Coming into the season, Marcus Mariota’s place among the NFL’s next generation of rising superstar quarterbacks looked secure. The 2014 Heisman winner was coming off of a breakout 2016 campaign, where he’d not only avoided the dreaded sophomore slump but had taken a giant step forward, throwing 26 touchdowns and just nine picks while adding two rushing scores before a grisly Week 16 fibula fracture cut his season short. With that impressive performance, he’d helped transform the Titans into a playoff contender while establishing himself as a top-five fantasy football factor.
Year 3, however, has not gone as many had hoped or expected for Mariota. Sure, Tennessee has won five out of its past six games—pushing its record to 7-4, where the Titans sit atop the AFC South and currently hold the no. 3 seed in the AFC playoff picture—but through 12 weeks, the young signal-caller’s career arc has flattened out. In fact, saying that Mariota’s development has plateaued might be overly generous; his efficiency numbers have nose-dived and his turnover totals have skyrocketed. Over the past four weeks, the face of the Titans franchise has shown few signs he’s going anywhere but the wrong direction.
So what should we make of Mariota’s struggles? Is he just in a slump? Is the play calling or scheme to blame? Is that hamstring injury, suffered in Week 4, still affecting his play? Or should we be worried that what we’re seeing from the third-year signal-caller portends bigger and long-term issues for his career?
Mariota’s traditional stat line this season paints the picture of a player that’s struggled in pretty much every area: His 79.1 passer rating ranks 29th league-wide; his 63.1 percent completion rate ranks 15th; his 2,273 yards rank 20th; his nine passing touchdowns—tied with Joe Flacco, Jacoby Brissett, and Carson Palmer (who’s been out since Week 7)—rank 26th. And most distressing, his career-high 12 interceptions this year, eight of which have come in his past four games, are tied for second-most in the NFL, behind only the Browns’ DeShone Kizer.
But Mariota’s season hasn’t been solely defined by mediocrity. Dig a little bit deeper and it’s clear where Mariota’s thrived and where he’s really struggled. He’s actually been one of the league’s best passers off of play-action fakes, when he can use the threat of a run to manipulate defenders and find openings for his receivers downfield. On those plays, he’s thrown for 841 yards (sixth), seven touchdowns (tied for third), and just one interception for a league-high 132.8 rating, per Pro Football Focus. The only problem is that the Titans still aren’t leaning heavily enough on play-action within their passing game, utilizing it on just 24.4 percent of their pass plays, which ranks 11th league-wide. (For reference, Deshaun Watson ran play-action fakes on a league-high 30.3 percent of his pass plays, and Case Keenum’s 28.7 percent play-action rate ranks second.) On the other 75.6 percent of the Titans’ called pass plays, Mariota’s thrown just two touchdowns (34th out of 35 qualifying passers) this year to go with 11 interceptions (34th), averaging 6.2 yards per attempt (27th) while notching a passer rating of just 61.9 (34th). Teams can’t run play-action every play, and it doesn’t really work in third-and-long and in situations where the opposing defense knows you’re not going to run, but Titans head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive play-caller Terry Robiskie could help their young quarterback by going to the play-action passing game a little more often to keep the defense guessing and give Mariota more of the throws he clearly feels comfortable making.
The Titans might consider changing up their play-calling tendencies, as well. Despite a self-styled “exotic smashmouth” moniker, Tennessee has maintained a pretty strict adherence to a run-first identity, and the rate at which the Titans run on first and second downs (52 percent, per Sharp Football Stats) is higher than all but six other teams. Sure, it helps that they run cornerback Adoree’ Jackson on a jet sweep every now and again to throw off the defense and stress them laterally, but the Titans’ overreliance on the run game makes them predictable on early downs.
The Titans offense has another big tell: whether or not they’re in shotgun looks pre-snap. When Mariota lines up under center (51 percent of the team’s offensive snaps this year), the team maintains a modicum of unpredictability, passing the ball 30 percent of the time (16th league-wide). On those dropbacks, Mariota’s completed 71 percent of his passes for 886 yards (11.7 yards per attempt), with six touchdowns and one interception for an NFL-best 130.7 rating. When the team goes to its shotgun looks (49 percent of their offensive snaps), though, the Titans throw the ball 85 percent of the time, the fifth-highest rate league-wide. Defenses can all but bank on a pass coming downfield from those formations, and that’s thrown Mariota off. In shotgun formation, he’s completed just 60 percent of his passes with three touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a 62.0 passer rating (42nd of 46) on the year.
Mularkey was hired in part because of a promise to better protect the franchise’s most important player, and in some ways, he’s certainly delivered. Mariota has faced pressure on just 26.8 percent of his dropbacks this year, the fourth-lowest rate in the league. But here’s the catch: It hasn’t helped. Despite that protection up front, the third-year signal-caller has struggled with accuracy, touch, and decision-making—and his numbers this year when kept clean in the pocket are alarmingly bad. On dropbacks without pressure, Mariota’s completed just 65.3 percent of his passes (30th out of 39 qualifying passers), with six touchdowns (28th) and 10 interceptions (second worst) for a 78.6 passer rating (37th out of 39), per Pro Football Focus. The SkyCam footage NBC was testing out in Week 11 gave us a new, illuminating point of view on what a horribly sailed pass looks like. With a clean pocket, Mariota had time to step up, survey the defense, find the open man, and deliver a pass. He simply missed. Badly.
Later in that 40-17 loss to Pittsburgh, Mariota again stepped up into a clean pocket with a clear line of sight and delivered the ball much too late, giving Steeler cornerback Coty Sensabaugh an easy pick.
Mariota threw two more picks that night, and while it would be easy to write that performance off as just a bad game with a few bad throws, it wasn’t the first time we’d seen an abundance of head-scratching passes from the third-year pro. Against the Ravens in Week 9, Eric Weddle picked Mariota off when the Titans’ quarterback badly overthrew his receiver into double coverage; against the Texans in Week 4, he threw an ill-advised and inaccurate pass down the other sideline for a pick.
In that same Houston matchup, Mariota seemed to predetermine where he was going with the ball before the snap, and that led to another turnover. When he dropped back to pass, he first looked right to try to keep Texans deep safety Andre Hal in the middle of the field so he could pass to the left. Hal didn’t take the bait, though, which Mariota failed to recognize; he lofted it up right into Hal’s waiting hands.
The Titans’ opportunistic defense has picked up a lot of the slack over the past month and has done enough to cover for the team’s offensive struggles, both in the passing attack and in the run game, where DeMarco Murray’s effectiveness has fallen off a cliff along with Mariota’s accuracy. But if Tennessee is going to have a real shot at making a postseason run, the team will need its quarterback to turn back into the guy that we saw most of his first two seasons, the guy that can clearly still make touch throws deep downfield in the only spot his receiver can catch it.
There’s no easy quick fix, and the stats and tape work together to illuminate the complexity of his struggles. Tennessee would do well to lean more heavily on the things that Mariota’s proved to excel with this year, and it could kill a few birds (like struggles in shotgun and issues throwing without play-action) with one stone by lining up under center and throwing off play-action on first and second down at a higher rate, for instance. (While they’re at it, maybe give Derrick Henry the lead-back role.) Of course, no play-calling changes are going to matter unless Mariota can rein in his accuracy and the issues with decision-making. We've seen Mariota make enough tight-window throws in his short career to know that he’s capable of doing it—hell, even in his worst games this year, he always seems to make a few—but the team just cannot win when Mariota’s giving the ball away. Until he proves he can take care of the football, Mariota will remain a fantasy football bust—and the Titans will remain an afterthought in the conference.