Marcus Mariota has a plan for how often he’ll slide when he takes off on the run this season. The Atlanta Falcons’ QB1 took his share of hits during Week 1’s 27-26 defeat to the New Orleans Saints.
Those hits amplified questions about the amount of punishment Mariota can and should take. The 222-pounder is a dual-threat quarterback whose ability to make yards with his legs is arguably more important than his arm strength and accuracy.
When Mariota runs, he needs to protect himself or the Falcons will be calling on rookie Desmond Ridder sooner than expected. Yet, rather than preach caution, Mariota has outlined a straightforward plan for when he has to decide to slide or fight for extra yardage.
Mariota Plans More of the Same
The central part of Mariota’s plan is to continue doing when he’s been doing so far. He stressed the importance of his competitive nature and his playing history, per ESPN’s Michael Rothstein:
Mariota certainly played his way against the Saints. The 28-year-old ran the ball 12 times for 72 yards and a touchdown.
Those rushing attempts yielded the 14th rushing score of his pro career, but they also led to a critical turnover when Mariota fumbled after being hit by Marcus Maye in the third quarter. Maye’s fellow safety Tyrann Mathieu recovered and ended a Falcons drive that appeared destined to end with at least six points.
Although the Saints didn’t profit from the takeaway, the Falcons were in the red zone with a 23-10 lead when the ball was knocked loose. One more touchdown at that point would likely have sealed the game.
Mariota acknowledged he might have made a better decision and gone to ground, but he also made it clear he’s not about to start playing in a “tentative” way:
Mariota’s show of defiance is at once cause for concern and a reason for optimism for the Falcons. The concern comes from the real risk of the starting quarterback getting injured taking a hit he could have avoided by sliding instead of staying upright.
Fortunately, any concerns along those lines can be mitigated by what Mariota’s willingness to run brings to a new-look offense.
Mariota’s Already Added a New Dimension to Falcons
It hasn’t taken long for Mariota to change the appearance and personality of the Atlanta offense. His flair on the ground has added the element of unpredictability missing when the generally static Matt Ryan called the pocket home.
Keeping defenses guessing is an obvious advantage anywhere on the field, but it counts most in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Teams have to play run first since it’s the shortest route to the end zone, but a quarterback who can run gives opponents one too many potential threats to account for and stop.
The Saints found this out the hard way when Mariota opened his account for the Falcons by going over from the two-yard line:
With two tight ends and two running backs on the field, including Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson, the Saints were understandably already occupied with players other than Mariota.
Moments like these are where his rushing skills will make a difference. Once Mariota running starts to become a defense’s primary focus, then Patterson, Pitts and rookie wide receiver Drake London can dominate.
It’s more than just theory based on how the Falcons’ offense performed, even in defeat, during the opening game. Patterson and Mariota accounted for 192 of the 201 yards the team mustered on the ground, while London hauled in five catches for 74 yards.
Changes in the gameplan also caught the eye of Falcons Beat Reporter Tori McElhaney: “With Mariota under center and not Matt Ryan, the offense was going to operate within a different wrinkle. Smith was going to be able to open up the playbook in a way he couldn’t before. And what we saw was an offense that showed a lot of different looks, pre-snap motions and – of course – RPOs.”
Mariota is opening doors for the Falcons in a schematic sense because of what he brings as a runner. Ironically, the same bonus asset could wreck the offense if Mariota runs into too many hits.