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All-22 Review: Titans defense suffocates Tom Brady and the Patriots

Dean Pees put faith in his young corner and it paid off in a big way.

NFL: New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The All-22 Review is a recurring feature here at Music City Miracles breaking down the tape from the previous week’s Titans game. The focus will vary depending on where the action on the field takes us, but the idea is to bring insights that may have been missed on the TV broadcast.

While the offense was very fun to watch — if you missed the All-22 for that side of the ball, I invite you to check it out here — the defense was even more impressive in the Titans 34-10 beat down of the Patriots in Week 10. I pointed a couple of these stats out earlier in the week, but they’re worth visiting again:

  • The 10 points the Titans defense allowed Sunday tied for the 10th lowest total of the Brady-Belichick Era (2001-2018).
  • Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar noted that the Patriots crossed the Tennessee 34-yard line just once during their 12 offensive drive, including a stretch of 9 straight drives to end the game. The Pats have only had 6 games in the last 18 years where they’ve failed to cross the opponent’s 34-yard line more than once.

It was a dominant and suffocating performance from a unit that has been playing at an extremely high level throughout 2018. Tennessee has the top scoring defense in the NFL, allowing just 16.8 points per game. Finishing as the league’s stingiest defense has been a recipe for postseason success in the past as well:

  • Since 1970, 47 of 48 teams with the top scoring defense made the playoffs.
  • Over the past 5 years, the top scoring defense has made the Super Bowl 3 times.
  • 15 of the NFL’s 52 Super Bowl champions have boasted the league’s best scoring defense during the regular season.

Outside of allowing the fewest points in the league — which is clearly the most important metric for an NFL defense — the Titans defense is also starting to creep towards elite rankings in several other categories.

  • Opponent yards per game: 328.0 (6th)
  • Opponent yards per play: 5.3 (9th)
  • Opponent yards per rush attempt: 3.9 (6th)
  • Opponent yards per pass attempt: 6.8 (10th)
  • Sack percentage: 7.1% (13th)
  • Opponent 3rd down conversion percentage: 39.1% (15th)
  • Opponent red zone scoring percentage (TDs only): 34.8% (1st)
  • Defensive penalties: 12 (1st)

The dominance of this defense on the scoreboard is no fluke. The one place where the defense is currently not in the top half of the league is in turnovers. The Titans have created just 9 turnovers in 9 games which ties for 22nd in the NFL. The good news it that turnovers are a fickle stat. Studies that have looked at turnover creation in football have almost universally come to the same conclusion as this excerpt from a Football Outsiders article describes well.

A defense’s tendency to force turnovers is fairly important to the team’s success, but it seems to be even more unpredictable. In general, a team’s ability to force fumbles seems to be almost entirely luck. There is a little bit more persistence in a team’s ability to force interceptions, though it isn’t clear how much of this ability is just a residual effect of general defensive ability.

If the Titans defense sees their turnover rate start to match the level of play they’ve produced in virtually every other defensive statistic, that would take this team to yet another level. For now though, we’ll just have to “settle” for the best defense in football. Here’s how they dominated Tom Brady on Sunday.

Adoree’ Jackson shut down Josh Gordon

The two key matchups in this game ended up involving the Titans two 2017 first round picks. Corey Davis and Adoree’ Jackson both absolutely abused Stephon Gilmore and Josh Gordon consistently throughout the game. We’ve already covered Davis’ dominance, but Jackson’s is just as impressive. He allowed just 4 catches on 11 targets in to his coverage for 48 yards, mostly against Gordon.

Here are some moments from Jackson’s stellar day in coverage. One thing that stands out about his style is that he shows zero fear of getting beat deep, even against a guy like Josh Gordon who has shown a penchant for big plays in the past. Jackson trusts his makeup speed — with good reason — and that allows him to remain patient and react to the receiver’s movements rather than trying to guess. Watch how calm his feet are as he waits for Gordon to show his hand on the release at the line of scrimmage. He then easily stays on top and closes to the hands as the receiver goes up to try to make the catch.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s another rep with Jackson manned up on Gordon. The Patriots took shots down the sideline trying to beat Jackson all game long, but they never broke him. Again, he’s in perfect position and is able to reach back and get a hand on the ball, nearly tipping close enough for Vaccaro to grab the interception. It’s hard to defend this route much better than this.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s another one, and once again Jackson wins easily. He’s in phenomenal position on top of the route and that allows him to squeeze Gordon right in to the sideline. Brady has no room to get this ball in to his receiver and it falls harmlessly to the turf on 3rd and 4.

NFL Game Pass

Tired of testing Jackson deep, the Patriots try a slant to Gordon this time, but Adoree’ is able to use his speed to cut underneath the route and bat it down with absolutely perfect timing.

NFL Game Pass

While he spent most of the day on Gordon, he also got a couple snaps against Chris Hogan. Here’s yet another deep ball they wanted to hit, but Jackson’s coverage is too tight and Brady ends up throwing this one away due to the pass rush from Sharif Finch and Harold Landry.

Also, note Kevin Byard stepping up to re-route Julian Edelman’s crosser underneath while remaining in position to cover his man — tight end Dwayne Allen — if he releases in to a route. He’s so incredibly good at doing the little things like this that disrupt an offense’s timing.

NFL Game Pass

Dean Pees used a variety of pressure packages to confuse Brady

Mike Vrabel talks a lot about the importance of pressure and coverage complementing each other. You can’t truly excel in one without the other. The last play is a great example of that. Jackson’s coverage is perfect, Byard disrupts Edelman, and the pressure starts to close in on Brady forcing the throwaway. That was a consistent theme throughout the day.

Here’s another example. It’s an interesting look from the Titans defense. Pre-snap, they have Logan Ryan and Kenny Vaccaro lined up as two-high safeties with Kevin Byard lined up as a linebacker. After the snap, Ryan rotates down as the Titans shift in to a Cover 3 zone. Brady is looking to the right side the whole way, but Malcolm Butler takes away the deep ball to Hogan and Ryan rolling down brings him right in to the path of Edelman.

Up front, the Titans have rookies Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry lined up at the edge spots — Evans’ usage was extremely interesting in this game, but we’ll get deeper in to that later — with Brian Orakpo and Jurrell Casey as stand up rushers inside. After the snap, Evans bails out in to coverage while Byard and Woodyard rush along with the other three. Notice the attention paid to Casey by center David Andrews. He chases Casey for several steps which essentially leaves Woodyard one-on-one with running back James White who he easily beats and gets home for the sack. This was a great job of disguising both rush and coverage and it fooled Brady.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans were very multiple with their blitzes and pressures. There are 7 players hanging around the line of scrimmage pre-snap. Jayon Brown, Woodyard, and Landry all drop out on the right side while Evans, Casey, and Orakpo are joined by Ryan on the nickel blitz. Brady was expecting to have an easy completion over the middle to Edelman, but Brown and Woodyard are all over him. He really waits on Edelman, hoping he’ll find a way to get open, but good second efforts from Casey, Evans, and Ryan result in a pressured incompletion and a hit on the quarterback.

NFL Game Pass

The versatility of the linebackers is really starting to shine for Tennessee. Brown, Woodyard, and Evans are all plus pass rushers from the inside linebacker spot, but they’re also athletic enough to hold their own in coverage (Brown is a plus coverage player and the other two are at least average). The outside linebackers are also very athletic though. Orakpo, Correa, and Landry are paid to rush the passer, but they are also capable defenders in space. That gives Dean Pees 6 essentially interchangeable pieces that he can line up all over the field to disguise where the pressure is coming from. On top of that, safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Kevin Byard as well as nickel back Logan Ryan are all plus blitzers from their spots. The Titans have the personnel flexibility to be one of the most creative defenses in the league and it shows.

Here’s a perfect example. The Titans have Correa and Orakpo lined up at outside linebacker, but they drop while inside linebackers Brown and Woodyard both blitz on twist. Once again, the extra attention paid to Jurrell Casey helps. The Patriots slide the center towards Casey to try and help left guard Joe Thuney, but that leaves them outflanked when DaQuan Jones slants inside and Woodyard loops around him. The result is another panic throwaway from Brady.

NFL Game Pass

Jayon Brown is having a phenomenal season as a pass rusher, leading the team in sacks through 9 games. Check out this speed rush around the edge. He ends up splitting this sack with Woodyard, but this is all Brown’s doing. He’s one of the best players on this defense and that’s really saying something right now.

NFL Game Pass

Back to examples of pressure and coverage helping each other. This is the second play of the game and the Patriots want a deep shot to Josh Gordon, but Adoree’ Jackson is all over it (with help from Malcolm Butler). Brady could have found Hogan on the crosser for a big gain if he had more time, but Correa gets great pressure right in the face of the quarterback and Brady is left to just dump it at the feet of Edelman to avoid the sack.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans even got pressure from unexpected sources on Sunday. Here’s backup defensive tackle Darius Kilgo doing a great job recognizing the play fake and making Brady take his eyes down to avoid him. The coverage on the back end is excellent once again and Kevin Byard expertly takes the potential screen back to White away by sticking with him after the play fake.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans have started to tinker with Evans as a pass rusher, especially in 3rd down situations. At Alabama he started his career as a situational edge rusher and clearly has some ability there, finishing his college career with 15 sacks. Here you can see his go-to pass rush move: the inside spin. He nearly gets home with this one and might have if not for a stumble, but he does flash in the quarterback’s face and force a quick throw.

Game Pass

The versatile skill sets of the Titans linebackers allow for an almost unlimited amount of blitz combinations. We saw a lot of them during this game and it kept the best quarterback of all time rattled from start to finish. I would imagine we will be seeing a lot more variations off these types of looks from the Titans defense moving forward.

Kenny Vaccaro and Rashaan Evans set a tone with physicality

The Titans defense was expertly schemed on Sunday and it was also fast and physical. That’s a lethal combination and the physical part of that was led by Kenny Vaccaro and Rashaan Evans. Vaccaro set the tone from the opening snap. He diagnoses the little swing pass to White immediately and explodes through him to make the tackle for loss. It was a moment that set the tone for the defense the entire game and it also represented the way the Titans chose to defend the Patriots. They took away all the easy access screens and dump offs and forced Brady to attack downfield, trusting their corners and safeties to be able to deal with the vertical passing game.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s another example of Vaccaro’s physicality. He’s in the box and quickly reads run and takes on the fullback in the hole, pushing him back in to Sony Michel and blowing up the play before it can get started.

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It’s not just ball carriers that felt the wrath of Vaccaro either. Watch him deliver a blow to Edelman here as the Pats wide receiver tries to block him in the running game.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s another big hit on Edelman as the Titans safety comes screaming up to make the stop. Vaccaro is just one of those guys you hate playing against. He plays with a hair-on-fire type of urgency that’s become rare in today’s game.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans are fortunate enough to have two guys on the defense that are absolute enforcers in the middle of the field. Vaccaro is one and rookie Rashaan Evans has quickly revealed himself to be another. Watch him on this goalline play. He absolutely destroys fullback James Develin in the hole and then finishes with the tackle of Michel short of the end zone.

NFL Game Pass

Evans put a big hit on Develin a couple times in this one. He plays incredibly heavy for a 230 pound linebacker and looks like a guy that would be absolutely no fun to block.

NFL Game Pass

The vision of what Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees want this defense to be is beginning to take shape. In his opening press conference, Vrabel said he wanted his defense to be defined as “front multiplicity with coverage consistency” and that’s exactly what we’re seeing. The Titans front is amorphous, shuttling back and forth between fronts that feature outside linebackers playing off the ball, one that have multiple inside linebackers lined up as pass rushers, and more standard sets. They’re able to do all of this without creating any easy mismatches for the offense to exploit thanks to the broad skill sets of their personnel. It’s a beautiful mishmash of organized chaos and it’s being executed at an extremely high level. The Titans defense is the real deal and they’re only starting to figure it out.