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VOL. 40 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 22, 2016

Will Mariota’s second season be more Luck or RG3?

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A better offensive line and an emphasis on getting rid of the ball should help Titans QB Marcus Mariota avoid sacks this season.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

The Tennessee Titans’ offensive playbook has been rewritten. The verbiage for calling plays has been edited. The line has been revamped with three new starters.

Why? The team’s ownership and coaches desperately want to get the most out of quarterback prodigy Marcus Mariota.

With all those changes in place, it’s now Mariota’s turn. When the Titans begin training camp at the end of the month, all eyes will be on Mariota as we try to determine how far he has progressed from his rookie year to his second NFL season.

He knows he’s under the gun. For all the good things he did in 2015 (including, but not limited to, having the third-best passer rating by a rookie quarterback in the last decade), the Titans won only three times in his 12 starts. If this franchise is to become relevant in the AFC South again, Mariota must take a big step forward.

He gets it. Often during interviews after mini-camp sessions and other public appearances, he has spoken about the need to show significant improvement from Year 1 to Year 2.

It can go either way. Take Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, the first two players drafted in 2012. Luck made a major move forward between his first and second NFL seasons. In Year 2, he cut his interceptions in half – from 18 to nine.

Griffin headed the other direction. His passer rating slumped from 102.4 as a rookie to 82.2 in 2013. His touchdown/interception ratio went from 20/5 to 16/12.

Luck is one of the rising superstars of the NFL. Griffin is trying to resurrect his career in Cleveland. He may never again perform at the level he achieved as a rookie.

While Mariota talks about the need for overall improvement, there are specific areas where he needs to get better if he is going to take his game to a higher level and lead the Titans to more victories. Those areas: leadership, pocket awareness, throwing downfield and avoiding injury.

Leadership

Although he is low-key off the field and tries to control his emotions on it, Mariota has definite leadership qualities. He prefers to lead by his actions rather than with words.

Like newly acquired running back DeMarco Murray says: “He is a quiet leader. He leads by example. But when he speaks, everyone listens.”

And some of his teammates say he is speaking up more often.

“You can tell he is starting to be more vocal,” said tight end Delanie Walker. “I think he is starting to get more comfortable with the system and the guys are knowing that he is a leader on this team.”

Indeed, part of this is due to Mariota’s firmer grasp of the Titans’ offensive system. Coach Mike Mularkey acknowledges there were times last season when Mariota had trouble calling plays in the huddle, which kept the offense from getting lined up as quickly as possible. That’s one of the reasons the system has been simplified and streamlined.

“It starts with the verbiage and goes all the way through,” Mariota says. “It’s a lot easier across the board now to get everyone on the same page.”

After running a no-huddle offense in college at Oregon, Mariota seems prepared to take command when he is surrounded by 10 other offensive players.

“To me, what’s most important is stepping up as a leader, being more vocal and then just finding ways to win,” he explains.

Pocket awareness

Mariota was sacked 38 times last season. Certainly, some of those sacks were due to poor protection up front. But he also was guilty at times of not reading the pass coverage quickly enough and holding the ball too long.

Coaches have stressed the need to throw the ball on time. And if that means throwing it away when a receiver isn’t open, so be it.

“I’ve really emphasized getting rid of the ball instead of taking sacks,” Mularkey says. “Marcus has been told an incompletion is OK. Live another down. But a sack can be catastrophic so throw the ball away and move on to the next down.”

Mariota gets it. He believes his knowledge of the revamped offense will translate into quicker decisions and a quicker release of the ball. That should help in terms of avoiding sacks and the fumbles that inevitably come with such contact. Mariota fumbled 10 times, losing six of them, last season.

Mariota has talked about operating in a “tighter space” in the Titans’ offense opposed to the spread he ran in college at Oregon. Because the Titans often use two-tight end formations, it brings more defenders closer to the ball, forcing quicker decision-making by the quarterback.

This year, the plan is for him to line up under center more than in his rookie season. It’s part of Mularkey’s offense. Last season, Titans quarterbacks were under center on 58.2 percent of the offensive snaps. Mularkey’s plan is to push that percentage well into the 60s.

This goes against the grain of today’s NFL. As it becomes more of a passing league, teams line up in the shotgun more often. But Mularkey’s vow to play “exotic smash-mouth” football goes decidedly against the trend.

Throwing deep

Although Mularkey is stressing a stronger running game, it is no secret that Mariota needs to get better at throwing the deep ball. Until that happens, opposing defenses will continue to crowd the line of scrimmage.

Pro Football Focus, which analyzes every player on every snap of the football, gave Mariota the worst grade in the league of any starting quarterback for deep-passing accuracy in 2015 – balls that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. His completion rate on those passes: 16.7 percent.

On the rare occasions a Titans receiver got open deep, Mariota struggled to hit him.

The addition of free-agent acquisition Rishard Matthews should help a bit in terms of stretching the field but Mariota recognizes he needs to put the ball on target when he throws downfield.

“You have to have a deep passing game within your offense,” Mariota said. “It’s got to be incorporated in some form or fashion. You can’t just limit yourself to underneath routes and let the defense kind of sit on those things. I’m all for it. I love throwing the deep ball.”

He actually did a good job with the deep ball in his final collegiate season at Oregon. Of course, the Ducks’ talent and offensive system often created mismatches that had receivers running free. That’s seldom the case in the NFL, especially with the Titans’ suspect wide receiving corps.

Avoiding injury: Despite putting up solid numbers as a rookie, Mariota missed one-quarter of the season due to injuries. He suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee in Week 6 and was out for two games. Later, he sprained the MCL in his right knee and missed the final two games of the season.

One of the reasons Mularkey was made head coach after serving in an interim role over the last nine games in 2015 was his vow to do everything in his power to keep Mariota upright and productive. That’s why the offensive system was tweaked.

It’s also why the Titans spent a first-round pick on an offensive lineman for the third time in the last four drafts (right tackle Jack Conklin of Michigan State) while also signing center Ben Jones in free agency.

In sum, Mariota looks like the real deal. If he can take a step forward in each of those four areas, better days are ahead for the Titans.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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