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Mariota's lethal deep ball key to Titans' breakthrough

As one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league, Marcus Mariota has the Tennessee Titans in a three-way tie atop the AFC South.

Since Week 6, no quarterback has posted a higher passer rating (117.7) or accounted for more touchdowns (23) while the Titans boast the league's No. 1 scoring offense (30.9 points per game) over that span.

It's been a remarkable turnaround for the second-year signal-caller who spent September and early October throwing and fumbling games away in key moments.

So what accounts for Mariota's breakthrough?

It starts with a growing familiarity in a new offense run by Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie. Although the Titans poured resources into the offensive line, backfield and receiving corps this past offseason, it took Mariota a few games to click with the new faces.

Mariota has certainly benefitted from the protection of first-round tackle Jack Conklin, the stalwart running of DeMarco Murray and the reliability of wideout Rishard Matthews.

The biggest change in Mariota's game, however, has been transforming from an inefficient liability to a tremendous asset on downfield throws.

Amid flashes of transcendence as a rookie, Mariota's 39.5 passer rating on throws over 20 yards ranked 33rd among 37 qualifying quarterbacks.

When I studied Mariota's 2015 game film for Around The NFL's "Redraft" series last offseason, I noted Mariota's inconsistent release on deeper passes. It didn't help that he had no reliable wideouts capable of winning the hand-fighting battles with defensive backs on the sidelines and deep down the field.

How disappointing was Tennessee's downfield attack? Johnny Manziel completed more deep balls in six starts than Mariota managed in 12.

A year later, Manziel has washed out of the league while Mariota has emerged as a deep-shot artist.

The Titans' playmaking quarterback has completed 22 of 48 throws of 20 or more air yards, per NFL Research, recording a 123.3 passer rating that ranks in the top five among 33 qualifying passers.

After 12 starts last season, Mariota's fancy footwork, lightning-quick release, intermediate accuracy and red-zone prowess led the Titans to conclude they were building around a special player. After 12 starts this season, his effective deep ball and improved decision making have confirmed the organization's beliefs.

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