming from that coaching tree, I expect we’ll see different versions of this play quite a bit in the coming months.

Interception #16: at Kansas City (Playoffs)

And here we are, the final interception of 2017, which occurred during the Titans road playoff comeback victory at Kansas City.

Marcus Peters quickly recognizes the ‘Sail’ concept on this snap. Corey Davis doesn’t sell his ‘go’ route upfield enough to pull Peters out of the play, so even though Delanie Walker easily beats his man, Peters is there breaking on the pass because of his top-notch processing and recognition skills.

I don’t place the blame squarely on Mariota’s shoulders here. It is partially his fault, but it’s also on Corey Davis to sell his ‘go’ route as more than just a decoy. More than anything, though, it’s another phenomenal defensive play, this one by one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

After looking very closely at every interception and consulting Mike and Superhorn (among others) for help dissecting some of these offensive and defensive concepts, I’ve determined in my own subjective way that of the 16 interceptions, Mariota is fully to blame for 8 of them: No. 1 against Jacksonville, No. 2 against Houston, No. 3 (also) against Houston, No. 5 against Baltimore, No. 6 against Cincinnati, No. 7 against Pittsburgh, No. 14 against Arizona, and No. 15 against Los Angeles.

He shares partial blame for, subjectively, five or six others.

Four of the interceptions were incredible plays by the defense - Telvin Smith’s excellent read (although still Mariota’s fault as the pass would’ve been intercepted regardless), the John Simon interception, the Harry Douglas interception (still a bad throw, but part of Mariota’s horrible luck last season was those throws weren’t incomplete but intercepted), and the Marcus Peters break and read.

The third and fourth Pittsburgh interceptions were just bad luck. The first Arizona interception was either a miscommunication or a misread.

Feel free to watch these plays and form your own opinions about who is to blame, as mine are of course subjective.

But the common themes I noticed as “concerns” about Mariota’s game when going through these plays were as follows:

  • Too aggressive at times - he needs to be okay just taking a safe checkdown/dumpoff and not forcing throws into shrinking windows downfield just to make a play.
  • Improper read of defensive playcalls - too often, Mariota was fooled by a pre-snap disguise by the defense. Often, it was a disguise that appeared to be a single-high man-to-man that then morphed into a Cover 2 shell at the snap. Based on my interpretation of the plays (which could be wrong), Mariota threw an interception on five plays where he thought the defense was in man when they were in zone - the two Texans plays, the Baltimore pick, the awful Bengals throw, and the second Cardinals interception.
  • Be healthy - Because I have to guess on the playcalls, I’m not sure how much Mariota’s injured hamstrings affected his throwing mechanics last season, but they must have played a role in some of his misfires.

So what level should the concern be? I think that is also subjective.

Personally, I’m not very concerned about the future prospects of Marcus Mariota as a quarterback. While I think he was “too aggressive” at times last season, I’d rather him be too aggressive and have to coach him to pull it back than the other way around. I think the addition of Dion Lewis and a passing attack that emphasizes getting the ball to playmakers in space will help with Mariota’s overall mentality about checking down versus forcing throws downfield.

The improper reading of defensive playcalls is probably the most alarming thing, but Mariota is also on his fourth playcaller in as many years. The new offense emphasizes a “take what the defense gives you” approach, which tells me there will be a heavy focus on correctly reading the defense in order to take whatever they are giving you. While Mariota still has work to do in this area, the new offensive staff, particularly Matt LaFleur and Pat O’Hara, have the ability to put Mariota on the right track in this department. We all saw the drastic change in Jared Goff’s executional abilities from 2016 to 2017.

My final conclusion... If Mariota can stay healthy, this new offensive system that caters to his strengths - AKA heavy play-action usage, quick reads to the short and intermediate areas, and rolling pockets/bootlegs to get him on the run - should allow him to elevate his play to a level he has not yet reached since entering the NFL.