If the Titans want to shock the world, they will have to move the ball to keep Tom Brady and co. off the field, and they must score points when they have the opportunity. Execution on third downs and in the red zone could be the difference in this game.
On the other side of the ball, they must get pressure on Tom Brady to have any shot at winning.
Below, I’ve highlighted one key matchup each for offense and defense that, if exploited correctly, could propel Tennessee to victory.
The Titans’ offense, despite their season-long struggles, actually has a decent chance to be productive against this Patriots team when you consider what the Titans do well on offense and where the Patriots have trouble.
The New England defense finished the year ranked 5th overall in points allowed, giving up just 18.5 per game. However, the Patriots rank 31st in defensive DVOA. Part of this discrepancy is the Patriots red zone defense - New England allows a 4th-best 43.75% touchdown percentage in the red zone. They are truly a “bend but don’t break” squad.
You might think the Patriots have more trouble defending the pass, as New England ranks 30th in the league in passing yards allowed. But basic statistics can be deceiving. Consider that the Patriots, who went 13-3, were leading for most of the season, resulting in opposing teams often abandoning the run to play catch up.
If there’s one thing we know about the Titans, it’s that they will not abandon the run, even when playing catch up. In last week’s game against Kansas City, Derrick Henry had 111 of his 156 yards in the second half, which opened with the Titans trailing 21-3.
The Patriots are the 30th-ranked team in rush defense DVOA. They are 21st in pass defense DVOA, which still isn’t good, but I think the Patriots true weakness on defense is the run game.
One aspect of the Patriots’ rush defense that’s particularly poor is defending mobile quarterbacks. They simply don’t have the athleticism on the front-seven. The read option creates opportunities for both the running backs and especially the quarterbacks against New England.
Rich Hill for New England’s SBNation site PatsPulpit.com wrote an in-depth article detailing the Patriots’ struggles against mobile quartebacks and had this to say:
These teams run the Zone Read for the most yards in the league this season, with most of these teams using their Quarterback's athleticism for additional yards.#KeepPounding #Browns #TitanUp #FlyEaglesFly #Seahawks #ChiefsKingdom #DallasCowboys #Jaguars #Texans #Bengals50 pic.twitter.com/LLAQQDvqa6— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) December 15, 2017
As of December 15th, the Titans were averaging more yards per carry on zone read/option runs than any team in the league. It was effective against Kansas City last week, and the Titans will need to use it with success again this week. I think they will actually be able to do so.
Matchup: Marcus Mariota versus Marquis Flowers
I expect the Patriots will use linebacker Marquis Flowers as a spy on Mariota for most of the game. Flowers has only been a starter for the Patriots’ last two games, including a 10-tackle, 2.5-sack performance against Tyrod Taylor and the Buffalo Bills.
Even so, will he be able to keep up with Mariota when he starts to scramble as things break down?
On this play, the Chiefs rush four in Cover 2 man-to-man with a robber doubling as (1) a spy on Mariota and (2) responsible for covering Derrick Henry out of the backfield. He can’t cover both. When Henry draws the linebacker away, it opens a running lane for Mariota.
The Chiefs could’ve rushed three and left an additional defender to spy, but if that defender is a defensive linemen, Mariota will outrun them. If it’s a nickel backer, the Titans will attack with the power run game out of 11 personnel. This is a true mismatch in the Titans favor, and they need to exploit it.
Marcus Mariota can outrun most linebackers in the NFL. Just watch poor Paul Poluszny try and chase him down from the middle of the field on this play from Week 17.
Marquis Flowers will probably fill this “QB spy” role for New England, and I think the Titans should attack him. Force him to make plays.
Flowers missed Wednesday’s practice with an illness and returned as a limited participant on Thursday. He’s listed as “Questionable” for Saturday’s game, but I expect he’ll play.
If the Titans continue to run the offense as well as they did in Kansas City, they should be able to move the ball against New England.
The hard part will be executing in the red zone. The Titans will need more touchdowns than field goals if they are to pull off the upset.
On defense, the Titans will have their hands full a week after dealing with the triple-headed attack of the Chiefs that included Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce. Kelce was sadly knocked out of the game early, but still finished with 4 catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Hill racked up 87 yards on 7 catches to lead the Chiefs, and Kareem Hunt turned his 14 total touches into 47 yards and a touchdown.
The Chiefs’ biggest offensive threats put up numbers, but the Titans were able to come away with the win. They will need to prepare for a similar attack from the Patriots’ own “big three.”
The NFL’s worst mismatch, Rob Gronkowski, will likely be the responsibility of a combination of Jayon Brown, Johnathan Cyprien, and Kevin Byard. Gronk is going to ‘get his’ throughout this game. The trick for the Titans will be limiting his impact down the stretch.
Brandin Cooks is always a threat to go deep, finishing with the third-most average air yards per target in the NFL, according to NFL Matchups on Twitter. Dion Lewis has played very well since returning from injury this season as the leader of the Patriots’ multi-headed rushing attack.
These players get used the most as "DEEP BALL" guys, stretching the defense vertically.— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) January 2, 2018
Even in offenses which prefer the short pass, having a deep threat is huge.#Bucs #Chargers #Patriots #Lions #Seahawks #49ers #LARams #Bills #Dolphins #InBrotherhood #HereWeGo #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/R3FwUbHx7H
The key to slowing these weapons is to get to the source: Tom Brady. Pressure Brady, and maybe you can disrupt his rhythm.
Tom Brady's play under pressure has been on another level this season pic.twitter.com/34NQtffAFj— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 26, 2017
Tom Brady is really good. He’s really good in a clean pocket, and he’s also really good under pressure. When the rush comes from the edges, Brady is a master at stepping up in the pocket and finding an open man. As you can see from the graphic above, he’s the highest rated quarterback in the NFL against pressure. (Yes, Mariota is pretty good against pressure, too).
But when that pressure comes up the middle... if there’s a way to disrupt Tom Brady, well, that’s how you do it: interior pressure.
Watch the poor left guard (#62) on this snap.
Joe Thuney attempts to block Dolphins DT Jordan Phillips and is beat instantly. Meanwhile, Ndamukong Suh destroys center David Andrews. Brady has no chance.
On this next play, Joey Bosa easily runs inside past right tackle Cam Flemming and gets to Brady for a sack (knee was down before ball came out).
Brady is stoppable if you can generate interior pressure. Dick LeBeau loves sending his linebackers through the A-Gaps on disguised blitzes.
Sometimes those linebacker blitzes end up being exploited. Here, Brady sees the pressure coming and knows where his mismatch is - Dion Lewis against a defensive end Cameron Wake.
Again, Tom Brady is really good. He’s hard to stop.
Matchup: Jurrell Casey versus Joe Thuney
Joe Thuney has been the weak link on a subpar Patriots offensive line all season. Jurrell Casey will be lining up across from Thuney for most of this game, is going to need to play out of his mind, disrupting the Patriots offense from the interior. He’ll need help from Sylvester Williams and Austin Johnson.
Derrick Morgan should also be able to take advantage of right tackle Cam Flemming, as well. If the Titans can get the edge rushers working in tandem with the interior pressure, they may be able to disrupt Brady enough to make a difference.
The Patriots are the favorite to win the Super Bowl for a reason. They are an extremely difficult team to beat, especially at home. The Titans must take advantage of the mismatches in their favor in order to have any chance at pulling off the upset.
The Patriots will make plays throughout this game. Brady will step up and deliver a pass at the last second. Dion Lewis will make plays out of the backfield. Rob Gronkowski will rumble downfield, seemingly unstoppable.
These things happen even when the Patriots lose. The Titans will have to withstand the Patriots attack and counter it.
The Patriots will make plays. The Titans just have to make more.