The Tennessee Titans defeated the New Orleans Saints, with quarterback Marcus Mariota in overtime leading a drive that, as Mark Schofield explains, shows off how he’s developing as an NFL signal caller.
Much was made about how Mariota would transition to the NFL, but how he is being used so far in 2015 speaks to the future of how teams should handle young quarterbacks. As more and more rookie QBs enter the league with experience running spread schemes like Mariota did in college, coaching staffs should look to incorporate more of those elements into the game plan, while still tasking the player with making reads and decisions within the structure of each play. This final drive is an excellent example of how the Titans are doing just that.
The Titans open overtime with the football on their own 20-yard line following a touchback. Marcus Mariota stands in the shotgun with 21 offensive personnel on the field, using a tight end trips formation on the right and Dorial Green-Beckham (#17) split wide to the left. The Saints have five defensive backs on the field for this play, showing Cover 1:
Tennessee runs a curl/flat concept to each side of the field. From the trips side of the formation, running back Dexter McCluster (#22) runs to the flat while Harry Douglas (#83) runs a deep curl route from the outside, breaking to the inside of the field. On the weakside of the formation, Green-Beckham runs a curl while Antonio Andrews (#26) runs a route to the flat out of the backfield.
Note the positioning of backside cornerback Brandon Browner (#39). He begins the play across from Green-Beckham, but giving the WR eight yards of cushion. As the play develops Green-Beckham uses the gap to his advantage, snapping off his vertical release quickly and using the pre-snap cushion against Browner:
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Mariota sees this as well. The young quarterback reads this play to the backside all the way, and once linebacker Michael Mauti (#56) clears the throwing lane, Mariota makes a well-timed anticipation throw to the WR. From there, Green-Beckham breaks a few tackles before he is finally wrestled to the turf after a 14-yard gain.
Facing 1st and 10 at their own 34-yard line the Titans turn to the ground for the next play. They line up with 11 offensive personnel on the field, and Mariota under center. Tennessee has pro formation on the left, with Douglas in a wing alignment staggered behind the TE. The Saints respond to this personnel grouping by bringing their base 4-3 defense on the field, and show Cover 2:
The Titans use a split zone design here, with Douglas cutting to the backside to block the defensive end. While the WR cuts to the backside, the offensive line flows in unison to the left. Pay particular attention to how quickly right tackle Byron Bell (#76), center Andy Gallik (#69) and TE Craig Stevens (#88) work to the second level:
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Andrews takes the handoff heading left, and because of interior pressure he bounces the run to the outside. Jo-Lonn Dunbar (#54) does a solid job of avoiding the cut block attempt of Bell and flows to the ball carrier, but when he initially makes contact with the RB he is already eight yards downfield – and he fails to make the tackle. Safety Kenny Vaccaro (#32) finally knocks Andrews out of bounds, but not before a 15-yard gain.
Here is another look at how this blocking comes together:
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After another run by Andrews for two yards, the Titans face a 2nd and 8 at the New Orleans’ 49-yard line. Mariota lines up under center with 12 offensive personnel on the field, in a bunch right and a single receiver split to the left. The Saints slide the defensive line to the open side of the offensive formation and drop Mauti down over the two TE side of the formation:
The Titans run a three-step passing play here, with the receivers on the right running curl routes at a depth of five yards. New Orleans drops into a Cover 3 scheme:
Mariota initially wants to throw to Anthony Fasano (#80) on the middle curl route. But Mauti gets a solid jam on the TE, forcing the rookie QB to wheel toward the middle of the field where Stephens has settled into a soft area of the underneath zone coverage between the other two linebackers. Mariota places this throw in a very good spot, leading the TE toward the hashmark and away from the LB in coverage:
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The ball placement pays off in a big way. Dunbar makes a diving attempt to break up the pass, and as Stevens cradles the football he comes down to the turf – but is never touched by the LB. He wisely gets up and picks up another 17 yards after the catch:
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The catch-and-run sets Tennessee up with a fresh set of downs at the Saints’ 25-yard line, well within field goal range. But they are thinking touchdown.
After a short run on first down, the Titans face a 2nd and 9 at the New Orleans 24-yard line. Offensive coordinator Jason Michael puts Mariota in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field, with slot formation to each side of the offense. New Orleans opts to bring in an extra defensive back here, and show Cover 3 Buzz before the play:
The Titans show another split zone run design here, with TE Delanie Walker cutting from the right to the left as if he will block the backside defensive end. But Tennessee is throwing the ball on this play:
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After Mariota and the RB meet at the mesh point, the quarterback keeps the football and rolls to the left edge. From the outside, Douglas runs a pivot route, while Green-Beckham runs a corner, setting up a smash concept to this side of the field. Douglas runs a very shallow route to the flat. The offensive line fires out in unison to the right to help sell the outside zone run look.
The defense does not buy the run fake, but when Mariota gets to the edge he sees Douglas open on the pivot route. He is open because the playside cornerback, Browner, identified the route structure early, spotted Green-Beckham’s corner route, and has dropped deep under the deeper route. As with any smash concept, the quarterback reads the cornerback and if the defender drops under the corner route, take the easy throw. Mariota executes this perfectly and gets the ball to Douglas on the pivot route for a simple seven-yard gain.
Facing 3rd and 2, the Titans utilize another three step passing play, running a Tare concept. This is a passing scheme typically run out of a 3×1 formation, where the outside trips receiver runs a vertical route to clear the sideline with the other two trips receivers running quick out routes. Backside, the single receiver runs a slant to the inside.
The quarterback reads this play to the trips side first, checking the vertical route before choosing between the two out routes. But if there is man coverage in the secondary, the backside slant is an alert read for the QB. If the X receiver can establish inside leverage, this is a great place to go with the football:
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The Saints employ Cover 1 and blitz off the edge, with Browner in press alignment over Green-Beckham. At the snap the rookie WR uses and outside release to sell the CB on a vertical route, and as Browner turns his hips to run, the WR cuts underneath him on the slant route. Mariota places this throw right between the numbers, and Green-Beckham secures the catch and cuts upfield for additional yardage, giving the Titans a 1st and goal inside the 10-yard line.
Note the alignment of Andrews in the backfield, who is staggered to the right behind the RT, rather than next to Mariota. With trips to this side, this is a pre-snap indicator to the defense that sprint right option might be heading their way. Which, the Titans do run, but with a twist:
Mariota does sprint to the right here, with Stephens and Justin Hunter (#15) running out routes at different levels in the end zone. But Andrews does not release to the flat, but instead helps create a moving pocket for the quarterback by staying in to block any potential rusher. Fasano blocks the playside DE for a moment, before releasing on a throwback route away from the flow of the play:
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The defense flows toward the sprint action, and Mariota sells the play well before dropping in a touch pass to a wide open Fasano for the game-winning score.
The drive and execution are impressive, but what stands out is how the Titans are continuing to transition Mariota to the professional game. All of the plays highlighted here are concepts that he ran while at Oregon. While he is being tasked with making progression reads on each of these plays, and does them well, he is also being given the chance to operate outside the strict structure of a given play and freelance a bit. The Tare concept, and his decision to throw the backside slant, is a perfect example. He could have stayed with the basic structure of the route and thrown one of the out routes to the trips side of the formation, but he recognized the matchup on the backside with Green-Beckham on Browner, and once he saw his WR establish inside leverage he made the decision to throw to his fellow rookie.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.