When Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Webster and head coach Ken Whisenhunt took Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, they banked on him being the future face of the franchise. If not, they would have traded that pick, as there were apparent suitors, with NFL Networks' Ian Rapoport claiming that Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles offered two first-round picks, a third-round pick, defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, cornerback Brandon Boykin, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and "more."
One year later, Webster, Whisenhunt and Kelly, Mariota's former head coach at the University of Oregon, were all displaced from their jobs, while Cox signed a new contract worth over $100 million and Boykin landed on the Chicago Bears' injured reserve list, the third team he's been with since his stint in Philadelphia.
In the NFL, it's hard to find a constant with so many moving parts. One thing hasn't changed, though: Mariota is still being looked at as the Titans' savior, even under new head coach Mike Mularkey.
Over the last two years, the Titans are just 6-16, but there has been a strong trend between Mariota's success and the team winning football games. In matches when he's posted a passer rating over 100 points, Tennessee is 6-0, while they are a combined 0-12 when he posts a passer rating less than 100 points or throws fewer than double-digit passes.
Here's the difference between 2015 and 2016, though: Mariota only had three such results over 16 games last year, while he's had three games with a quality passer rating over his last five matches, including two in back-to-back wins against the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns.
The narrative around quarterbacks in the league is simple. It's a passing league, and when quarterbacks do well, teams win. The question now is if Mariota's more successful 2016 season, especially recently, is a reflection of progression in Tennessee's passing attack or a chain of fluky results like in his rookie season.
To answer that question, you need to notice the difference between the Titans, both in 2015 and earlier this season, relative to how they have performed over the last two weeks. The truth is the mentality of those offenses have been very different.
Mariota's passing success has come from the offense setting up red-zone visits, where teams are forced to play man coverage. According to NFL.com's situational splits, seven of Mariota's 10 passing touchdowns came from red-zone visits, with all 10 of those touchdowns coming from the Titans attacking from enemy territory.
Last year, 15 of his 19 passing touchdowns came in red zone, with 17 of those touchdowns coming from the opponent's side of the field. That has been a constant in Mariota's career, but how the Titans are getting there, the sustainable new identity of the Tennessee offense, is what has changed.
To set up those man-coverage situations with more frequency, Tennessee is using the running game, option runs and run-pass options to earn a numbers advantage in the air, just like the Ducks did when Mariota won the Heisman Trophy and went to the national championship game.
With the addition of running backs DeMarco Murray and Heisman winner Derrick Henry—plus their offensive line improvement, which notably includes first-round rookie right tackle Jack Conklin—Tennessee is winning on the ground. Murray is third in rushing yards leaguewide, while Henry is 42nd.
Per Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, they had the third-best rushing offense in the league entering Week 6, while they're now third in the league in total rushing yards and second in yards per attempt as a unit. The only teams hitting at a rushing clip like Tennessee are the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills, who have a combined 9-0 record over the last month of play.
This is all happening while teams are loading up with eight-man boxes in an attempt to actively stop the Titans' rushing offense. With that established running game, Tennessee is forcing teams into single-high defenses, as squads can't afford to play two safeties 15 yards off the line of scrimmage against their ground attack.
This is where the option and the numbers game comes in handy:
If you play a high safety in football, you have 10 players assigned in run fits and/or coverage outside of the middle of the field. Because there is a mandatory five linemen in every formation, there are at least six gaps for defenses to account for in terms of run fits, from left C-gap to right C-gap.
So, if you're going to assign six players to stopping the run—a basic nickel defense—while playing with a high safety, that's seven of your 11 players on the defensive side of the ball. If a team goes into empty, they have five potential pass-catchers split out wide, which you can only cover with four remaining defenders.
You have the choice if you play with a true free safety: You either leave a receiver uncovered from the jump, letting a squad know you're playing zone, or you play a five-man box, which allows a run threat at quarterback to run free into the secondary. Mobile quarterbacks like Mariota force defenses into massive number problems, which can dictate where the football is going before the snap:
Tennessee isn't just running an empty-formation offense, though. They design several looks to test how defenses' rules adapt to numbers. For example, against the Dolphins, they ran several plays with just three traditional offensive linemen, with two extra players split out to the numbers to assist with blocking on the perimeter.
That drops the number of gaps defenses need to cover in the box from six to four, but it also forces teams to account for six players outside of the box. That's simple, right? Four run-orientated defenders, six defenders assigned to the numbers and a high safety makes 11 players, right?
That's true, but with a back in the backfield, there is now the threat of the inside zone option, where a "read player," typically an edge defender, is always going to be wrong. Four defenders in a run fit isn't enough when there are four gaps to fill and the potential for the quarterback to pull the ball.
It's just impossible for a backside defensive lineman to both crash the backside of a run play and take on the quarterback. Again, Tennessee has found another way to beat defenses with a numbers advantage.
Tennessee knows that in that formation they will either have a four-on-three to their quads side, a two-on-one to their pair side or a four-man box to account for a five-man run game.
No matter what advantage they get, they take advantage of the defense. There is no hesitation from the team to put the ball in any of their options' hands, including their quarterback, which helps keep defenses honest—something that rarely happens in the NFL, as most franchises have injury concerns about exposing their high-priced passers:
When Tennessee does get the look to run the inside zone option, they also have a "conflict read." That read is the hang defender, the No. 2 defender inside the cornerback opposite of the running back's train track, the same side a quarterback opens to when reading the C-gap defender on the option.
That player is often a slot cornerback or an outside linebacker. As a conflict player, he has to decide whether to take the quarterback, as he's the closest player who can make a play if the passer made the correct initial read, but by doing that he leaves a two-on-one advantage to the offense outside the numbers, as one receiver goes to block the single defender left while the other runs wide-open into the flats.
This turns every option into a run-pass race between a skill player and a safety if everyone executes their job, which is a nightmare for defenses. Coaches have spent years developing schemes to avoid skill players running in the secondary, and with the addition of mobile option threats, that is all thrown away.
These number games aren't just played out of exotic formations like empty sets and with offensive linemen split out. Tennessee is also able to make pre-snap number decisions out of spread sets, with two receivers split out to each set of numbers, like every NFL team does every Sunday.
If they see a two high safeties, it's an easy run give, with five linemen clearing the way. Against Miami, Henry had a 22-yard run out of that exact look:
If a defense drops that second safety down into the box, that just means that Mariota has to threaten with the option, which again will either have him or his running back in space with ease:
When Mariota does pull the ball, he has that same "conflict read" as in the exotic formations, with one receiver running into the flats and the other blocking for him. If defenses aren't lined up correctly, Tennessee's running game could easily break off a 40-yard run at any point:
Because of that home run threat based simply out of alignment and Mariota's threat to run, defenses have to play basic schemes on their heels. With hybrid pieces like tight end Delanie Walker and the fact that the Titans are more than willing to line their running backs up anywhere from fullback to X receiver, defenses can't key on personnel to know when Tennessee is going to start their hurry-up, no-huddle churning of option plays.
Due to the commitment from Tennessee to build their offense around keeping defenses honest by making them cover every inch of the field, they can slowly chip away at squads. Sure, it's ideal to run their talented backs at eight-man boxes when allowed, simply because mesh points on the option and putting the ball in the air leads to a higher rate of turnovers. But when teams start to send extra pressure or stop respecting certain assignments, they can kick into another gear and make teams plays sideline to sideline, too.
Once Tennessee gets into the red zone, teams start reloading the box, as they cannot afford the four- to five-yard chips of the running game, risking big plays in the passing game to get a drive-ending sack or turnover. This year, Mariota has 14 completions in the red zone, with seven of those landing as touchdowns. In those situations, he's executing.
The Titans have made it easier on themselves over the last two weeks to be in position to force defense's hands in the red zone, which has led to a huge increase in Mariota's efficiency. He has posted back-to-back games with a 100-plus quarterback rating and completed 69.8 percent of his throws on his way to a 6-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
As long as Tennessee isn't out-manned in the trenches, like some spread teams at the college level struggle with, they should be able to continue running their offense—which has fronted a 30-17 lead against Miami and a 28-13 lead against Cleveland— against anyone in the NFL. With their running game, which may only be second to Dallas', it seems unlikely that a front seven can keep up with this squad for 60 minutes at the line of scrimmage.
Right now, the Titans rank second in the AFC South in terms of record, but their point differential is two scores better than the division-leading Houston Texans.
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In a league ran by quarterback play, Mariota's Titans have looked better in the last two games than the rest of the division has combined over the course of six weeks of football. Mariota has had as many 100-plus passer rating games since October as Houston's Brock Osweiler, Jacksonville's Blake Bortles and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck have had in 17 games.
On the brink of being in the driver's seat for the division, all arrows in Tennessee are trending up, as they've found a way to simplify NFL defenses when they lock down on the team's primary playmakers, its running backs. By alignment, the Titans can move the ball down the field on schedule until about the 25-yard line, where Mariota then takes over as a low-risk passer taking advantage of one-on-one matchups.
According to Odds Shark, you can still find odds for the Titans to win the AFC South between +975 (bet $100 to win $975) and +330, which in a few weeks may look like an absolute steal. With the focus on the Houston-Indianapolis matchup on Sunday Night Football, the real breakout story from the AFC South has been Tennessee's offensive facelift, led by the hyperefficient Mariota.