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Tape Don’t Lie: Examining Marcus Mariota’s history in the red zone

A Marcus Mariota package could happen this season but is he even good there?

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Los Angeles Chargers v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The red zone will be a hot topic until it improves. The Las Vegas Raiders under Jon Gruden have become a below-average football team inside the 20. It was vital for Daniel Carlson’s breakout season, but the Raiders will need touchdowns to make it to the playoffs.

The more significant issue is inside the five, where the Raiders wasted plenty of opportunities to score touchdowns. The Raiders ran 55 plays inside the five and scored 20 touchdowns for a 37% success rate. Compare them to the Cleveland Browns, who finished with a 54% success rate.

How do you fix this issue? The first idea that pops into the average person's mind is Marcus Mariota. The whispers of a special package for the former Heisman Trophy winner have been sprinkled to fans by the Raiders beat writers.

Even Richie Incognito talked about the idea during his press conference from training camp.

“We still have that mentality, but I just think we just have to get smarter. Mix it up a little bit more. Not just bang our heads against the Raiders wall. I think we have the guys up front … to use our athleticism more. Block down, pull around, get some creative looks, get some quarterback-driven runs — maybe get Marcus (Mariota) in the game.”

It is easy to assume that every quarterback with running ability is a threat by the goal line. Is that true with Marcus Mariota?

The Numbers

Mariota’s red zone numbers mainly stem from his first three seasons in the NFL. Former offensive coordinator and head coach Mike Mularkey utilized him in the red area and enjoyed success.

From 2016 to 2017, Mariota 20 carries inside the red zone. He accumulated 115 yards and scored six touchdowns. On these carries, only ten were on designed runs by the quarterback. The rest were scrambles on broken plays.

When the Tennessee Titans switched coaches to a west coast offense, Mariota’s carries in the red zone dwindled. The following two seasons, he saw 16 carries total with 41 yards and zero touchdowns. It is interesting because last season Ryan Tannehill had ten carries and seven touchdowns in the same offense.

Since the main focus here is inside the 10, Mariota saw little work there during his time as a starter. Over the total of his career, he has 23 carries with five touchdowns. Mariota only has three career touchdowns inside the five, and all of them are on scramble plays.

There isn’t objective evidence that Mariota is a red zone threat based on his numbers. While he was with the Titans, his usage there points to it not being a strength from the Hawaiian Born signal-caller. Taysom Hill's role with the New Orleans Saints is the idea for Mariota. Hill scored eight touchdowns inside the ten on 18 carries in 2020 alone. The Oregon alumni production doesn't scream wildcat package.

The Tape

They always say that numbers lie in football, but the tape never does. What does the film say? It exhibits a player who does have the ability to help. However, it has to be a perfected design by the play-caller. Mariota isn’t a creator with the ball in his hands and depends on pure straight-line speed. The best designs get him on the perimeter with a lead block in front of him.

One of the best-run plays for this is QB sweep. QB sweep is in the gap scheme family with a guard pulling or a running back as a lead blocker. The Titans ran this design below with the offensive tackle as the lead blocker. Mariota does an excellent job of reading his blocks and uses his speed to get to the sideline for a near touchdown.

Here is a similar variation using QB counter vs. the Miami Dolphins. The offensive tackle will be the lead blocker on this play call, which is different from usual. Once again, Mariota uses his speed to the sideline for an easy touchdown on the play.

When Mariota came into the game in relief of Derek Carr, power runs weren’t a part of the package. The inside zone read is the quarterback run that fits what Gruden likes to do schematically.

In Tennessee, inside zone-read was rare, but when the Titans executed it correctly, it helped move the football. Here he was versus the Jaguars back in 2017. The Titans will be running inside zone read from the 12-yard line. The quarterback reads the defensive end on this play and decides to keep it or hand it off. Mariota sees the defensive end crash and holds it for a successful outcome.

Only one time the Raiders ran inside zone read close to the goal line. Mariota had a chance to get to the sideline and score in OT to win the football game. Ninety-eight drifts to his right when the handoff gets to the mesh point. He handed it off to Josh Jacobs for a minimal gain instead of a game-winning touchdown.

Mis-reads didn’t often happen in Tennessee. He usually made the correct decision when reading the defensive end. However, it is not an area he specializes.

Arc read is a play where Mariota shined versus the Los Angeles Chargers. Arc read is a split zone action where the tight end or a running back becomes the lead blocker for the quarterback. The quarterback still reads the defensive end and decides whether to keep at the mesh point. Titans ran this to perfection for multiple Mariota touchdowns.

With this play already in Gruden’s playbook, it can become a staple for their Mariota package if they deploy it.

Final Verdict

Can Mariota help in the red zone? The answer seems to be yes based on Mariota’s film. The Titans underutilized his abilities in the red area, especially with his toughness to get into the end zone.

The former Oregon Duck does well-executing power football where he can read blocks. The problem is the Raiders quarterback run designs are solely inside zone read. It is not an area where the quarterback excels, with arc read being the exception, but that play has a lead blocker.

Gruden would have to add to his run package for quarterbacks to fit his skill set. Maybe the coach already has these changes ready for Week 1 for the Baltimore Ravens. How about Denzelle Good or Richie Incognito pulling around the corner with Mariota right behind them? That sounds like a good idea to me.