That was my immediate reaction to Marcus Mariota's stat line -- 13 of 16 for 209 yards and four touchdown passes -- from his NFL debut. Heading into the season, I knew the reigning Heisman Trophy winner was a talented playmaker with a unique set of skills as a dual-threat quarterback, but I thought it would take him some time to transition to this level, due to his limited experience in a pro-style system. More importantly, I questioned whether coach Ken Whisenhunt and the Tennessee Titans would tweak their offense to incorporate some of the spread principles that would help their young gun hit the ground running as a rookie starter.
Granted, the Titans' blowout win over the Buccaneers was only one game. And we should remember that we saw Robert Griffin III -- the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year who has now, of course, been relegated to the Redskins' bench -- enjoy a banner day in his professional debut (320 pass yards with a two scores and 42 rushing yards) directing an offense loaded with read-option concepts. But there is something different about the way the Titans are building their offense around Mariota. The Redskins put the onus on RGIII to make plays with his feet and arm while orchestrating a zone-read offense, whereas the Titans are selectively mixing some collegiate concepts with traditional schemes to help the rookie find his comfort zone as a playmaker. The strategy reminds me of the plan the San Francisco 49ers used to help Alex Smith grow into a championship-caliber quarterback under Jim Harbaugh, which makes sense, based on the similarities in their games and backgrounds as spread quarterbacks. (Smith starred in Urban Meyer's spread offense at Utah before entering the NFL.)
With that in mind, I decided to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film to get a better sense of what Whisenhunt has done to help his rookie play at a high level from Day 1. Here are three things I discovered when breaking down the tape:
1) The Titans prominently featured the run-pass option.
Credit Whisenhunt and assistant head coach Mike Mularkey for implementing a few "run-pass option" (RPO) concepts, to get Mariota into his comfort zone as a "pick and stick" thrower. The concept is a staple of spread offenses on the collegiate and high school levels, because it allows the quarterback to make a quick decision based off the reaction of a designated defender on the second level. While most associate RPOs with bubble screens and inside- or outside-zone runs, the concept has advanced in recent years to feature quick slants or "grab" routes (a quick hitch by a slot receiver or tight end) as the complementary passing play. When executed properly against a defense employing zone coverage, the run-pass combination puts the designated defender in a bind and virtually guarantees the offense a positive gain.
At Oregon, Mariota routinely picked apart defenses while executing a variety of RPO concepts on the perimeter. He frequently hit open receivers streaking down the seams on an assortment of "pop" passes following strong run-action fakes in the backfield. Mariota's superb ball-handling skills and ultra-quick release make it nearly impossible for defenders to distinguish between the run and the pass, leading to big plays on the perimeter for the Ducks.
So it made sense for the Titans to incorporate a few RPO concepts. While looking at the All-22 Coaches Film from Sunday, I was impressed with the play design, as well as the brilliant execution of the tactics by Mariota. He does a great job of riding the fake (in which the quarterback extends the ball and sticks it into the belly of the running back for a few counts) before rising up to throw a quick slant or seam route on the back side.
On Mariota's first touchdown pass, which is depicted below, the Titans run an RPO to create an easy completion opportunity. The team is aligned in a gun open formation, with a split backfield and Kendall Wright in the slot. Mariota takes the snap and immediately puts the ball into running back Dexter McCluster's belly while reading the reaction of slot defender Lavonte David. When the linebacker steps forward to attack the run, Mariota pulls the ball back and delivers a pinpoint pass to Wright on a seam slant over the middle. With the linebackers approaching the line to stop the run and the safeties retreating into their deep zones, Wright catches the ball in the void of the coverage and weaves his way to the end zone for a 52-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Given the success the Titans enjoyed with RPO concepts, opponents had better come up with a way to defend the tactic and disrupt the rookie's rhythm. Otherwise, Mariota will continue to enjoy big days executing simple scheme from the pocket.
2) The Titans used the "quick game" to help Mariota get into a groove.
Mariota's quick release and pinpoint accuracy were the talk of Titans camp, but no one knew how the team would take advantage of those skills in the regular season. After watching Mariota dismantle the Buccaneers' secondary with a host of quick-rhythm throws, it is apparent the Titans will attack the underbelly of coverage with "catch and throw" concepts (slant-flat or slant-slant combinations, plus Y-stick, hitches and shallow crossers) designed to give playmakers the chance to maneuver in the open field. The slant concept in particular is one that Mariota has grasped and shown promise executing with ease. He consistently delivers the ball on time and on target, which is critical to picking up "YAC" (yards after catch) on quick-rhythm throws.
In addition, Mariota connected on a few pick plays and rub routes that exploited the Buccaneers' lack of communication and awareness at the line. Most importantly, these plays helped the Titans' receivers escape press coverage and allowed Mariota to hit a receiver quickly before the pass rush could collapse the pocket.
On Mariota's third touchdown pass of the game, which is depicted below, the Titans motion into a trio set, with Harry Douglas positioned on the outside. The pre-snap motion allows Mariota to identify man coverage and quickly target his primary receiver. On the snap, Wright, the slot receiver, takes a wide-angle release on a fade route. Douglas pauses for a count before darting inside on a slant route. With Wright working to the front corner of the end zone on the fade, Douglas receives an inadvertent pick at the line of scrimmage, leaving him wide open in the middle of the zone. Mariota sees it all unfold and delivers a pinpoint pass to Douglas immediately after the pick for an easy score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Titans later used a spot-route combination to help the rookie take advantage of man or zone coverage with a quick-rhythm throw. Spot-route combinations feature an outside receiver running a snag route, with an inside receiver running a swing or flat route to the edges. The concept puts the designated flat defender (the outside linebacker or safety) in a bind, creating an easy read for the quarterback.
On Mariota's fourth touchdown, which is depicted below, the Titans are aligned in an offset I-formation, with fullback Jalston Fowler positioned on the weak side. Tight end Delanie Walker is playing X receiver on the right, with the Titans using "22" personnel. At the snap, Walker runs a snag route just past the goal line, with Fowler working toward the flat. Mariota is instructed to read the reaction of the outside linebacker (David) and hit the open guy immediately on the break. When David flies to the flat, Mariota fires the ball to an open Walker for another easy score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With the Titans featuring a quick-rhythm passing game that ideally suits Mariota's skills as a "pick and stick" thrower, the rookie is already emerging as a decisive playmaker from the pocket.
3) Movement-based passes allowed Mariota to make plays on the perimeter.
The No. 2 overall pick is one of the most explosive athletes to play the position in the NFL. He exhibits rare speed and quickness, but he's also a terrific passer on the move. Thus, it is sensible for the Titans to incorporate some bootleg and waggle passes into their game plan, to get Mariota on the perimeter with a run-pass option. In addition, the rollouts provide Mariota with a half-field or a "levels" read, which typically consists of a flat, intermediate crosser and a go-route to the rollout side. With the quarterback instructed to look from short to deep on the move, the concept provides the rookie with high-percentage throws to target on that side.
The Titans frequently used the bootleg package during the preseason to help Mariota develop confidence as a playmaker, and the tactic continued to work in Week 1. On Mariota's second touchdown pass, which is depicted below, the Titans use a deceptive movement pass to get the ball quickly to running back Bishop Sankey in the flat. The team aligns in a trips bunch formation, with the trio aligned on the right. Sankey is positioned directly behind the quarterback in a "dot" position. After the snap, Mariota reverse pivots and rolls to the right. The Titans show counter blocking action at the point of attack to disrupt the linebackers' keys. The hesitancy by David, in particular, allows Sankey to beat him to the flat on the route. Mariota dumps the ball off quickly to Sankey and lets his playmaker rumble into the end zone for a 12-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Titans didn't throw the ball much against the Bucs, but the movement-based passing game will be a critical part of their game plan as they look to keep maximizing Mariota's skills as a dual-threat playmaker.