The Tennessee Titans’ evolving offensive scheme, when orchestrated and executed properly by quarterback Marcus Mariota, can be confounding.
Just ask Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, whose team trailed 10-0 at halftime of last Sunday’s season opener in Nashville, Tenn.
“They had us off balance,” Zimmer said. “They were doing a lot of shifting, motions, line up here, run guys in, run guys out, run guys in the flat, run guys the other way. You know, you prepare for it, but it’s unnerving a little bit.”
It somewhat resembles when Peyton Manning drove defenses crazy with pre-snap reads and audibles during his glory days with the Indianapolis Colts. The five-time NFL MVP was one of the game’s all-time greats at being a coach on the field and knowing where everyone is supposed to be and recognizing every defensive alignment.
Mariota is just starting his second NFL season, but he’s become a quick learner in making on-field adjustments and attacking defenses with a scheme that forces the opponent to constantly adjust.
Unfortunately, the second half against Minnesota reminded he’s still a 22-year-old quarterback capable of making mistakes when pressured. The Vikings turned up the heat, scored a pair of defensive touchdowns off a Mariota interception and fumbled handoff, and won 25-16 despite not scoring an offensive touchdown.
“Sometimes it’s better to take a sack there instead of trying to throw the ball up and put the ball at risk,” Mariota said of Eric Kendricks’ pivotal 77-yard TD interception return in the third quarter. “Those are some of the decisions that I’ve kind of always prided myself on that I’ve made. But again, there’s always things that you can learn from, and that’s one of those instances.”
It’s easy to forget Mariota has played just 13 NFL games. He’s completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,089 yards with 21 touchdowns versus 11 interceptions. Last season, Mariota had to withstand some shaky protection, he was sacked 38 times and the Titans lost six of his 10 fumbles.
Tennessee invested in its offensive line by adding first-round selection Jack Conklin at right tackle and free-agent signing Ben Jones at center. Running back DeMarco Murray also arrived in free agency and running back Derrick Henry in the draft. Spread the ball around, be balanced, keep defenses guessing and take some of the onus off Mariota, the 2015 No. 2 overall selection.
Murray scored two touchdowns on pass receptions, but the botched handoff between him and Mariota was a back breaker as the Vikings’ Danielle Hunter returned it 24 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown and a 22-10 lead. Such speed bumps are growing pains, as far as Titans head coach Mike Mularkey is concerned. The Titans have infinite trust in Mariota’s talent and accelerated learning curve.
“You would not know he was 13 games into his career based on what his command of what we’re doing is, putting us in the right (spots) — I mean if you watch some of the no-huddle, how many times he can move the offense to get us in the right set to execute the right play,” Mularkey said. “He’s very good at managing the clock. Whether it’s a huddle or no-huddle, he puts us in the right protections. He puts us on the right guys. For a guy that’s only started this many games in the NFL, I think he’s doing very well.”
Keep in mind this is a quarterback whose college plays were called with hand signals from the sideline. Oregon usually didn’t huddle. Mariota lined up in shotgun formation and the relentless up-tempo scheme wore down defenses unable to substitute.
Mularkey assured his quarterback is learning it’s sometimes more important to accept a play that doesn’t work.
“There were some plays that broke down and he got rid of the ball instead of trying to make something (happen),” Mularkey said. “The play that we had the interception on was something he didn’t do in the first half. He got rid of it, he threw it away, lived for another down, and I think he’s been trying to do that. Obviously, we would like that in the second half, but I think that’s a thing you won’t see again from him—not a lot of mistakes after doing it one time.”
Mularkey said he’s mindful of not wanting to limit Mariota’s playmaking ability.
“I don’t want to restrict him because he can make some great plays, too,” the coach said. “When we were in a negative situation, he knew it was negative and he got rid of it. I’ve seen him make that play before. I think he’d bury it next time, go down, take a sack. There were some incidents even in the league this (past) week, even some film we watched getting ready for Detroit, he saw some quarterbacks just take the sack and move on.”
Mariota reiterated how he prides himself in not repeating mistakes. He had some moments like that in college, where the passer was too hard on himself and let bad plays linger. Teammates constantly reminded him one bad play can lead to two, then one loss to two if he didn’t learn from the humbling moments.
“If you made a mistake, it’s good to use that as a learning tool to get better for the next one,” he said. “I mean it’s part of what we do. It’s something that you can always get better from and something that I’ve kind of done for a long time.”
Rather than just harp on the importance of not committing turnovers, Mularkey reiterates the positives from Week 1, too.
“It’s one game. And they know they did a lot of good things in that game, regardless. We know we did, and we know the things we did that were not good,” the coach said. “One thing we changed — it’s the first time for me — on Monday, we watched the game film, we studied it, did all the corrections and then we came back and we had a team meeting right afterwards, and we just went right into the Lions and had an evaluation in all three phases. So when those guys walked out of the building, we were over the last one and on to Detroit on Monday. And that’s typically not the case. You leave, you go away, you don’t hear about the Lions until Wednesday. Now, they’ve been fed a good bit about this team starting Monday to get their mind right for the week ahead. That’s going to be the routine.”