Pocket passing lesson helps dual-threat Marcus Mariota for long term

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Marcus Mariota's legs make him unique. It's the element of his game that most quarterbacks can't duplicate, but Monday night was a convincing reminder that Mariota is a franchise quarterback who happens to run well, not the other way around.

We're not too far away from the return of dual-threat Mariota. If he continues to progress, he'll be "real close" to his full self in this Sunday's Tennessee Titans game against the Browns in Cleveland. He is "much further ahead" than he was last week, per coach Mike Mularkey.

That's good for everyone involved. It opens back up the Titans playbook to include more read-option and run-pass option plays, while keeping the defense honest on quarterback runs. That should clear more room for DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry to run free.

But let's not forget what we learned from Mariota's restricted pocket passing cameo.

Mariota proved Monday night that his running ability is an excellent second option, but what will enable him to remain successful in the NFL for a long time is his ability to pick defenses apart with his arm. He'll never say it, but maybe Monday reminded Mariota of that, too.

So as much as the Colts game was about Mariota shining as he was forced to stay inside the pocket, that experience may help him in the long run.

"It is a little different, something that doesn't happen very often but that's part of the game," Mariota said. "You've got to be ready to go."

Mariota was ready to go, as was his right arm. He led the Titans to points in eight of their 10 non-kneel-down drives Monday. His accuracy was on the display in accurate dimes in clutch situations, like the 21-yard deep corner completion to Eric Decker late in the third quarter that set the stage for the Titans' first touchdown, or the 53-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Taywan Taylor that was placed outside the receiver's right shoulder, where only he could get it.

It seemed as though Mariota's confidence as a pocket passer was growing throughout the game. His accuracy and ball placement were among the best I've seen from him this season, and this came on an injured hamstring.

"He's as tough as I've been around," Mularkey said.

Where he really excelled was on play action, completing 10-of-11 for a career-high 185 yards, a touchdown and eight first downs. His footwork also was precise.

Mariota threw just one pass from outside the pocket, a throwaway. It was just the fourth time in his career that he attempted zero or one pass from outside the pocket. He had only one run -- a quarterback sneak -- his fewest rushing attempts this season.

It was the type of performance that showed Mariota would still be a good starting NFL quarterback even if he ran a 5.1 40-yard dash.

The Titans can only hope Mariota will use lessons from that pocket passing performance and combine it with his natural ability to make plays as a passer and runner outside of the pocket.

Mariota may shift into becoming more of a pocket passer when his speed declines later in his career or if injuries take a toll, but it won't happen now.

"I'll just continue to play within myself, play my instincts," Mariota said. "I'll just continue to play my game."

Mariota's game is driving defenses crazy with his arm and legs. If he can put both together with consistency, he'll reach a new level.