If Marcus Mariota was looking for the best way to prepare for his rookie season as the Tennessee Titans' starting quarterback, he couldn't have picked better opponents than the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Chiefs have one of the NFL's most intimidating home-field advantages, and they're celebrated for their defense. In addition, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is among the NFL's most aggressive, creative coaches.
He isn't scared of showing his hand in the preseason. Sutton loves to blitz and isn't shy with sacrificing gap integrity to create mismatches/overloads in other areas.
Against Mariota, blitzing would open up the Chiefs to the young quarterback's athleticism as a runner. Therefore, it was no surprise that Sutton slightly altered his approach early in the Chiefs' 34-10 home win Friday night. Instead of sending extra rushers after Mariota, Sutton looked to confuse him by showing an aggressive front before dropping out of it.
These are the kinds of things that Mariota didn't need to worry about at the college level.
Not only was he facing defenses that didn't possess the athletes or technical precision to execute these types of plays, but he was also playing in an offense that generally allowed him to dictate his decisions. The speed and complexity of the game at this level are simply so much greater than he was used to.
Most rookie quarterbacks would have major issues facing Sutton this early in their career. Even during the preseason, when his whole playbook isn't on show, the defensive coordinator would still be a major problem.
Although Mariota didn't have a great outing, he mostly avoided major errors and showed off a poise and intelligence from the pocket that many questioned he had during the draft process.
Mariota said after the game, via Dave Skretta of the Associated Press, "Kansas City has a very good defense, and for us to be able to score points against them, it says a lot about where we have come from. A lot of it we can still improve."
Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt obviously wanted to get a look at Mariota in tough situations, but he also attempted to ease his quarterback into the game. Hence, the Titans opened the contest by repeatedly running the ball.
Inevitably, Tennessee's first drive of the game wound up in a 3rd-and-8 that afforded the Chiefs an opportunity to unleash Sutton on Mariota.
Sutton doesn't blitz on this play. He disguises his intentions by moving players around before the snap and pressing more than four defenders on the line of scrimmage. However, at the snap, one of those defenders drops from the left side into coverage over the middle.
This leaves four Chiefs rushing against one side of the offensive line.
In trying to account for an overload blitz, the Titans kept two extra blockers in pass protection. This meant that Sutton's hope of creating a four-on-three situation to one side of the formation was a failure. However, it also meant that Mariota only had three receivers releasing into routes.
Although Mariota has enough blockers in protection to account for the Chiefs' rushers, he still has no chance to establish himself at the top of his drop. That is because one of his blockers is pushed backward by one of the blitzers as if he weren't even there.
Mariota was initially looking to his right, and the pressure came from a blind spot. He quickly reacted when he felt the pressure to pivot, but at this point of the play, it still appeared as if he were going to be sacked.
Instead of taking a sack, Mariota shuffled his feet and shifted his weight to evade the incoming rusher. He didn't reset his feet, but he did bring his eyes back up to look downfield for his receivers. Mariota had no time to re-establish himself because a second-level defender was incoming.
The most important takeaway from this play was Mariota's decisiveness. He knew he had no quick throw to negate the incoming pressure, so he had to get creative.
Once he got around the first penetrator into the pocket, he found himself in position where he needed to make a quick decision. He could have tried to stay in the pocket to find an open receiver, but the crowded coverage meant that it was likely a better decision to run into the space in front of him.
He missed a first down by just a couple of inches, setting up a 4th-and-1 the Titans would attempt to convert. They managed to do so, but once again their offensive line let them down. This time, a false-start penalty just before the snap wiped off Antonio Andrews' short run.
Although it wasn't the most telling of plays for Mariota, he got a passing grade for his first battle with one of Sutton's disguised pass rushes.
He wouldn't have to wait long for his second, either.
Early on during their second drive, the Titans found themselves in a 3rd-and-9 situation. Sutton wasn't moving his men around before the snap, and there weren't as many defenders pressing the line of scrimmage as there were on the previous play.
He did still have a crowd in his front seven who could go after the quarterback at the snap, though.
Once again, Sutton is more deceptive than aggressive on this play. He only rushes four defenders after the rookie quarterback. Furthermore, those four were the four Mariota would have most likely expected to blitz based on where they lined up.
Mariota establishes himself at the top of his drop and has time to survey the defense. He holds his position for a moment while keeping his eyes downfield. Right guard Chance Warmack has held up well initially, but his assignment is pushing past his outside shoulder at this point of the play.
It was subtle, but Mariota showed off his pocket presence by taking a short step up into the pocket to give Warmack greater leverage.
Stepping up gave Mariota a cushion of space to reset his feet and look downfield. He located an open receiver past the first-down marker and began his throwing motion. Mariota's pass was acrobatically batted out of the air by an underneath linebacker who was following the rookie's eyes.
The linebacker made the kind of play you wouldn't expect him to repeat over and over again. As such, Mariota can feel unlucky that he didn't get this completion and first down.
Even if the pass had found its way around the linebacker underneath, a facemask penalty against left tackle Taylor Lewan would have negated the play. Sutton's lack of aggressiveness on this play likely came with the idea of hoping the rookie would panic like many young quarterbacks do.
With that in mind, the most significant aspect of this play was Mariota's poise to hold on to the ball and step up in the pocket when there was space to do so. He didn't panic just because it was third down, and he was expecting a blitz. He trusted what he saw and acted accordingly.
At this point, it was clear Sutton wasn't looking to send extra defenders after Mariota but rather force him to hold the ball and wait for the quarterback to run himself into his own mistakes against crowded coverage.
On the following drive, Mariota had two exposures to this situation.
The first came on a 2nd-and-14 play in Chiefs territory. The Titans were aggressive with their alignment, leaving Mariota alone in the backfield. The Chiefs had five defensive linemen/linebackers on the field, in position to rush the quarterback at the snap.
By sending five defenders after the quarterback, they forced the Titans linemen to play one-on-one across the board. But Tamba Hali did give left tackle Lewan help by engaging the tight end to his side before advancing downfield.
Jeremiah Poutasi is a rookie who is starting at right tackle for the Titans. Poutasi had never faced anything in his life like Chiefs defender Justin Houston before Friday night. Houston highlighted that by sweeping past him in a split second on this play.
Before Mariota's receivers have released more than four yards downfield, Houston already has a clear lane to the quarterback.
Houston would have not only sacked most quarterbacks here, but he would likely have also forced a fumble by coming from a blind spot. Mariota's throwing motion is so exceptionally compact and quick that he was able to negate Houston's rush and get rid of the ball.
That release covered for Poutasi, but just as important was the QB's accuracy. Mariota threw a perfect pass to Kendall Wright, who caught it comfortably before turning upfield for a first down.
Mariota's quick release and underneath accuracy were major selling points for him coming out of college. If he can prove his mental acumen against NFL-caliber defenses, he will be able to negate a lot of poor offensive line play and elevate his teammates in tough situations.
Of course, as the next play shows, Mariota is still refining his ability as a quarterback.
Close to the goal line, the Titans face a 3rd-and-6 after their third false-start penalty of the night. The Chiefs defense is showing off-man coverage outside with a crowded box to threaten a blitz. Mariota changes the play before the snap after surveying the coverage.
It's unlikely Mariota had any way of knowing it, but Sutton had called just a three-man pass rush.
Houston dropped into coverage—not something you'd expect in this area of the field—so Mariota's play call appeared to be a smart one. He had both of his receivers furthest to the right running slant routes against the press-man coverage that was shown.
If Houston hadn't dropped into the passing lane, Mariota likely would have had a completion for a first down or potentially a touchdown.
He was forced to hold on to the ball instead. Avoiding the interception to Houston was a positive, but that was where his poise ended. Instead of holding the ball to buy his receivers time against the crowded coverage, Mariota ran into the flat as soon as he could.
Running into the flat only served to cut off all his receivers' space, allowing the defenders to be more aggressive, both by rule and in terms of how they could look for the ball.
That play set up a Titans field goal a few minutes before halftime. When Chiefs backup Aaron Murray came out and threw an interception, Mariota got another opportunity to drive his offense downfield before the half. With an aura of inevitability about it, Sutton finally sent one of his blitzes.
It was a 3rd-and-4 play at the Chiefs' 24-yard line. Here, the Chiefs move defenders around before the snap and don't just threaten with a busy box; they send six defenders after the quarterback at the snap. Unlike other occasions, the Titans only keep six blockers in to protect Mariota.
Although there is debris flying in front of him and his edge-rushers are isolated, Mariota's process in the pocket is clean.
He quickly gets to the top of his drop before bouncing on the soles of his feet in the center of the pocket. Houston is coming free once again from his blind side, but Mariota never panics. Instead he keeps his eyes downfield, diagnosing the coverage as he does.
With a blitz as strong as this one, Mariota understands that it's likely man coverage in behind. He can recognize this by looking downfield, but most importantly he is able to see where the blitz came from. Sutton vacated the middle of the field, leaving Titans receiver Hakeem Nicks space to run into.
Mariota was able to deliver a perfect pass to Nicks, who then turned downfield for a first down and more.
That play set up the offense in the red zone, where Sutton again blitzed Mariota. The rookie quarterback faced a free edge-rusher and immediately threw the ball into the flat for a first down. It was another impressive play that justified Sutton's less aggressive approach earlier in the game. ESPN's Ed Werder passed along Whisenhunt's comments, stating Mariota doesn't have a favorite receiver:
Having watched their quarterback react better than they could have realistically expected to Sutton's defense and the failing supporting cast around him, the Titans decided one half would be enough for Mariota in what was presumably his final game of the preseason.
It wasn't a perfect display for the second overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft, but it was definitely a positive one. He has edges that need to be refined, and his consistency will remain unproven for his first year at least, but he's far from the raw prospect that many painted him as.
Preseason games can never give you a true image of a player's skill set, but this preseason game offered us a clearer evaluation of where Mariota stands right now.