Entering week 10, the Tennessee Titans trailed the Houston Texans by a game and a half in the AFC South. Both teams walked away with a win, as the Titans throttled the Packers to move to 5-5. The last time the Titans finished the season at .500 was 2009, when Chris Johnson surpassed 2,000 yards en route to the AFC offensive player of the year award.
This year it is the second year signal caller, Marcus Mariota, that is leading the team to a potential playoff bid. With remaining games including the likes of Indianapolis (4-5), Chicago (2-7), and Jacksonville (2-7), it is quite possible that the week 17 game in Nashville against the Texans will decide which team will represent the AFC South in the playoffs.
Marcus Mariota Has Made the Leap
How Did We Get Here?
Less than two years removed from winning the 2014 Heisman Trophy, Marcus Mariota has made significant improvements between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, while the man taken number one overall in the same draft (Jameis Winston) looks like the same rookie quarterback we saw in 2015. Over his last six games, a period of time in which the Titans are 4-2, Mariota has racked up 19 total touchdowns to just three interceptions, sporting a passer rating of 122.1 over that stretch.
The Titans have now scored over 30 points in three consecutive games. Against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, Mariota was the more efficient passer. He opened the game with ten straight completions, totaling 196 yards, en route to hanging 47 points on Green Bay. Tennessee’s offense was so efficient that it led ESPN’s Matthew Berry to tweet this out, following a PASSING touchdown from DeMarco Murray:
Demarco Murray has more completions than Marcus Mariota has incompletions.
Run to Set Up the Pass
So many teams attempt to run the ball to set the tone, then abandon it if they fall behind a score or get into a shootout. The Titans have been content to pound the ball with success. They rank second in the league, behind only the Cowboys, in rushing play percentage, running the ball on over 47% of their plays. This puts Mariota in a great position, drawing more defenders close to the line, and opening up the play action pass.
While he hasn’t been running the ball nearly as much as people thought he would coming out of college (only two rushing touchdowns and two games with greater than 25 yards rushing), his threat to keep the ball has helped DeMarco Murray look like the same back we saw two seasons ago in Dallas. Mariota doesn’t necessarily need to rush the ball in order for the rushing attack to be successful. The mere thought of his 4.48 speed holding onto the football is enough to remove one defender from the play. This creates a numbers mismatch for Murray or rookie Derrick Henry. The rushing game has also been able to open up the passing game through play action, giving Mariota a lot of time to work in the pocket and make throws like this one against the Jags.
The key to Mariota’s success has been his accuracy and decision making. During the previously mentioned six-game stretch, he’s completed 69.6% of his passes. He only turned the ball over twice in that stretch. In the last three games, Mariota has led the Titans to over 30 points in all three. He’s not just dinking and dunking the ball off, he’s pushing the ball downfield, throwing the ball deep with accuracy. A great example of Mariota being able to push the ball downfield came Sunday, with this pass today to Rishard Matthews.
One of the more remarkable things about Mariota’s development has been who he’s doing this with. The team simply lacks the receiving talent that one would really want to help a young quarterback develop. The emergence and health of Delanie Walker has certainly helped, as he has looked like a top five tight end when he’s been on the field in the last two seasons. But the team just lacks playmakers outside the numbers (Rishard Matthews and fifth round rookie Tajae Sharpe being the number one and two receivers).
Don’t get me wrong, Mariota hasn’t been perfect this year, or even during this brilliant stretch. There have been times were he’s made some plays that you’d expect out of a young quarterback. In both of the losses during this 4-2 stretch, Mariota threw pick sixes late in the fourth quarter, ruining their comeback bid. In general though, he’s looked like a veteran in the pocket. He is having no problem throwing the ball away rather than forcing the ball to a well-covered receiver. Mariota is going to need to be more responsible with the ball in late game situations if the Titans expect to make a run at the AFC South title.
With the Texans offense sputtering (Brock Osweiler threw for just 99 yards in today’s win), the Titans are in great shape to make a late playoff push. Simply from the eye test, the Titans just look like a better football team than Houston. However, they sit a game and a half behind the Texans. Consecutive road trips to Indianapolis and Chicago over the next few weeks will tell us a lot about who the Titans really are. They should be feeling confident after the blowout of the Packers. The Titans season, and playoff hopes, rests squarely on the shoulders of their 23 year old quarterback. If I were a Titans fan, I’d feel pretty damn good about that right about now.