NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The kid gloves are off for Marcus Mariota.
The Tennessee Titans believe Mariota is ready to blossom as a quarterback in his third NFL season, so they’re giving him a bit more responsibility. They’re trusting Mariota to make sure the Titans have the right play called before snapping the ball.
Oh, the quarterback won’t be stepping to the line, surveying the defense and flipping mentally through the whole playbook. Coach Mike Mularkey has asked Mariota to use those valuable seconds before the ball hits his hands to counter a defense ready to blitz or positioned to blow up what the Titans previously called in to the quarterback.
“Putting more on his plate that he can hopefully get us to the right play,” Mularkey said. “Not a lot, but just enough to maybe save us a couple of snaps.”
Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 2 pick overall in the 2015 draft, has earned his coaches’ trust after his first two seasons. Injuries have been his biggest challenge so far. Knee injuries cost four games as a rookie, and Mariota missed the 2016 season finale after breaking his right leg in a Dec. 24 loss at Jacksonvill e.
On the field, Mariota has put together a resume that ranks among the league’s best. He already has thrown multiple touchdown passes in 16 games. The only quarterbacks to have more games with two or more touchdown passes in their first two seasons were Hall of Famer Dan Marino (22) and Oakland’s Derek Carr (17).
Now Mariota is going into his second full season with Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, and Mularkey says the quarterback’s familiarity with the playbook has helped the Titans work faster this offseason and preseason.
Mariota, a Hawaii native, is a quiet workaholic who’s at the job early every morning. Mularkey warns not to be fooled by Mariota’s easygoing demeanor.
“You wouldn’t expect him to be able to do what he does,” Mularkey said. “He can pick you apart. He can beat you with his feet. He can do a lot of things. He does all his talking with his play, and I like that.”
So do his teammates, especially after the Titans went from an NFL-worst 3-13 in Mariota’s rookie season to 9-7 in his second . Wide receiver Harry Douglas said they see Mariota’s competitive streak on the field. Mariota only speaks when needed, but Douglas said the quarterback makes clear exactly what he wants without being derogatory or critical.
“He shows his teammates respect, and because of that, man, we appreciate him 100 percent,” Douglas said. “We’ll run through a wall for him.”
In 2016, Mariota ranked 10th in the NFL with a 95.6 passer rating. He also threw 26 touchdown passes with nine interceptions.
Mariota has been at his best inside an opponent’s 20, where he leads the NFL with a 114.6 passer rating over the past two seasons; he has yet to be intercepted in that area. The Titans scored touchdowns on 72 percent of their red-zone trips to lead the NFL last season.
But Mariota completed only 61.2 percent of his passes overall, putting him 20th among the league’s top passers. That’s why the quarterback has focused on being more consistent.
“I want to play at a high level all year,” Mariota said. “I thought last season, for me personally, started a little slow. Just want to start good, start on a high note and just kind of keep it throughout the year.”
Mariota and the Titans did start slowly. Then he gave a glimpse of what Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense can look like over the final 13 weeks of the schedule. Mariota ranked fifth in the NFL with a 105 passer rating as he threw 22 TDs with only four interceptions. He completed at least two TD passes in eight straight games.
The Titans acquired a handful of newcomers for Mariota to target. They drafted receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor as well as tight end Jonnu Smith, and signed veteran receiver Eric Decker in late June.
Also, Mariota has worked this year on simplifying his footwork when dropping back to pass.
“Any time I get inaccurate, it starts with my feet,” Mariota said. “Those are things that I’m working on in practice, things that I worked on during the offseason. Again, everything I keep saying is consistency. If I can have solid footwork in the pocket, play in and play out, I think I can be accurate with the football and do what I need to do.”
Mariota, who changed some plays while at Oregon, has been practicing his expanded role throughout the preseason to become more comfortable with making the right check or call. How well he executes will be tested starting Sept. 10 in a challenging season opener with Oakland.
“The coaches told me if I see something,” Mariota said, “just to go out there and do what I think is best.”
The Titans are counting on that.
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