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How the Falcons are using Marcus Mariota different than other teams and their QBs

A deeper look at the numbers from Mariota’s first start in almost three years

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

When Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota was last a starter, it was 2019 and the Titans had just promoted tight ends coach Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator as a replacement for the recently-departed Matt LaFleur. Not that you would guess it based on the success that he’s had with the Green Bay Packers over the last three years, but Tennessee’s offense struggled immensely in LaFleur’s final campaign, especially in the passing game with Mariota.

Despite throwing 26 touchdowns as a second-year player in 2016, Mariota had half as many over 15 starts in 2017, then managed only 11 touchdown throws in 14 games in 2018. Mariota had fewer touchdown passes that season than Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nick Mullens, and Joe Flacco, despite none of those players starting more than nine games. He had as many touchdowns as what Josh Rosen had with the Arizona Cardinals and in the same number of starts.

In Rosen’s case, he was demoted and then traded to the Miami Dolphins. In Mariota’s case, he was given another opportunity to start in 2019 but with the added dimension of a former Dolphins quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, coming to the franchise as a fallback option.

Through four starts under Smith, Mariota was reborn, throwning seven touchdowns and no interceptions while also rushing for 112 yards in those contests. In a perfect world, Mariota was on pace for a Trey Lance-like 28 touchdowns and no interceptions. In the real world, the next two weeks couldn’t have gone much worse for Mariota.

The Titans fell flat in a 14-7 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 5, with Mariota going 13-of-22 and getting sacked five times. Then the following week, Mariota went 7-of-18 for 63 yards, was sacked three times, and threw two interceptions in a 16-0 shutout loss to the Denver Broncos.

Try as we might to paint a revisionist picture in which Mariota was about to become the player many expected him to be when coming out of Oregon as a college superstar, the truth is that it was more than an injury that led to Tannehill—who went 13-of-16 for 144 yards with an interception after replacing Mariota in that Broncos game—becoming Tennessee’s franchise quarterback in 2019.

If you ignore a 43-13 Week 1 blowout over the Freddie Kitchens Cleveland Browns, the Titans managed only 55 points in Mariota’s next five starts. Three of his last four touchdowns as a member of the Titans came against the team he will be starting for in Week 2 against the Los Angeles Rams.

In fact, Mariota has only had one touchdown pass since that 2019 game against Atlanta, and that came back in 2020 as Derek Carr’s backup on the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Marcus Mariota reclamation story may yet be told. And the offensive coordinator who nearly had everyone convinced back in 2019 that it was happening is the same man who will be Mariota’s head coach when the Falcons face the Rams on Sunday: Arthur Smith.

How will Atlanta’s offensive results in Week 2 compare to Week 1?

In his debut start for the Falcons, his first start since that Broncos game nearly three years ago, Mariota went 20-of-33 for 215 yards with 12 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown in the Falcons’ 27-26 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 1. The positives of that performance are on the surface, especially as it pertains to an Arthur Smith rushing attack that the head coach hopes to replicate from his days of working with Derrick Henry.

But below those numbers are concerning stats for Atlanta’s offense that need to be solved if Mariota hopes to do a better job of keeping rookie Desmond Ridder at bay than he did of preventing Tannehill’s comeback in 2019.

As far as field position goes, Mariota was 14-of-20 for 156 yards when he was on Atlanta’s side of the field in Week 1. But once the Falcons crept into Saints territory, the threats were contained: 5-of-14, 50 yards, two first downs.

Another issue for Smith and Mariota to solve as the year goes on is familiar to Falcons fans: What to do when they have the lead.

The Falcons led 26-10 after Younghoe Koo kicked a 27-yard field goal with 12:41 remaining in the game. Atlanta had first-and-goal from the 9, but two incomplete passes and a holding penalty led to getting three points instead of the seven that may have sealed the victory.

Mariota went 8-of-14 for 92 yards in the second half, including 5-of-10 for 55 yards in the fourth quarter. Of those, two completions were desperation short throws to Cordarrelle Patterson with under :10 seconds left, just trying to get Koo into field goal range. So before those two completions, Mariota was 3-of-8 in the fourth quarter.

At the end of his first game as Falcons starter, Mariota averaged 8.5 intended air yards per target, which ranked as the ninth-highest in the league in Week 1. But his “bad throw%” of 25-percent was the fifth-highest, even though his pressure rate of 10.8% (New Orleans decided to only blitz Mariota three times all game) was the third-lowest in the league.

But most interesting of all was the play designs of Arthur Smith in Week 1: Mariota and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts were the only QBs in the league to have more than six plays out of RPO formation. Mariota had 17, Hurts had 18. The rate was three times higher than the next-highest in the league.

The Rams should be expecting a lot of RPO formations then, with Mariota and Patterson lined up next to each other in the backfield and hoping to confuse L.A. linebackers and defensive linemen as to who will get the ball and whether it will be a run or a pass. This is where the addition of Bobby Wagner comes in handy as he saw RPO designs every week in practice as a member of the Seattle Seahawks for ten years.

Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Colin Kaepernick may have well been the godfathers of modern RPO back in 2012 and it has continued for several teams ever since.

But the ultimate takeaway for Arthur Smith in Week 1 must be of disappointment with the offense. Though 26 points may seem like a lot for a team that only averaged 18 points per game in 2021, zero passing touchdowns is all too familiar for a Mariota-led offense and those have not been the types of offenses to reach the playoffs in modern times. In Tannehill’s first full season as Tennessee’s starter, the last with Smith as the Titans offensive coordinator, he threw 33 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.

Those are the types of numbers that Atlanta hopes to get out of Mariota this year and if not, the team will eventually give Ridder an opportunity to do it because Smith may not have that much time to prove himself after the Falcons went 7-10 and ranked bottom six in both scoring offense and scoring defense in 2021.

All the more reason for the Rams to not take Week 2’s matchup against Mariota and Smith lightly: They’re both competing for long-term job security in the league.