Reminder: Each week, I’ll watch the five most recent games our opponent has played, in order to get a feel for their strengths/weaknesses, tendencies, and how well they’ve been playing leading up to their game against the Titans. I’ll break my findings down into four sections: When the Titans Run, When the Titans Pass, When the Opponents Run, and When the Opponents Pass. I’ll also list 4 players (2 offense, 2 defense) from each team who I believe could swing the final outcome based on their play.
New England Patriots
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Pats as I sat down to start evaluating them. In all honesty, outside of the playoffs or a random prime time game, they’re the last NFL team I care to sit down and watch. They’re so predictable, consistent, methodical, etc. After so many years of constant success, they border on being boring to me. There’s no greater subconscious sign of respect than yawning at greatness.
So, I didn’t know whether I’d be watching a dominant team, or just one that found a way to piece together 13 regular-season wins with fundamentally-sound football. I’m still not sure I have the answer. For better or worse (I’d say the latter), the NFL’s newfound fascination with scheduling both games against a divisional opponent late in the season meant I got to watch the Bills and Dolphins play the Pats twice each (I excluded week 17 again, because Rob Gronkowski did not play against the Jets). Divisional games are always tough to gauge from, given the familiarity between both coaches and rosters. I also took in New England’s heavyweight bout with the Steelers in week 15. In all five games, the Patriots proved they still do the little things well, and that they know how to win if given an opportunity. However, they also looked beatable.
Don’t take this as a prediction of a Titans’ victory by any means, but I’m truly stunned that the national and New England media think this game is equivalent to a second bye week for the Pats. They’ve put nothing on tape this season to suggest that they’re invincible. Frankly, if the Titans don’t keep this game within relative reach, I’ll be disappointed in Mularkey and the coaching staff. There are attackable weaknesses to this NE squad, and the Titans’ strengths actually counter them well. The only scary aspect about the Patriots in this game, to me, is their penchant for dominating in the divisional round—they’re 11-2 since Tom Brady entered the starting lineup in 2001.
When the Titans Run
We saw last week what Derrick Henry can do when he’s given a full set of carries, gets blocks, and runs with determination. I expect Bill Belichick to focus on taking away the predictable tight-formation handoffs we’ve seen from the Titans’ offense this year. It will be imperative for Mularkey, Terry Robiskie, or Marcus Mariota—Who knows who calls the plays at this point?—to leverage the shotgun zone-read looks we saw last week, at least enough to keep the Pats’ front seven honest.
If the play calling is varied, and we see the same O-line and Derrick Henry we saw against the Chiefs, I will be salivating as the game wears on. New England doesn’t play down hill against the run well enough to convince me they can get to Henry in the backfield often. Once he gets rolling past the line of scrimmage, look out.
Statistically, the Pats aren’t good against the run, as we’ve been hearing this week. Football Outsiders has their front seven ranked 31st overall against ballcarriers, and the only sub-stat which they measure averagely in are short-yardage situations (15th). They gave up 4.7 yards per carry during the regular season, placing 31st in the league in that metric. Third-year DT/DL Malcolm Brown is the only member of the Patriots’ front seven to grade out higher than 80 in run defense, according to PFF (87.1).
Henry, as well as Marcus Mariota, present a level of athleticism and running prowess that NE’s defense shouldn’t, based on the evidence we have, be able to handle. We can only hope that Belichick and DC Matt Patricia don’t find a minute detail on tape they feel they can exploit. Luckily, the run game we saw last Saturday from the Titans hasn’t been put on tape much.
When the Titans Pass
The Patriots’ pass defense is only marginally better than their run defense. Football Outsiders actually has them calculated as worse at pass defense, based on DVOA, but it just happens that they rank better at pass defense when compared to the 31 other defenses—they’re 21st. Based on the yards they gave up per attempt this year, 6.4 (also 21st), that ranking feels about right. They also allowed the fourth-most passing first downs, 204.
Based on PFF’s grades, the Pats’ secondary has actually covered respectably this season. This isn’t entirely surprising, as the duo of Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore certainly has a high ceiling. Safeties Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung have also consistently done their jobs. If you want to attack New England through the air, you do so by using plus match-ups against linebackers in the short and intermediate-middle areas of the field. Delanie Walker will almost assuredly be a major point of emphasis in NE’s defensive game plan, but I don’t think they’ll be able to eliminate him completely—their linebackers and safeties aren’t athletic enough to stay glued to him. I don’t expect the Titans to force too many deep throws on normal pass calls, as the Pats’ secondary seems to limit big, vertical plays effectively.
It remains to be seen how the Titans’ play-action game will match-up against the Pats’ pass rushers. If there’s one thing NE’s defense does well, it’s get to the quarterback out of their blitz packages. I did not witness opponents have much success manipulating the Patriots using play-action, because the quarterback was usually forced to escape the pocket before the primary deep read could uncover. New England’s LBs/EDGEs are near carbon copies of one another, mid-sized and fluid when blitzing. They scream to the QB when allowed a crease. The Titans’ ability (or inability) to pick up the Patriots’ pass rushers is going to be a major deciding factor in the outcome of this game.
When the Patriots Run
In their typical fashion, the Patriots optimally utilize a backfield committee of relative no-names. That isn’t meant as disrespect to Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and James White. They just aren’t the types of backs, save for possibly Lewis, that would have steady success running in another offensive scheme.
Finally healthy for an extended stretch, Lewis is a diminutive lightning bug coming out of the backfield. He combines his elusive speed with a rugged, difficult-to-arm-tackle style. Once he squirts out past the pile, he’s off to the races. Lewis finished the regular season 2nd in yards per attempt amongst RBs.
Burkhead mostly enters the game in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He’s a stocky, straight-line runner who gets behind his blockers and drives the pile. Though he sat out of the Pats’ last two games, he’s expected back for this week. Over his last four active games, he scored 5 rushing touchdowns and 1 receiving touchdown from inside the red zone.
James White, the real MVP of Super Bowl LI, has somewhat surprisingly seen a drop in usage this season. Given the TItans’ stoutness against the run, however, I do wonder whether White’s pass-catching skills will be more heavily featured against them.
In this match-up, the Titans simply need to keep doing what they’ve been doing in run defense. They have a knack for maintaining gap control and limiting how much space backs have to work with. Dion Lewis, as mentioned, is not as easy to bring down as it would appear based on his stature. Tennessee has tackled well near the line of scrimmage this season, but Lewis possesses a combination of shiftiness and slipperiness that they haven’t faced yet. Once the Patriots get near the goal line, I’m not sure there’s much hope anyways, given “Brady 2 Gronk”, but if they hope to stop Burkhead, the Titans’ DL will need to hold up against NE’s power-blocking “wedge”.
When the Patriots Pass
Ultimately, this is the match-up that will decide whether the Titans walk out of Foxborough with a W—I feel Tennessee actually has the advantage in the other 3 areas I’ve covered. We’ve all witnessed the excellence of Tom Brady over the years, and although he is no longer playing at his peak due to age, he is still the best “mind” behind center in the NFL. If given time, he will pick apart any opponent. In order to get off the field, pressure from Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan and Jurrell Casey on 2nd and 3rd down will be critical.
Rob Gronkowski is Brady’s “wingman”. At times, Brady will exclusively target Gronk several plays in a row. As much as I love Jayon Brown as our nickel linebacker of the future, he stands no shot at limiting Big Rob. We saw Brown be in good position against Travis Kelce last week, but he is still learning how to attack the ball or receiver when he’s in range. Gronk isn’t as much of a catch and run threat as Kelce, and he’s not likely to get as wide open as Kelce with speed and route running. Instead, he just wins at the catch point, almost every time; it’s truly amazing. Kevin Byard is the Titans’ sole chance at slowing Gronkowski down. Byard has enough speed, physicality, instincts and aggression to battle such a dominant threat.
If/when Byard essentially mans up on Gronk, the question, then, is who assists cornerbacks covering Brandin Cooks? Johnathan Cyprien doesn’t seem ideally suited for that task. There was an interesting article posted to ESPN’s Titans Blog this morning detailing Cooks’ drop-off in production in recent weeks. You should check that out. The basic premise of the article is that physical press-man coverage has succeeded in nullifying the speedy receiving threat. While certainly intriguing, I’m not sure the Titans have a CB who can both disrupt Cooks at the line of scrimmage and keep up with him downfield. Do you trust Logan Ryan to win in press-man consistently enough that Cooks’ speed becomes irrelevant? Or, do you let rookie Adoree Jackson give it his best shot knowing that he can at least run with Cooks stride for stride? I’m curious to see the approach that Dick LeBeau takes. We may see coverage by committee depending on the situation and where Cooks lines up.
Outside of Gronkowski and Cooks, there isn’t a receiver on the Patriots’ roster who scares me, knowing what I know of our defense. Danny Amendola will certainly catch passes, but he’s not going to thrash us with RAC after he does. As mentioned, there’s a decent chance that OC Josh McDaniels attempts to deploy backs as pass catchers more often against us than he has at other times this season.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Dick LeBeau is going to have a solid game plan in place. He’s not faired well against Tom Brady historically, but he must know that this will be one of his last opportunities to face off with the G.O.A.T., especially in the playoffs. The most important thing for him will be devising enough pressure, but not utilizing too many defenders in doing so. It’s a fine line against Brady, and I’m hoping Dick has learned from being overzealous in the past. If he’s able to slow NE’s passing attack down, even slightly, I think the Titans absolutely have a shot to advance to the AFC Championship.
8 Players to Watch
HB Derrick Henry, TE Delanie Walker, DL Jurrell Casey, S Kevin Byard
TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Brandin Cooks, EDGE Trey Flowers, S Patrick Chung