[title_box title=”Mariota Monday: The battle for lunch money”]
We’ve all been there.
Standing in the lunch line as a small child, gripping tightly onto your scarce dollar bills and loose change, hoping it can last by the end of the line before it is swept away by the brute force of elementary school bullies.
Time moves in slow motion, your palms become sweaty, knowing that at any moment you could be out of yet another lunch.
This time it’s different though. You are tired of being hungry. You are tired of being belittled. This time, you will battle for your lunch money.
The Tennessee Titans were bullied by the NFL in 2014, finishing the year 2-14. Rex Ryan, prior to the start of this season, stated that he wanted to “build a bully.” Yesterday, the two teams met, and the Bills were set on stealing the Titans’ lunch money.
But so were the Titans, who had their oppressors (the Indianapolis Colts) dead to rights last week through three quarters, only to have their lunch money swiftly stolen away.
Initially, the Titans were the enforcers, as the Bills offense could not get anything going against the aggressive Titans defense. But the Bills defense also played the role of a bully, stopping the Titans in their tracks a multitude of times.
Overall, the game was brutal to watch because both teams were not interested in making it look pretty. Rather, they were interested in establishing themselves as dominant forces.
When the Titans established a 10-0 lead, they had established the tone of the game. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor never found his rhythm and either threw a dink-and-dunk throw or got sacked. The lead was minuscule, but the presence of the Titans defense was overwhelming.
Yet, there were also moments where the Titans defense did not appear aggressive, as Taylor began using his legs instead of his arm to make plays, most notably his 24-yard scamper on a third-and-23 where the Titans defense left an impossible amount of space for that situation.
Still, the problem in this game wasn’t the defense. Allowing fourteen points at home should get you the victory, right?
Well, not unless your offense decides to fall victim to the bullying that was taking place. That is where Marcus Mariota comes into the picture.
Mariota, for the most part, played a solid game when you take into consideration the situation he was in: a rookie playing one of the league’s top defenses in only his fourth career start.
After week one, Mariota and that Titans offense looked like the biggest bullies on the block. Remember that game? It seemed so long ago, that 42-14 thrashing of Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now, the Titans are 1-3 and in the midst of a three game losing streak, similar to last season.
Should there be optimism? Of course. Do the Titans still face severe issues? Yes, and that is that defenses have learned a couple of key ingredients in stopping a Mariota-led offense.
In the Tampa Bay game, the Buccaneers were that overly nice kid who gave away stuff to everyone. His money, his food, his homework, etc. Mariota was not faced with a challenge in that game, thus allowing the greatest debut for a rookie quarterback in NFL history. Yes, NFL history.
Week two was a completely different story. The Titans, after being the beneficiaries of an enormous amount of hype, got clobbered by the Cleveland Browns. Mariota was sacked seven times, fumbled three times and lost two of them. The Titans fell behind 21-0 before they made an admirable comeback attempt, but the Browns won 28-14.
Then there was week three, where the Titans, after falling behind 14-0, scored 27 unanswered points and held a dominant 27-14 lead over the Colts. Andrew Luck was being butchered by the Titans defense while Mariota was performing surgery on the Colts defense.
In the fourth quarter, the tables turned and the Titans were suddenly not the enforcer. The Colts played with a little more edge and edged the Titans 35-33.
The Bills looked anemic after falling behind 10-0, but suddenly found new life through the legs of Tyrod Taylor. The Bills defense was exceptional all game and only allowed a touchdown due to a special teams error. Aside from that gaff, the Titans were only able to put up six points.
The first key ingredient is that the Titans have yet to learn how to be the true enforcers for a complete game. It was simple against Tampa, which was whimpering and begging for mercy throughout the game, but when teams like Cleveland, Indianapolis and Buffalo asserted themselves, the Titans did not appear ready to handle the situation.
The most significant ingredient comes with Mariota himself. The fact of the matter is this: Mariota has been a shell of his week one self.
Yes, he is a rookie, but teams have began to beat up the rookie quarterback and bring the level of hype surrounding him down back to Earth. Let’s look at Mariota’s game-by-game stats.
Week 1: 13-15, 209 yards, 4 TD, 95.7 QBR
Week 2: 21-37, 257 yards, 2 TD, 2 fumbles, 29.7 QBR
Week 3: 27-44, 367 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 38.8 QBR
Week 5: 21-32, 187 yards, INT, 55.5 QBR
After scoring four touchdowns in his first game, Mariota has only thrown four touchdowns over the past three weeks while turning the ball over five times.
This is not a criticism strictly of Mariota, but it is telling that Mariota becomes remarkably pedestrian when defenses get physical. Even worse is his fourth quarter play, which over the last two games has featured two absolutely crushing interceptions.
So what’s my point?
I’m not saying Mariota is a bad quarterback by any stretch, because he is obviously ahead of the learning curve. My point is that Mariota’s play will continue to be bland and overall nothing special if the Titans, as a team, don’t learn how to enforce for a complete game. If Mariota is the already veteran leader everybody in the locker room claims him to be, then it starts with him.
Otherwise, what happened against the Colts and Bills will happen all season. The Titans feel as if they are ready to take on the challenge of teams more imposing than they are, and they might for a moment have a chance, but they always get their lunch money stolen from them.
Edited by Cody McClure
“Mariota Monday” is a Titans opinion column written by Tennessee Journalist sports writer David Bradford. The Tennessee Journalist does not necessarily agree with the viewpoints expressed in this column.