FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Safety Duron Harmon and his buddies on the New England defense know they have to deal with Marcus Mariota’s “unique skill” set when the Tennessee Titans visit the Patriots for Saturday night’s AFC divisional playoff game.
“He actually knows when to run and when to pass the ball when scrambling,” Harmon said Wednesday.
“It’s a very unique skill because a lot of guys once they get scrambling, they’re not even looking downfield anymore, they’re just looking to run. But he always has his eyes downfield — always knows when to run, when to throw the pass. I would say his touch on the ball, too, that gets people open when he’s scrambling.”
The Patriots have had their troubles with mobile quarterbacks this season — and there have even been not-so-mobile quarterbacks that have picked up yards on the ground against the defending champions.
Cam Newton and the Panthers beat them.
So did Kansas City’s Alex Smith, though Smith didn’t hurt them with his legs.
They beat rookie Deshaun Watson and the Texans, but Houston scored 33 points and Watson gained 41 yards on the ground.
The Patriots beat Tyrod Taylor and the Buffalo Bills twice and defeated Jameis Winston and Tampa Bay.
Mariota, who had an 87-yard touchdown run in 2015, his rookie season, ran for 60 yards on 10 carries in the regular-season finale. He picked up 46 yards on eight attempts in the playoff win over the Chiefs last Saturday.
Mariota had two touchdown passes in the wild-card game, one actually to himself as he caught a pass batted down by Darrelle Revis and took it into the end zone.
He finished off the comeback with a 22-yard TD pass to Eric Decker, but the pass/catch touchdown was enough to make Harmon think.
“It looked like it was meant for them to win,” Harmon said. “That was … first of all, that’s a very, very hard play to make and that shows you his skill set, his athletic ability — to be able to throw the ball, have it knocked down and be able to catch it where he caught it, and go in and run (on) a scoring dive, it shows his athletic ability. It shows that any time he touches the ball, he’s dangerous.”
Fellow safety Devin McCourty sees the same attributes in Mariota.
“It’s not like if he stays in the pocket he can’t make throws, 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,” McCourty said.
“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. We also, when we’re man coverage or zone coverage, we’ve got to be able to play our zones or our man tight and not allow windows or not allow a great pocket for him to sit back there and throw because he’s a good enough passer that he’ll make all the throws on the football field.”
McCourty pointed to a pass Mariota made to Delanie Walker against Indianapolis that was between four players on the sideline.
“That was a tough throw, and that was in the pocket,” he noted. “But I think we’ll have a better chance that way than him being able to escape, throw it deep or run for 30 or 40 yards. So, it’s going to be all 11 guys kind of playing their job with trying to contain him.”
Mariota was sixth in the NFL in third-down passer rating this season, a list headed by the Patriots’ Tom Brady.
“An extremely athletic guy, so there is a huge factor of mobility with him,” New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “But, you know, he’s a very strong-armed quarterback, he can extend plays, he can scramble to run or he can get out of trouble and then find his receivers downfield. He also has a run element to him, and the run game is very extensive.”