FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots have faced several mobile quarterbacks this season. Duron Harmon offered some brutal honesty when asked how Marcus Mariota differs from those QBs.
“He actually knows when to run and when to pass the ball when scrambling,” the Patriots safety said Wednesday as his team prepared to host Mariota and the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. “It’s a very unique skill, because a lot of guys, once they’re scrambling, they’re not even looking downfield anymore. They’re just looking to run. But he always has his eyes downfield.”
Statistically, Mariota was a below-average quarterback this season. He ranked 16th or worse in passing yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating during the regular season and threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (13).
But, as anyone who watched last Saturday’s wild-card thriller at Arrowhead Stadium can attest, Mariota’s ability to make plays with his legs and execute in clutch situations makes him a more dangerous player than his subpar stats would indicate.
Trailing the Kansas City Chiefs 21-3 at halftime, Mariota led the Titans on touchdown drives of 91, 62 and 80 yards in the second half, throwing one touchdown pass to himself (yes, himself) and another to wide receiver Eric Decker as Tennessee prevailed 22-21. Tennessee faced five third downs over the final two quarters, and Mariota converted all of them, running for two first downs and passing for two and a score.
“It’s not like if he stays in the pocket he can’t make throws,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “But when he escapes outside the pocket and he has the ability to run and throw, you honestly really don’t have a shot to stop him, I think. We’ve played quarterbacks like this where we do want to try to keep him in the pocket, but I think that’s just the beginning part of it. … He’s a good enough passer that he’ll make all the throws on the football field.”
New England struggled early this season against athletic quarterbacks Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson, losing to Newton’s Carolina Panthers at home and needing a last-minute touchdown to defeat Watson’s Houston Texans. The QBs combined for 85 rushing yards on 16 carries in those two games and excelled at evading the Patriots’ pass rush, surrendering just four total sacks.
“It just sucks because it’s another thing to add on your plate,” Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe said. “You can have great coverage, but now we have to worry about him extending plays, especially on third down.”
The Titans, who are coming off their first playoff win since the 2003 postseason, are listed as 14-point underdogs against the top-seeded Patriots. They’ll likely need a herculean effort by Mariota and/or running back Derrick Henry (career-high 153 rushing yards vs. Kansas City) to even keep the score moderately close against the defending Super Bowl champions.
Still, the Patriots aren’t taking Tennessee’s young QB lightly.
“Anytime he touches the ball,” Harmon said, “he’s dangerous.”
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