Lions 'D' wary of Titans 'triple-threat' QB Mariota

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota has completed 63.2 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and just one interception in six career road games.

Allen Park — It’s supposed to be more difficult to play on the road than at home, but apparently nobody explained that to Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.

While the sample size is admittedly small for the second-year signal-caller out of Oregon, Mariota has been incredible outside of Tennessee. In six games, he’s completing 63.2 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and just one interception. His passer rating is more than 25 points better on the road.

Mariota will look to continue that magic this Sunday when he leads the Titans (0-1) into Ford Field to square off with the Detroit Lions (1-0).

The Lions are spending the practice week preparing for what multiple coaches and players have labeled a unique challenge.

“It’s kind of a unique thing because of the fact that he’s a triple-threat kind of a guy,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “He can run, throw, he can throw from the pocket, throw on the run very well and he’s got legitimate speed.

“Oftentimes we talk about a quarterback that can run, I mean he may be a 4.8 guy or something of that nature, but this guy, he can move, he can hurt you. Anytime that you have that kind of an issue it gives you a problem.”

At the scouting combine in 2015, Mariota ran a blazing 4.52-second 40-yard dash. Only five quarterbacks have run faster during the past decade.

That speed makes him a danger to take off on any given snap, but while he’ll regularly bail from the pocket, he crosses the line of scrimmage with moderation. In 12 games as a rookie, he averaged fewer than three carries per game. And during the Titans’ season-opener against Minnesota last week, he logged four carries for 19 yards.

But defenders turn their back on the backfield at their own risk. Just ask the Jacksonville Jaguars, who let Mariota squirm free from a collapsing pocket and race past the defensive backfield for an 87-yard touchdown last season.

“Oh, it’s bad,” Lions cornerback Darius Slay said, half-joking. “I wish he couldn’t run. He needs to slow down, to tell you the truth. You just got to make sure you stay on your man at all times. At all times, or make sure he passes the line of scrimmage. Because if he doesn’t cross the line of scrimmage, he will throw that thing anywhere.”

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Containing Mariota starts up front for the Lions.

For the team’s defensive tackles, the goal remains the same as with any opponent. They want to get strong push and collapse the pocket. The edge defenders have to be more on their toes against a dual-threat passer. Against a typical stand-and-deliver quarterback, Detroit’s defensive ends are programmed to get to a spot as soon as the ball is snapped. Against the elusive Mariota, that spot expands to a zone.

“Any quarterback that has that kind of mobility is going to be difficult, in general,” defensive end Devin Taylor said. “For us, it’s more non-centralized on a spot. You’re covering more like an area than a spot.”

If Mariota breaks contain, either up the gut or the outside, it’s up to Detroit’s linebackers, or nickel cornerback Quandre Diggs, to make the stop as the next line of defense.

“We just have to play better assignment football,” linebacker DeAndre Levy said. “We didn’t do that well at all last week.”

But as Slay alluded to, the Lions must be wary of abandoning their coverage assignments to track a scrambling Mariota. At the end of the day, the quarterback would still prefer to throw.

Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin twice praised the young quarterback’s accuracy during Thursday's press conference. Mariota has completed 62 percent of his throws in his career.

Detroit will also need to wary of Tennessee’s attempt to confuse the defense.

“Funky formations, they do a lot of things,” Austin said. “There will be receivers that line up at tight end, there will be backs that line up out wide, there will be backs that line up at quarterback, there will be all kinds of things.”

Against the Vikings, Mariota faked a quarterback sneak on third-and-1, ducking behind his offense line before throwing to running back Derrick Henry. The Vikings snuffed the play out, but it’s these kinds of unique looks that make the quarterback that much more dangerous.

For Slay, the solution to slowing down Mariota is pretty simple.

“Just got to hit him,” he said. “If we don’t hit him, it’s going to be bad.”

Twitter: @justin_rogers