Like the quarterback chosen before him in the 2015 NFL Draft (Jameis Winston), Marcus Mariota is in limbo midway through Year 4.
The Tennessee Titans appear committed through his fifth-year option, but Mariota has yet to prove he deserves an extension, which teams prefer to negotiate at least a year before a quarterback hits free agency. That leaves half a season to build his case, or else enter 2019 in complete uncertainty.
Coming off his most promising outing this year, Mariota must continue his progress in a rematch of last year’s divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots.
1. Can Mariota turn a corner?
Between injuries (seven games missed, at least one each year), scheme changes (three in four years) and wildly inconsistent numbers, Mariota remains a mystery through 49 games. Even his performance this season — career-low 5.0 adjusted net yards per attempt — could be deceiving, as he’s battled a nerve issue in his throwing hand since Week 1.
Mariota ditched the two-fingered glove Monday, suggesting his grip is normal again, and promptly starred in a win that night at Dallas. Most promising was his effectiveness throwing downfield from a muddy pocket, including several third-down conversions in which he had to move or take a hit before delivering into a tight window.
Those plays stood out because of their rarity. Mariota has always used his mobility much more as an escape hatch than as a weapon to extend plays and attack downfield. He regularly drops his eyes and tucks the ball amid pressure rather than sliding or stepping up while looking to throw. This often creates sacks in bunches, like this year’s drubbing at Baltimore or January’s playoff loss in Foxborough.
Despite a middling pass rush, the Patriots sacked Mariota eight times that night, and Tennessee right tackle Jack Conklin’s torn ACL wasn’t the key reason. Aware of the QB’s discomfort in the pocket, New England rushed to contain Mariota, working through blockers rather than rushing upfield. He obliged by dropping his eyes and running into sacks, something he still did on occasion Monday in Dallas, despite significant progress.
The Patriots employed the “mush rush” to great effect Sunday against Aaron Rodgers, as well as timely blitzes that sprung free rushers. Expect similar tactics in Nashville. They’ll also spy Mariota at times (third downs, red zone) and could threaten the edge if Conklin (concussion) is out.
Mariota must show he’s made strides since the Foxborough debacle. Now fully healthy, he’s throwing the ball more precisely and has had time to mesh with coordinator Matt LaFleur. Another performance like the one in Dallas would rightfully create optimism about his long-term future in Tennessee.
2. Eagles’ pass rush is due for breakthrough
The Super Bowl champs have regressed in a few areas this year, but pass rush is not one of them. The team’s middling sack total (22) can mostly be attributed to bad luck.
Fletcher Cox has already matched his 2017 total with 17 QB hits (third in NFL), but has just four sacks. Michael Bennett has 3.5 sacks on 16 hits (tied for fourth), and Chris Long has just three sacks despite 10 hits. Even Derek Barnett had 2.5 QB sacks on 10 hits before going on injured reserve.
History tells us players typically turn just under half of their QB hits into sacks, and the pendulum will swing the other way. Cox has been downright dominant against both run and pass this season, and he’d be in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion with a tad more luck. Bennett remains springy and explosive despite approaching his 33rd birthday, and Long (already 33) remains dangerous due to technique and effort.
Barnett’s injury was a blow, and Brandon Graham (1.5 sacks, five QB hits) has cooled in a contract year, but the group is still producing. Improved secondary play could be enough to swing the tide.
That improvement could come Sunday night against a Cowboys attack that still lacks weapons even with Amari Cooper. Given Dallas’ health concerns up front — Connor Williams will join Travis Frederick on the sideline; Tyron Smith and Zack Martin have played through injuries — the Eagles’ D-line should have chances to cash in.
3. Have the Rams made progress off the edge?
Los Angeles paid a hefty price (third- and fifth-round picks) hoping Dante Fowler Jr. would fix its lagging edge rush. But Fowler barely made a peep on a season-high 44 snaps in New Orleans on Sunday, as Aaron Donald (four QB hits) was the only Ram to even breathe on Drew Brees.
That doesn’t mean Fowler isn’t the answer. The Saints’ tackles are the NFL’s best in protection, and he should fare better Sunday against the Seahawks’ improving but still exploitable O-line. Playing at home and with a lead could also work wonders.
But the Rams showed in New Orleans they still have concerns. Even while rushing Fowler into a major role immediately, they kept Ndamukong Suh out of position as a wide-9 end on the other side in passing situations.
Suh shined from that alignment early this season, mashing through tackles with brute strength, but opponents have countered. Many have since neutralized him by quick-setting to halt his momentum early, knowing he’s too big to dip and rip around the corner.
After discouraging results in New Orleans, that edge-rush duo will get a better litmus test against the Seahawks.
4. Packers must key on Dolphins’ screen game
Adam Gase is a master of the wideout screen, which should be Green Bay’s top defensive priority on Sunday.
Even with Ryan Tannehill, Gase often takes decisions out of his quarterback’s hands on third downs by calling tunnel screens. Thanks to Miami’s shifty receivers and athletic offensive tackles, the ploy works plenty, and it also limits turnover risks in long-yardage situations.
With Brock Osweiler starting against Mike Pettine’s elaborate blitzing defense, Gase could lean even more heavily on the tactic. That said, its effectiveness could be compromised if tackles Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James, both battling knee injuries, are hobbled or out.
Either way, expect Gase to feature the fake-screen-and-go, with which the Patriots nailed the Packers for a 55-yard score last week. The Dolphins have several permutations of this concept, so Pettine must prepare his aggressive young secondary for many variations.
5. How will the Saints use Dez Bryant?
Bryant’s role will be limited — if he even plays — on Sunday in Cincinnati. He also will learn quickly, like Adrian Peterson last year, that Sean Payton won’t force-feed an aging former Pro Bowler.
But Payton could weaponize Bryant in Marques Colston’s old role, maximizing the 30-year-old’s strengths while hiding his declining speed and agility.
Payton and Brees attack the seams with deadly precision, and Colston made a living beating smaller corners, safeties and linebackers upfield out of the slot.
Bryant could have similar results inside, especially with so many other weapons to draw attention. He has always excelled on back-shoulder throws, using his body to box out defenders and make contested grabs. Such throws are even harder to defend out of the slot, and Brees delivers them as well as any NFL QB.
–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media