Titans must find, fix what’s ailing Mariota

Friday, December 1, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 48

Marcus Mariota has a career-high 12 interceptions with five games remaining on the schedule. He has six interceptions in his last two games, including a pair in Sunday’s win at Indianapolis.

-- Ap Photo/Aj Mast

One of the biggest questions on everyone’s mind regarding the Tennessee Titans is what is wrong with Marcus Mariota? After a breakout season in 2016, one in which he threw 26 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions, Mariota has endured a stunning reversal in Year 3.

Through 10 games played – he missed one with a hamstring injury – Mariota has just nine touchdown passes and has tossed a career-high 12 interceptions, including an alarmingly high six in the past two games.

So, what gives? What has caused Mariota to struggle with his touchdown passes and with interceptions when his statistical passing output has otherwise been pretty much in line with what he did in his first two seasons as a Titan?

Asked to self-diagnose the problem, Mariota said it is on him to make the necessary throws.

“Honestly, it’s just coming down to throwing. I’m missing – either I’m sailing it or leaving the ball behind. You know, I’ve got to find ways to improve. I’ve got to get better. I can’t keep hurting this team. And I will – I will definitely get better,” Mariota says.

Titans coach Mike Mularkey said the picks thrown Sunday by Mariota were as a result of one bad throw and the inability to step into the other throw. He also said he was pleased with the way Mariota has bounced back after his mistakes.

“Just go watch how he continues to make throws after interceptions. There’s a lot of guys that can’t overcome those and I’ve yet to see him let that effect his play,” Mularkey says.

Mariota said he would look at film to see if there were any consistent mechanical issues in his throwing motion, saying Sunday, “I’ll look at it. But for now, I’m not sure.”

The easy finger to point is to the injuries – the broken right fibula suffered last Christmas Eve that turned his off-season to rehabbing rather than readying for 2017. There was also the left hamstring injury that robbed him of his mobility for a part of the season.

But Mariota refused to lay the blame there.

“Everyone plays with injuries. It’s part of it. And you know, I never allow that to be an excuse,” he said.

So, in trying to delve deeper into what the issue might be, I asked a couple of well-respected football people, who answered on the condition of anonymity about what they have seen differently in Mariota from last year to this year.

One NFL man says it was as simple as this: Mariota hasn’t been running as much this season, and that has affected his play.

“He is not running the ball and has not been as accurate,” the source said.

True enough. Running, which can be dangerous for a quarterback in the NFL, has been an integral part of Mariota’s game in the early part of his career. With 190 yards rushing on 40 attempts (designed runs and scrambles combined), Mariota is on pace for his lowest yards per carry and possibly his lowest yardage total in his three years.

Just the threat of the run from Mariota can make teams use a spy to defend him on pass plays, leaving one less person in pass coverage.

Another NFL source says the pieces around Mariota are somewhat to blame for his drop-off. Last season, the offensive line and the run game were more effective, giving Mariota better situations in which to operate. That, plus new personnel at the skill positions, could be contributing factors.

“Even though most of the personnel is the same, the additions of two rookie wide receivers and the veteran (Eric) Decker leaves me to believe that he doesn’t trust them to be where they are supposed to be,” the source says.

“He still relies mostly on Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews. Both are reliable targets, but neither are game-breakers.

“But the biggest issue is the run game. It’s just not the same.”

Despite the changes and the struggles, Mariota says he still plans on trying to make the throws necessary to get the job done and that he has to trust the receivers to make plays for him.

“I trust those guys to make plays, and you can’t be shy as a quarterback. You’ve got to go out there and make the throws,” Mariota said. “I never shy away from an opportunity to get a completion. I’ll find ways to get those guys the football.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com