Titans QB Marcus Mariota has taken a step back in year two

The Titans' ground attack and O-line have excelled this season. The Tennessee QB? Not so much.

| 8 months ago
Titans QB Marcus Mariota

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Titans QB Marcus Mariota has taken a step back in year two

In an unexpected twist this season, quarterback Marcus Mariota is suddenly holding back what could—and perhaps should—be a very formidable Tennessee Titans offense.

The team made moves in the offseason to become a power offense, one that could run the ball down the throats of opposing defenses and set Mariota up for success off the back of that; however, the former Oregon Duck just hasn’t been able to do that, and in truth, the team probably hasn’t committed hard enough to that power ground game.

The Titans have run the ball an average of 30 times per game as a team. Three teams have averaged more carries per game, and none have the kind of backfield that Tennessee does (even Dallas only has one stud running back and a top offensive line, not two).

The Titans acquired DeMarco Murray in the offseason from the Eagles, who were eager to part ways with the RB, given how disastrous his first year in Philadelphia had been and the salary they were going to be paying him for that level of production. Tennessee gambled on the 2014 league rushing champion (then in Dallas), and so far this season, the gamble has paid off.

Not satisfied with that, they also drafted Alabama’s Heisman-winning running back, Derrick Henry, in the second round. Henry is 6-foot-3 and 247-pounds, providing an incredibly-bruising force to bring off the bench and hammer defenses that have worn down over the course of the game.

Those two players alone would have done a lot to lift the running game, but the Titans have suddenly happened upon the best offensive line in the game over the first six weeks of the season.

Titans offensive line grades

This might be the single-most unexpected performance of the season so far. Coming out of the 2015 season, the Tennessee offensive line finished 29th in PFF’s rankings. Entering the 2016 season, with the moves the Titans made to strengthen the unit over the offseason, they climbed as high as 25th, but even in the most optimistic of lights, it would have been a struggle to see this line performing as well as it has.

Taylor Lewan has gone from being a disappointing former first-round pick to the best left tackle in the game, as if a switch was simply flicked on in the offseason. Lewan owns a 92.7 overall grade, up from 83.1 a year ago, and 78.6 as a rookie. He was never as bad as many viewed him, but for him to suddenly perform like the best tackle in the NFL is a huge surprise. This season, he has yet to allow a sack or a hit on Mariota, and has surrendered a total of just five QB hurries across six weeks.

On the other side, rookie RT Jack Conklin hasn’t been much worse. He ranks sixth among NFL OTs with an 87.2 overall grade, and is the second-highest-graded right tackle—first if you discount players currently suspended for PEDs.

Conklin was a powerhouse tackle at Michigan State, but was expected to struggle in pass protection early in his NFL career. So far, that couldn’t be further from the case, as he has also not surrendered a sack or QB hit this season, and has given up just nine total pressures.

Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, and Josh Kline have all played well in stretches—and reasonably overall—to give Tennessee one of the league’s best O-lines, and a perfect platform for offensive success.

Despite all of that, Mariota’s play has been dramatically worse than his rookie performance. The last two games have been better, but over the season, he has looked completely uncomfortable, unable to be particularly efficient or accurate in any area.

Even when things are set up well for Mariota, he has been making bad decisions and poor throws. Against the Browns, the Titans opened up with a read-option look, and Mariota kept the ball for a 41-yard scamper up the left sideline. The next play was 1st-and-10 from the Cleveland 34-yard line, and he almost gave it all back with an interception on a simple route combination. Waiting for his intended receiver to clear the inside route on a slant, Mariota never saw the dropping LB Joe Schobert, and threw the ball right to him.

Marcus Mariota poor decision

This is a rookie mistake—only he’s making more of them as an NFL sophomore than he ever did as a rookie.

Some of his struggles are likely a result of his receiving corps, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his play has ticked up with the return of Kendall Wright to the lineup; however, receivers don’t explain plays like the one above.

Having a group of receivers that can’t gain huge separation consistently can be an issue, requiring the QB to be smart with the football because, by definition, he is throwing the ball nearer to defenders than he would prefer; this is more than offset by having one of the league’s best ground games, though, at least on paper, and that’s before you fold in the threat of the QB on option plays. The Titans are averaging 6.0 yards per carry this season on runs that feature a read-option look, and that opening play against Cleveland shows the kind of damage it can do and the extra dimension it provides.

Right now, Mariota has one of the best situations in the league for a quarterback to be in. He can ride a powerful running game, is not under a lot of pressure (28.9 percent of dropbacks, just the 19th-highest in the league), and only needs to be a game-managing QB for this team to be successful in a weak AFC South.

If you had told the Titans before the season that the running game and offensive line would be this good at this point in the season, they would have been expecting big things from the offense overall—and from Mariota. So far, however, the QB has been the cap on the team’s success, not the catalyst for even more.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Samuel Myers

    Couple of things — since when has a 78 overall been a bad grade for a rookie, or 83 a disappointing grade for a second-year player? Lewan is in year three, has never had a bad season grade, and has improved each year. There’s nothing “disappointing” about it, and further, it’s not like “a switch has been flipped”, he has simply developed in the way that many talented players do — “disappointing former 1st round pick” gives the impression he’s played 4+ years and never turned a corner. Your own grades belie that statement.

    In addition, on a more minor note, Dallas has a pretty damned good backup. You could do a hell of a lot worse than Alfred Morris, who has looked very good when given opportunities behind a competent offensive line, both in the past and this year. For all of his potential and strong play in limited reps, Henry hasn’t shown he’s a better NFL player than Morris. Will he be? Probably, but Elliot-Morris is not a 1-2 punch to turn your nose up at, as you’ve done here.

    • PFFSamMonson

      1. I pointed out he had always graded better than the overall perception of him, but there is no arguing the perception was a disappointment, and there were a lot of people viewing Conklin as a replacement, not bookend partner.

      2. Morris looks find behind the Dallas OL. So did Darren McFadden. There is pretty much nobody that wouldn’t look good behind that line, it doesn’t make them individually any good.

      • T. Wiley

        You dubbed him a “disappointing first round pick” before this year. Not perception, your words. How many LT’s dominate in their first two years?

        • George Brouillet

          True. If you’re gonna go back and reference your article with direct quotes that you said, then leaving out the direct quote that says Lewan is a “disappointing first round pick” isn’t really effective when we all have eyes. You did, in fact, call him a disappointment. Marcus is a young QB, and if PFF expects a quarterback who hasn’t even started 20 games to not experience any growing pains, then I don’t really know what to say. He has been personally responsible for seven touchdowns and only one turnover in the last two games. It is definitely interesting timing for this article to come out. Had it been written three weeks ago I think we would all agree, but some struggles for a second year player learning a brand new system isn’t exactly top knotch investigative work. It’s to be expected.

  • Christopher Carr

    It’s strange that you’re writing this article *now*, after a couple good games from Mariota.

  • Jonathan

    MM just completed his 16th game as a qb…technically still has been a rookie up to this point. He’s transitioned between new head coach/offensive coordinators. Slamming him this early is pretty pre-mature. Why not point out he’s 2nd best rated qb in the red zone? 22td’s/0ints.

    • GoodMojo1

      I think you’re right on the money, though technically I count him playing 18 regular season games total. I also recognize he has just 6 games under his belt with now his second OC. He’s a work in progress and I think he’s coming along well. He still has some spread offense tendencies (cross-body throws, for instance) to shake, and he has to adjust to the closing speed of NFL defenders. I think he’s trending up.

  • chrome nomad

    It’s his second year. Yes Tennessee finally has a good run game and o-line so many are wondering why Mariota hasn’t made the jump to “elite” status yet. Then again what young QB has?

    Some start with a hot hand and eventually cool off after defenses start compiling enough tape. This is a tough league; These young signal callers are on a long road to becoming pros and there are going to be some bumps and potholes in the road.

    Both Jameis and Marcus have struggled this year which is why the majority of teams would rather have them learn on the sidelines instead of throwing them in the fire.

    However they both have shown qualities that you look for in a QB and you can argue that both players haven’t had the best situations unlike Russell Wilson (who should’ve been a first round pick) did coming out of college. I believe both players will be top QB’s for their respective teams in a few years, but the sophomore slump is real.