Much like the Carolina Panthers installed the zone-read offense for Cam Newton in his rookie season, the Tennessee Titans are using a primarily college concept with rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The Titans offense sometimes employs a package of plays that give Mariota a run-pass option. They ran about a half-dozen of those plays in last week’s overtime victory against the Saints with mixed success, and they’ll likely use them in an attempt to deceive the Panthers’ attacking defense this week.
In the package, Mariota lines up in shotgun with a tailback to his right or left. The offensive line blocks like a running play, and Mariota puts the ball in the stomach of his tailback. Meanwhile, the receivers run routes rather than run block.
The quarterback reads the linebackers, and if they bite on the rush and leave their zone, Mariota has the option to pull the ball from the tailback and throw, which could lead to a big-play opportunity.
The concept is regularly seen at the college level – including plenty at Oregon with Mariota – and is starting to creep into the professional level.
“Obviously the experience he has, he’s such a quick thinker,” Tennessee interim coach Mike Mularkey said on a teleconference Wednesday. “There’s not a whole lot of hesitation. That’s a scheme to put a guy in a quick bind, and if you can have a guy who reacts as quickly as he does, and not just react to run, but his ability to react to throw it is pretty amazing.”
What the Panthers can do to neutralize that is to stop the rushing attack early. Tennessee has the 20th-ranked rushing offense in the league at 101.6 yards per game.
If the Panthers force the Titans to pass, the likelihood of Tennessee using run-pass option plays will decrease as the game wears on.
“It’s about reading your keys and doing your responsibility moreso than anything else,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Whether it’s off the hard play action where he pulls it and throws it, well if you’re in coverage you’ve got to get to your landmarks (zone). You’ve got to believe what you see. If you’re in man (coverage), you’re in man and you shouldn’t be looking at that action.
“Again, it’s one of those things where if you’re effective stopping the run, the play action doesn’t affect you either. We’ve got to be good up front first and foremost and we’ve got to be able to shut the run down early and make them one-dimensional.”