What’s Wrong With Marcus Mariota, and How Do the Titans “Fix” Him?

Against the Texans on Sunday, QB Marcus Mariota threw his fifth interception of the season through only four games. The second year quarterback from Oregon has received a lot of criticism from both fans and members of the media, and much of it has been warranted. So far this year, Mariota has thrown the aforementioned five interceptions to only four touchdowns, and has earned a miserable grade of 37.3 on Pro Football Focus, the worst grade among all quarterbacks.

During his Monday afternoon press conference, Titans coach Mike Mularkey was asked about Mariota’s lack of success. When he answered the question, he didn’t address any of Mariota’s problems, but deflected the negative attention to the Titans’ receives, criticizing their route running for not being precise enough. Yes, it can be hard for a quarterback to play well with receivers who are making mistakes, but can a mistake as simple as running the wrong depth on a route affect a quarterback’s play so drastically that he becomes, which Mariota is in the eyes of many, the main reason for his team’s lack of success? It’s the answer to this question that I’ve sought out, and I’ll share my findings here.

First, as anyone should do, I took a look at the film. I went back and watched each of Mariota’s five interceptions in order to better understand what went wrong. Here’s what I found. NOTE: I decided not to include the pick from Sunday’s game at Houston, since it was caused to miscommunication, not poor decision making or bad technique.

Interception #1: Eric Kendricks of the Minnesota Vikings (Pick Six)

Mariota’s first interception of the season came against the Vikings in Week One. The play was a gadget play, similar to what a lot of college teams run. Mariota faked a handoff to DeMarco Murray, then immediately looked for WR Harry Douglas who was running sort of a zig route. From my view in the stadium, it didn’t look like Douglas was anywhere near being open, however with closer look I noticed that Douglas had a lot of space with which to work moving to his right. As you can see, Mariota was being pressured on the play, and the throw was made off of his back foot, resulting in significant inaccuracy. LB Eric Kendricks easily picked the ball off, and returned it for a touchdown.


Interception #2: Glover Quin of the Detroit Lions

Frankly, this ball should’ve never been thrown. I say that for a couple of reasons. First, Rishard Matthews, who I circled, is absolutely blanketed by the speedy and talented Darius Slay, with one of the better safeties in the game, Glover Quin, covering over the top. Also, notice just how much open field Tajaé Sharpe, who I’ve drawn an arrow under, has to work with. With Matthews running a go route with a double move, Tajaé Sharpe would’ve had gobs of space ahead of him, but Mariota decided to throw to Matthews instead. It seems as though Mariota decided at the snap to throw to Matthews, and didn’t properly go through his reads.


Interception #3: Reggie Nelson of the Oakland Raiders 

This is an example of one of the things Mike Mularkey was concerned about, receivers not beating coverage or making contested catches. On this play, every receiver is pretty well covered. But for whatever reason, Mariota decides to force it, and, if not for a bizarre clock error, that play could’ve given the Raiders an extra three points heading into halftime.


Interception #4: Sean Smith of the Oakland Raiders

Blame for this interception is shared between Mariota and his intended receiver, Rishard Matthews. Matthews initially won on his route, beating Sean Smith on a slant. However, his progress across the field was slowed, as Mariota’s throw was slightly behind him. This allowed Smith to catch up to Matthews and ultimately catch the ball himself. Should Mariota have thrown the ball more accurately? Without a doubt. But I have yet to see a Titans receiver make a contested catch during the regular season, and here, Matthews had a chance to do that, or at least keep the ball away from Smith.

From watching the film of Mariota’s first four interceptions, I gathered a few bits of information. First, he tries to do to much, something he admitted to last week. Three out of the four (1, 2, & 3) interceptions resulted from either forcing a pass, or trying to make something out of nothing. Jon Robinson mentioned on Titans Radio last week that he wants to see Mariota throw the ball away more often on busted or well defensed plays, and “live to see another day.” Second, Mariota’s receivers don’t do a fantastic job of helping him out. On three out of the four (1, 3, & 4) interceptions, the intended receiver had a chance to either make a contested catch, or at the very least keep the ball away from the defender. Finally, specifically on these four plays, there is no explosiveness whatsoever in the Titans’ receivers. It almost seems like there is no acceleration going into breaks, and no route run on these particular plays made the defender in coverage turn their hips.

Using the results I gathered from film, I talked to two people who know a lot about running routes, and how the Titans’ receivers can do a better job; Pro Bowl TE Delanie Walker, and head coach Mike Mularkey.

I asked Walker to take me through his process of running a route, from when he lines up to when the whistle is blown. “Once the play is called,” he told me. “The first thing I do when I line up is look at the coverage. That’s going to tell me how I run my route. Next, I focus on the depth my route needs, and find the hash mark that I need to get to. Once the ball is snapped, I run full speed to the point I need to get to, and, once the defender turns his hips, that’s when I break on my route, and I give them a head-fake.” Remember, this is coming from the guy that went for over 1,000 receiving yards last season, caught ninety passes, and is still the Titans’ best receiver. When I watched the film, it didn’t seem as if there were any head-fakes, or any trickery of the sort that actually got a defensive back to turn their hips.

Next, I talked to Coach Mularkey, and asked him what specific things receivers have been doing poorly, and what must be done to correct those things. “It starts with where the receiver lines up, because splits can determine a lot about the route. Depths are very important, and how [a receiver] releases, whether he goes inside or outside when he’s pressed. Then, it’s about what we want him to do at the top of the route, whether it be a speed cut or something else. There’s a lot of little things that go into it, but lining up in the correct spots is most important, and the depth is probably the second most important because it has so much to do with timing, which is especially vital with a quarterback like Marcus who throws with anticipation.”

In the fifty seconds it took Coach Mularkey to answer my question, he gave us the key to understanding Marcus Mariota’s struggles: positioning. On film, though the receivers do look to be a little slow and unable to win on their turns, there’s no way to tell if they’re actually in the correct position or not unless you’re a member of the Titans’ offensive coaching staff. If it is indeed the case that the reason Mariota has looked rattled and miserably inaccurate is the receiver’s inability to actually line up in the correct spot, it’s no wonder the guy has struggled! Mularkey might have come up with the third-greatest scheme that’s ever been run on a football field, (Sorry, Mike, but you’ll never surpass the likes of Bill Belichick and Bill Walsh) but we’ll never know if his players can’t do something as simple as line up in the correct spot. This is something that clearly has to change if the Titans have any hope of winning more than three games this season. Should Mariota be more accurate and more accepting of a play simply not working out, well of course. But he’s the guy that’s spent hours in the building, before everyone arrives in the morning and after everyone departs in the afternoon, to make sure that he fully understands every page of Mike Mularkey’s playbook, which was designed with the goal of being “user-friendly.” And if his receivers aren’t in the spots they’re supposed to be in, they might as well be middle schoolers running around the backyard yelling, “Hey Marcus! I’m open! Throw me the ball!”

I’m not a football coach, so I don’t know how to fix these issues, but it is clearly evident that there are indeed issues to be fixed, and they better be fixed soon.

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