Marcus Mariota’s first two series in live game action as an NFL quarterback ended as nightmarishly as anyone could have expected. But the rookie bounced back to demonstrate his passing potential and lead the Tennessee Titans to a touchdown drive in the team’s preseason opener, a 31-24 loss, against the host Atlanta Falcons on Friday.
The story of Mariota’s first training camp with the Titans had been his staying turnover-free. In his first 11 practices leading up to the Titans’ initial preseason game, Mariota threw 186 passes without a single interception, as reported by Jim Wyatt of TitansOnline.com.
That changed in a hurry Friday.
On Tennessee’s first possession of the game and on just his third throw, Mariota attempted a screen pass off his back foot to Titans running back Bishop Sankey. It ended up being intercepted by Falcons linebacker Justin Durant without the pass getting out of the backfield, as shown by SB Nation:
Simply put, the intercepted throw was a poor decision by Mariota. Attempting to toss a screen pass into a glut of traffic, all the while retreating backward under pressure, is never a good idea.
Even taking a sack, despite the Titans being in a 2nd-and-21 after a sack one play earlier, would have been better than throwing the ball in that situation, as Terry Lambert of MusicCityMiracles.com noted on Twitter:
On Mariota’s second series, the start of his preseason debut went from bad to worse.
Facing a 3rd-and-6 out of the shotgun, Mariota stood sedentary for three seconds, failing to recognize that he had room to step up in the pocket as Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux worked his way around Titans right guard Chance Warmack.
Mariota attempted to get a throw off as Babineaux closed in on him but was unsuccessful. Babineaux hit the young quarterback at the start of his windup and knocked the ball out for a fumble, which Atlanta's Paul Worrilow recovered at the 14-yard line and returned to the end zone for a touchdown. Here's a look, via the NFL:
Used to playing in a spread offense at Oregon that was largely predicated on quick, single-read passes, Mariota struggled in his decision-making under pressure Friday and ended up losing two turnovers and taking a sack as a result.
One would also like to see Mariota make a better effort in nullifying the potential damage of turnovers after initial mistakes. He whiffed on a tackle attempt on Durant’s 21-yard return of his interception, while he failed to find the football or make any effort toward it in the loose-ball scramble that ensued after his fumble.
That might be nitpicking—and it’s likely the Titans don’t want Mariota throwing his body around and making tackles anyway—but it's nonetheless part of the negatives that stood out in the No. 2 overall pick’s on-field debut.
Mariota’s first preseason game, at least until it is forgotten when the regular season begins September 13, will be remembered for the turnovers. Outside of those few mistakes, however, Mariota performed well as a passer.
None of Mariota’s eight passing attempts hit the ground; the interception was his only pass not thrown for a completion.
The following passing chart, compiled from watching each of Mariota’s three possessions Friday, breaks down the distances and directions of Mariota’s eight throws, as well as whether his attempts came off play action, under pressure and/or while he was on the run.
While Mariota did not throw any deep balls (20-plus yards) in his first preseason game, his ability to deliver the ball downfield with accuracy on short and intermediate throws was on display.
A four-yard attempt rarely leads to laudation, but Mariota’s completion of that distance to tight end Anthony Fasano (circled in the screenshot below) on the Titans’ first series was a great example of the quarterback’s ability to thread a pass through a tight window.
Mariota really started to show his ability to pass from the pocket on his third and final series of the game. Fresh off back-to-back turnovers, he rebounded in an impressive way by completing five consecutive throws, for a total of 78 yards, to lead the Titans down the field on an 80-yard touchdown drive.
Mariota’s first throw of that drive was his best of the night. Needing to complete a pass downfield to convert 3rd-and-12, the quarterback used his feet nicely to navigate the pocket then connected with wide receiver Harry Douglas—to whom he completed three passes for a total of 46 yards Friday. The completion came on a slant breaking in from the right side and in a small window between five defenders, for 17 yards, as shown by Lambert:
While draft analysts questioned throughout the process whether Mariota would be able to successfully make progressions on an NFL offense, he showed the ability to do so on multiple occasions Friday.
One of his best efforts came on the very next snap following the throw above, as Mariota quickly ran a play-action fake right then rapidly turned left, with pressure coming toward him, to hit a swing pass left that Kendall Wright took for a nine-yard gain.
On his final attempt of the night, Mariota demonstrated his skill for throwing the ball downfield with touch. As running back Antonio Andrews ran a wheel route up the right sideline, Mariota put a pass on him perfectly in stride about 10 yards downfield, enabling Andrews to run through the catch and continue downfield for a 26-yard gain.
Altogether, Mariota threw for 94 yards and seven completions on eight attempts. Due to the interception, however, he finished with a quarterback rating of only 76.0, despite throwing for 11.8 yards per attempt.
Likely to see more extensive playing time in the Titans’ second and third preseason games, Mariota needs to show going forward that he can avoid sacks and turnovers under pressure.
While there is plenty of reason to believe in his passing ability—both because of what he showed Friday and because of what he showed in an excellent, Heisman Trophy-winning season at Oregon last year—he will need to avoid an accumulation of rookie mistakes in order to realize his potential.
After the game, Mariota expressed disappointment, regarding the pair of giveaways.
"You lose games because of turnovers, and I was upset with myself because both of those I could control," Mariota said, per ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky.
Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, however, said he was impressed with the way Mariota got it together to lead a scoring drive for the team.
"To go 90 yards after a penalty, [face] first-and-20, to have a big third down and make a great throw in there, you could tell it didn't rattle him too much," Whisenhunt said, per Kuharsky. "I thought that was a tremendous sign."
When Mariota and the Titans take the field next Sunday, August 23, for a nationally televised game on Fox against the St. Louis Rams, Tennessee will be looking for more of what Mariota showed on that final drive and fewer of the errors that marred his first preseason outing as an NFL player.
All screenshots illustrated by the author. All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.