Marcus Mariota: The Task-Oriented QB


Matt’s Note: This is the second part of an analysis Eric performed on Mariota. The first part is how to develop a grading scale for quarterbacks. This post covers notable parts of Mariota’s game from Eric’s tape study. I’m restating this post with the end of the previous one. If it seems familiar, you know why . . . 

Winston vs. Mariota and Simple vs. Difficult Evaluation Processes

Even with a set of clearly defined and traits to look for and a system in which to filter their importance, quarterback scouting can still be really, really hard. That largely has to do with sample size and the amount of useable plays a quarterback has per game. I’ve said often that the NFL likes Jameis Winston because he’s a straightforward evaluation.

Every game he’s in has exposure after exposure of him showing these things – whether he shows these things in a good or bad way becomes almost secondary. The lack of nuance required to actually see the traits elevates him almost on principle, and that’s largely due to the style of offense that Florida State plays. I’ve never been a fan of the term “pro style” when describing a college offense, preferring to call them “traditional” offenses.

His offense plays at a normal pace, he takes drops from under center, and he’s not a threat as a runner. In turn, defenses respond by playing Florida State in a more traditional manner. You get more man coverage and confusing pre-snap defensive looks, tighter windows to throw into, more compressed pockets for the quarterback to navigate, etc.

Marcus Mariota sits on the other end of the spectrum. The way they play offense (and, in turn, the way defenses respond to their offense) vastly limits the amount of usable snaps per game you get from Mariota. He’s asked to make some “traditional offense” reads and throws (it’s not like their pass offense is just a million screens over and over), but the way that defenses play Oregon makes things incredibly easy on the quarterback.

Oregon’s offense is actually very easy to figure out from a theoretical standpoint. They want to use their no-huddle pace and spread formations to get the defense to declare their intentions pre-snap. Spread formations and the hurry-up tempo prevent the defense from clustering or disguising their coverages pre-snap (and the coverages tend to predominantly be zone as opposed to man).

When the defense goes into a two-high safety look, Oregon wants to run it (or combine play-action with Quarters/Cover Two beaters). Against one-high safety looks, they’re looking to combo their run game with horizontal stretches or screens in the short areas of the field (or they’ll run Four Verticals when they feel like taking a shot play). Again, a lot of these pass concepts are “traditional,” but often times Oregon is getting the perfect play-call in against a clearly defined coverage/front.

This doesn’t necessarily make Mariota a worse prospect; it makes him a tougher evaluation. You just have to search harder to find plays that display projectable traits, and because you’re dealing with such a smaller sample of usable plays, the answers can be inconclusive or even contradictory.

Mariota: Strong Anticipation Between Zones, But Questions About His Thought-Process

Getting a two-high look with pressing corners on third and long, Oregon combines a fake to the running back with mirrored “Sit/6”  route combinations. Sit/6 is mainly designed to “high-low” the seam-to-curl defender vs. cover two (or the curl-to-flat defender in Cover-3), hoping he bites up on the curl or “sit” route, leaving the 6 (or “dig route”) to break open in front of the bailing safety.


It can work against this quarters look that Washington is running with one of the linebackers spying the quarterback. However, the offense needs the safety to bail when he reads the initial vertical stem of the inside receiver. If the safety bails, he doesn’t have time to move up and bracket the dig route.


Look below at the .gif and you’ll see that Mariota opens to the left, after he sells the read-option play-fake. Three defenders (a fourth if you count the safety) are there to cover two receivers. Mariota actually begins winding up to throw to the left, but he reads the underneath coverage on the curl and pulls the ball. He changes direction to the right and hits the dig route in front of the safety who bails too quickly.

Note the safety bailing up the right hash too fast.


  Here’s a closeup of the empty space that the bailing safety leaves below:


 What’s especially impressive about this throw is the anticipation required to hit this window as the wide receiver is just in between zones.


 The throw comes late in the play-count, not leaving Mariota time to actually see the receiver clear all the underneath defenders and come open.


Mariota’s decision to throw so late in the play-count gives the defense time to compress the pocket. Mariota is not under duress, but it’s enough to force a reaction out of a skittish quarterback. There’s no overreaction from Mariota, he’s patient and pays it no real mind.

It’s a very positive play. Mariota shows velocity and accuracy in the intermediate area of the field and he had been struggling here until this point in the game. It’s also a display of anticipation over the middle of the field.

Although this play was a success, there are questions I have about Mariota’s thinking when I watch it.

In terms of understanding where and when to go with the ball against this particular defense, I’d like to know why he stayed locked onto the out-numbered side (left) of the field for so long?


Why did Mariota go so far as to wind up to throw in that direction? Did he realize a potentially egregious error at the last second or did Mariota stay locked in that direction and this windup was actually a pump-fake to prevent the backside safety from reading his eyes and coming down to bracket the backside dig route that he turns towards and hits?

Only Mariota knows for sure. I wonder about this because Mariota goes to the backside dig route so quickly after rotating to the right that it’s almost a blind throw to the backside.


He has to display faith that he did enough to force the safety to bail without seeing it. Or, did Mariota rush his process because his internal clock compels him to get rid of the ball fast, throwing blind to an open spot and hoping the safety bailed?

 Same Offensive Concept-Different Defense-Poor Pocket Management

Later in the game, we have an almost identical situation. Oregon is once again going to a mirrored Sit/6 off of play-action. Washington lines up with a single-high safety and tight corners, clearly giving a Cover-1/Man-Free look pre-snap.


Mariota opens up to the right and reacts to his space getting compressed off the right edge. He drops his eyes, panics, and declares himself a runner. He steps into a more compressed area of the pocket, which results in a sack just as the primary dig route comes open.


Referring to my previous post, the Eye-Level section of Pocket Comfort, a quarterback’s body takes a very specific stance when he’s actually declaring himself as a runner. He squares his body to the line of scrimmage and sinks his knees and hips. You see the quarterback’s helmet moving away from the coverage, looking and reacting to the first level of defenders instead to reading the second.

 This is exactly what Mariota does below. This is not the quarterback reducing his shoulder or executing a technique to address pressure with focus still down field.


Mariota wants to re-establish himself as a passer and get back up into the pocket. However, his movement and space management are awful. Of the two paths available below, Mariota takes the red path, sliding into an even more confined area instead of to the clear area along the yellow path.


Matt has talked before about task-oriented problem solvers vs intuitive/creative problem solvers. Whether by nature or by nurture, Mariota is task-oriented. The protection up front is “Area” left–all of the offensive linemen are moving laterally to their left and holding responsibility for the gap to that side. It leaves the running back responsible for the right edge.

Once that flash of pressure arrives off the right edge, Mariota drops his eyes before he slides. This is a bad habit with ordinarily a bad result, because the quarterback must now take more time to re-train his eyes to the coverage down field.

In this case, Mariota’s reaction is a bad habit with a potentially good result: He discovers that the running back is in position to block the right edge and the right guard has the wherewithal to re-direct the stunting defensive tackle.

Mariota should take the gift that he spots after overreacting to the pressure and slide to his right. Instead, Mariota slides to the same area as where his protection is moving. This is exactly what you’d expect for someone with complete knowledge of the play’s structure, but Mariota is so intent on sticking to the exact nature of the play that he ignores the better opportunity.


A more creative-intuitive passer breaks from the pre-programmed decision to slide left with the protection, and instead, steps into the available space to his right. Mariota is so intent on the details of the play that he ignores the golden opportunity. It won’t be the last time in this game.

I define Mariota’s pocket comfort according to what’s written in the Integrity Under Duress section of Pocket Comfort:Does he have a tendency to want to run to space as opposed to stepping up into the confines of a muddy pocket?”

From the Movement section of Pocket Comfort: “Where “Integrity Under Duress” focuses on the quarterback’s willingness and comfort level with playing in confined space, movement focuses on how well he actually maneuvers into the space available to him and re-set naturally as a thrower.”


This play reveals that Mariota can be so task-oriented with play design that he’s missing, if not ignoring opportunities to take what the defense gives him. An analytical personality can sometimes get so wrapped up in his process that a mistake within in that process forces him to focus harder on that next step rather than the overall goal of making a positive play. Mariota displays this potential negative of task-oriented thinking here.


After sliding up into the teeth of the pressure, Mariota only has time to check to the left – and the route combination to that side is completely blanketed. The dig to the right is breaking open just as the sack begins to occur. Mariota originally opens his drop looking to the right, and the wide receiver beats the cornerback off the line of scrimmage. The corner was behind and outside the receiver the entire way. It’s a detail the quarterback should have processed, especially after dropping his eyes and noting the opportunity to his right.



 Disjointed Pre And Post-Snap Recognition: Looking the Gift Horse in the Mouth

This isn’t the only instance where we see contradictory results off the same play call. More evidence of Mariota’s task-related, problem-solving mentality occurs in Oregon’s version of Four Verticals.  The first play below is a successful execution of this shot play against Washington’s Cover-3 look.


Since there is no play-action fake to carry out, Mariota is free to choose which side to work based on the leverage of the underneath defenders pre-snap.


Unfortunately, we never get a view of the nickel and outside corner to the right side, but Mariota opens the play looking to the right as the linebacker drops directly into the throwing lane.


With plenty of functional space to feel comfortable, Mariota quickly works to the opposite seam-runner, who bends his route enough to split the two underneath defenders.


Mariota throws at the right time and with perfect trajectory, allowing the receiver to high-point the ball just behind the middle linebacker entering the throwing lane and closing the window. It’s a successful play, which leads one to expect Mariota to look for the open seam again if they draw the Cover-3 look pre-snap.

Later in the game, Oregon  returns to a slightly different variation of Four Verticals and draws a defined Cover-3 look pre-snap from Washington. This time, the Ducks include a play-action fake and have the tight end and flanker switch the verticals. The flanker bends inside early and the tight end releases towards the flats and finishes with a wheel route up the sideline.

In this case, pre-snap defensive leverage probably dictates working the right side. The nickelback has advantageous leverage on the left slot receiver–where Mariota went on the previous play with success–whereas the wheel route to the right should theoretically draw the underneath defenders to that side and the horizontal movement of the defense will opening things up for the outside receiver on the right of the tight end. The receiver will bend inside and run up the seam.


Although there’s an advantageous match-up on there right side, it’s the pay-off to a slower-developing plan that begins with the play-action fake that requires Mariota to open up to his left. This is where we see the difference between a task-oriented thinking bogged down in process and a player who recognizes opportunities beyond the steps.

As Mariota opens left with the execution of the play fake, the nickelback blitzes off the left edge. This leaves a huge void inside for the slot receiver to run up the seam. However, Mariota stares at the blitzer (red arrow below) and ignores the receiver running into the void. Mariota works back to his right to execute what he saw pre-snap. 


This is an example of Mariota’s task-oriented processes taking over. It’s also disjointed pre-snap and post-snap recognition and another demonstration of his tendency to stick to a play call’s letter of the law despite seeing a much better opportunity staring him in the face.

Think of it this way: You developed a business to sell a product. You hope you’ll sell enough to retire. The first customer who walks into your establishment makes an offer to buy you out–an offer that will cover all of your expenses plus more than you need to live out retirement for the next 40 years. However you ignore his offer and pitch him on the value of one unit of your product.

Mariota ignored the buyout offer and retirement package because he was too focused on the plan and not the goal.

The left slot receiver has so much room to work with that Mariota has the choice to hit him quickly on a line drive (red line) or alter the trajectory and lay it over the top (blue line), depending on which throw he was more comfortable making.


As soon as Mariota turns back to the left, the pocket is constricted and he drops his eyes from coverage and gets into a runner’s stance.  At this point, the play is essentially dead. Mariota reacts to a constriction of his space.

This shouldn’t even count as interior pressure, because the nose tackle is only getting a small push, but Mariota drops his eyes, squares up and declares himself a runner, bailing to the left despite being right-handed and having room to break the pocket to his right. This is the sign of a quarterback who is more comfortable with how the play is supposed to be rather than how it unfolds on the field.

Notice also how the linebackers start reacting immediately as soon as Mariota enters a runner’s stance. They don’t wait for him to actually bail from the pocket or get into his scramble. They see the body crouch and the head drop down, and they stop immediately stop gaining depth and start expanding towards the sideline with him, keeping themselves in potential throwing lanes.


It’s an easy clean-up for the defense once Mariota gives up the pocket with that disjointed pre-snap/post-snap recognition and drop of the eyes in the pocket.


These plays are just a snapshot, but they illustrate the difficulties that come with evaluating Mariota. He passes arm strength thresholds to throw into the intermediate portions of the field. He’s willing to test windows in the intermediate range and can do so with anticipation. He’s also a plus-athlete who is extremely adept at avoiding free rushers. It’s admirable that despite being highly athletic, he wants to play within the confines of the pocket.

On the other hand, Mariota’s accuracy and decision-making are highly dependent on playing in rhythm. He also gets extremely uncomfortable when he perceives pressure or his space being threatened.

Then there are the issues of projecting his game to the NFL from the Oregon offense.  This doesn’t even include the learning curve he’ll face of having to say word-salad NFL play-calls in a huddle and playing at a much slower pace. He also rarely played from behind or with the offense off-schedule.

Mariota has flaws, but they’re not necessarily fatal – after all, Matt Ryan struggles mightily with his space being constricted and he is highly dependent on being in rhythm. They also have a similar range of functional velocity as throwers.

Developing a good, consistent post throw like Ryan will be an absolute necessity for Mariota – in terms of functional arm strength, it’s an anticipation throw at the edge of their limits. Mariota is a better athlete with more escapability, and Ryan is a far more precise player in the intermediate areas.

Overall, I remain unconvinced that he has the precision or comfort level in confined space to make an impact early in his NFL career or to develop into a “franchise savior.” However, there is potential for a solid NFL starter if a team is patient developing him.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, get the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2015 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece. 

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