As the Titans get ready to take on the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, there is plenty of reason to worry that their rollercoaster ride of a 2017 season is finally coming to a halt. The Patriots have both the greatest coach of all time and the greatest quarterback of all time working to try to win their 6th Super Bowl together. They also might have the greatest tight end of all time, but that’s a conversation for another day. Suffice it to say: they are heavy favorites for a reason.
However, I don’t expect the Titans to be the pushover that many in the national media are predicting them to be. There are a few reasons for this belief — the emergence of Angry Derrick Henry, Jurrell Casey’s ability to get interior pressure, the Titans preference for man-to-man coverage, a distinct advantage in the trenches on both sides of the ball — but none is more important than the health of their quarterback, Marcus Mariota.
While the hamstring injury early in the season is the only ailment to cost him playing time, it’s also been reported that he’s been hampered by lingering effects from that injury far beyond his return against the Colts as well as leftover issues with his surgically repaired ankle, an unspecified shoulder injury suffered late in the Cincinnati game, and the sprained knee he picked up in Arizona. Add all those up and Mariota has been working at far less than 100% for the vast majority of 2017. These injuries have affected his mechanics and mobility throughout the season, leading to a stat line that falls far short of the breakout season many expected him to have.
This week Mike Mularkey said that Mariota is as healthy as he’s been all season and that’s evident in the quarterback’s play the last couple weeks. We know about the heroics — running through a Malik Jackson tackle, stiff arming Barry Church, catching his own touchdown pass, and throwing a game clinching block on Frank Zombo — but he has also produced his two highest totals of rushing attempts on the season in the last two games. That’s a very good indicator of Mariota’s improved health and its great news for the Titans offense.
The Titans offense seems to go as Mariota’s health and mobilty goes and there are some pretty convincing stats to back that up. Below are the five games that Mariota got more than five attempted carries. The carries count both both designed runs and scrambles, both of which are good indicators of the quarterback’s relative health.
vs JAX: 10 carries, 15 points, 232 total yards
at KC: 8 carries, 22 points, 397 total yards
vs SEA: 7 carries, 33 points, 420 total yards
at JAX: 6 carries, 37 points, 390 total yards
vs CIN: 6 carries, 24 points, 416 total yards
This five game sample includes three of the Titans top four point totals and four of their top five yardage totals. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. They also just happen to be 5-0 in those games.
When you isolate those five games you find the Titans averaged 26.2 points per game and 371 total yards per game when Mariota gets at least 6 carries. In games when he gets 5 or less, they average 18.8 points per game and 303.7 total yards. That’s a massive discrepancy and it seems impossible to consider those numbers to not be correlated.
Keep in mind also that the Titans left two touchdowns on the field against Cincinnati — the Matthews drop and the Davis fumble through the end zone. If you add those back to the numbers above you’re getting almost 30 points per game with their QB at close to 100% against some of the better defenses in the NFL. That’s the offense everyone expected to see from the Titans in 2017.
We know what a weapon the read option is for this team and the Titans leaned on it heavily against Kansas City. Over the course of the season they were the most effective read option team in the league despite having relatively few games with a fully healthy Mariota.
I fully expect that element to be a prominent part of the Titans offensive game plan against the Patriots. However, that’s not the only reason to expect #8 to be more effective in New England than he had been for the majority of the regular season. His confidence has seemed to return along with his health. We’ve seen the no-look passes back in his game in Kansas City, using his eyes to manipulate defenders and open passing lanes multiple times — the hallmark of a healthy and comfortable Mariota. You can see the confidence growing in the Titans young quarterback in his body language over the past two weeks.
To slay a giant, first you have to believe that you can do it. Mariota’s newfound swagger would seem to indicate he thinks he’s ready to play with the best in the NFL. If the Titans are going to shock the world in New England on Saturday they will need their quarterback to lead the way. The good news is that he appears ready and able to do just that.