The Ravens are back in the land of big league quarterbacks.
But Mariota isn’t the standard, prototypical drop-back quarterback.
“I’m from the NFC West, so I’ve seen a lot of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick,” said safety Tony Jefferson, who spent four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals before signing with the Ravens during the offseason. “So the zone-read stuff is kind of in my ballpark and what I’m used to. He’s got a lot of similarities to Kap and some similarities to Russell just because of how mobile he is.
“He can keep plays alive, which poses a problem not only for the rush guy but also for the cover guys because that means we have to plaster our coverage because he can extend plays so long. Fast. The guy can run really fast. He’s probably one of their fastest players on offense.”
If the Ravens are to win Sunday, they have to control Mariota, the third-year quarterback and No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft. He can make all the throws with relative ease and has good accuracy on the short tosses. His foot speed is elite, which makes him a threat on option plays around the corner.
The Ravens had a better chance at success when the 6-foot-4, 222-pound Mariota was struggling with a hamstring injury during the previous two weeks. The Titans curtailed his movement and made him a pocket quarterback as Tennessee squeezed out victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns.
But the Titans had a bye last week and Mariota is expected to be healthy Sunday.
“I think he had a hamstring injury that he seems to be back from now,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Of course, that’s great timing for them — not for us. He’s a very talented quarterback, playing well. He’s a must-defend player.”
Injuries have been a recurring problem for Mariota. An MCL sprain in Week 15 forced him to miss the remainder of his rookie season and a fractured right fibula in Week 16 put him out for the rest of 2016.
Regardless, Mariota still completed 506 of 821 passes for 6,244 yards and 45 touchdowns during those two seasons. He has completed 110 of 176 attempts for 1,301 yards and four touchdowns in 2017. Titans coach Mike Mularkey would like to see Mariota and the offense have more big plays and success in the red zone this season, but he likes the pace of development for the former Oregon star.
“I don’t know,” said Mariota, when asked whether the injuries have slowed him. “I really try not to focus on those things. It is tough, but it’s part of it — as an athlete, that’s a thing you have to deal with. I’ll never make that an excuse; I’ll never allow that to define me as a player. I just have to go out there and continue to get better and focus on how I can be the best player for this team.”
He is the best player on the Titans roster. There were some who thought he would struggle in the NFL because he appeared somewhat fragile coming out of college where he played in what some considered a gimmick offense.
But Mularkey had worked with another quarterback who had a similar skill set when he was the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator. His name was Kordell Stewart. According to Mularkey, Mariota’s transition from college to the pro game has been smooth.
“I know there was some talk and concern about him being able to transfer to the pro system with being under center, and that was never a factor. I was here when we drafted him,” Mularkey said. “You would never have known he was a shotgun quarterback in his college career, and that has not been an issue. What he has done, though, to improve is to understand not just our offensive scheme but how defenses operate and function, where defenders are supposed to be in specific coverages and fronts and how they correlate with each other.
“He has a unique set of skills with his ability to run the ball. You have to adapt to what guys do best. You don’t want to put them in a position where they are not confident in what they are doing. He has some ability that other quarterbacks don’t have. That is why I think we have been kind of limited with his injury that he has had the past couple games.”
That won’t be a problem any longer. Mariota puts a lot of pressure on a defense causing outside linebackers to hold the edge a little longer. Cornerbacks have to stay with receivers until the whistle ends each play or they might give up a deep pass.
The kid can do it all.
“Even with Colin and Russ, they all present different things,” Jefferson said. “They’ve all got good arms, and anytime you’re dealing with a dual-threat quarterback who can make all the throws, it makes it kind of tough because if that QB has a run game, they can create another gap in the defense. So you’ve got to be really disciplined, have good coverage and plaster the coverage.”
Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs agreed.
“He’s a special talent, especially with the run-pass option,” Suggs said. “There are very few quarterbacks that can pull it off, and he’s one of them.”