Smith, Mariota's relationship could define Titans' season

Friday, September 13, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 37

Marcus Mariota looks to pass during the first half of Sunday’s season-opening win against the Cleveland Brown.

-- Ron Schwane | Ap Photo

Somewhere in all the excitement of Sunday’s season-opening 43-13 victory in Cleveland, a very important, but perhaps under-appreciated occurrence took place that, if it keeps up, could help the Tennessee Titans throughout the 2019 season.

That something that flew a bit under the radar in all the boom and bust of the Browns and the Titans’ stellar defensive effort was the fact that Arthur Smith might just be the right guy to get the most out of Marcus Mariota in the Tennessee offense.

For a guy calling his first NFL game, Smith had the right answers at the right time, didn’t ask too much of his quarterback, but also trusted him enough that going forward, maybe the Titans can finally figure out if Mariota is their guy at quarterback.

While the defense did the heavy lifting with a first-half safety, and three interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown by Malcolm Butler), it was the composure of the offense that may be the key to the Titans’ having a successful season.

Smith gave Mariota a chance to add a big play or two, going up top for a big gain to rookie A.J. Brown on Tennessee’s first offensive possession. He came back to that on the opening drive of the second half for another big play by the rookie.

But mostly, Smith seems to want to have Mariota play within himself.

“Art did a great job. Along with that composure amongst the players, I think they had that across the coaching staff as well. Art did a great job of keeping calm and telling us to stick to the game plan. Guys just made plays,” Mariota says of his rookie coordinator.

By letting the fifth-year quarterback operate within the bounds of an offense that runs through Derrick Henry, it opened up things like the play-action throws to Brown for chunk yardage, and it also helped on the intermediate throws inside the hash marks to Delanie Walker.

“I think the guys really believed in the game that he was calling, and the plays that we had designed and tried to run and execute. For the most part, [we] executed them well. I thought he called a great game,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel says.

For certain, Smith didn’t try to fit the square peg into the round hole, something it felt like Matt LaFleur tried to do too often last year.

And Smith made sure that Mariota was protected as well as possible, even operating behind a patchwork offensive line that was missing not only Taylor Lewan, but was down to its third right guard in Jamil Douglas.

Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, left, watches as wide receiver Tajae Sharpe runs a drill during practice at the team’s training facility. Smith is in his first year as the Titans’ offensive coordinator.

-- Mark Humphrey | Ap Photo

Smith’s other big thing in training camp this summer was to emphasize getting into and out of the huddle quickly.

“We want to get to the line and give ourselves the opportunity to play clean,” Smith said earlier this week when asked about the tempo.

On Sunday, that tempo wore down the Browns, and allowed Mariota to go 6-of-6 with three touchdown passes in the second half. It played a big part in the Browns’ being off balance and constantly penalized as well.

Smith’s formula worked in week one, and it will have to continue to work going forward.

“I think what it came down to was our tempo on the field. We run to the line of scrimmage,” guard Rodger Saffold said. “We try to pound the run, pound the run and pound the run. And the next thing you know, you see it start to open up. It helps (QB) Marcus (Mariota) out on the pass.

“The protection starts to get better once we started getting in rhythm. We are happy with the results.”