Thursday, January 2, 2020

Patriots vs. Titans Playoff Preview

So it's just a few days until the Patriots take on the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. The game feels like a bit of a tossup, with the Pats favored by just 4.5 points at home (which makes them a 1.5-point fave on a neutral field). However, gives the Patriots a 69% chance of coming out with a win.

I'd usually look at the last game the teams played and try to determine if enough had changed to alter the outcome. But even though they last suited up against each other just 14 months ago, so much has changed that that tilt (November 11, 2018) will have little bearing on how this game goes.

So here is my best attempt to put together how the teams will attack each other and which team has specific advantages in particular areas of play.

When The Titans Have The Ball

The Titans are pretty well-suited to attack the Patriots defense. Most teams that had success against the Pats either ran the ball well or threw shorter passes to tight ends and running backs. Teams with lots of deep-receiving talent have largely been shut down.

Tennessee's running game is stout, led by RB Derrick Henry's 1,540 yards on 303 carries (5.1 yards per carry), and his very impressive 16 rushing TDs. The next most productive back was old friend Dion Lewis, but his stats (54 for 209 yards and 0 TDs) pale in comparison to Henry.

The Titans are clearly a one-back team. The problem is that Henry doesn't often make people miss, he is more of a downhill/yards-after-contact type of runner. And the Patriots usually clog the middle and are very sure tacklers this year. If the game stays close and the Titans stay committed to the run, Henry versus the run defense could become an epic battle of wills.

In the passing game, the Titans have the speed burner, A.J. Brown, but he will likely be neutralized by the Pats talented secondary and/or scheming. The danger for the local-11 is when they throw to Lewis (25 catches for 164 yards) or tight ends Jonnu Smith (35 for 439) and Anthony Firkser (14 for 205).

(Note: injured tight end Delanie Walker is a big loss for Tennessee. But unknown tight ends have had career days going against Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower. So don't assume Walker's absence will make the tight ends ineffective.)

Despite improvements in the secondary and disciplined play along the line, the Patriots linebackers are still vulnerable when attacked through the air. Brown might be the show-stopper, but the tight ends and backs will have to keep the chains moving if the Titans expect to win.

When The Patriots Have The Ball

This matchup isn't half-bad for the Patriots. Tennessee plays nickel as their base defense and usually brings one linebacker to rush four at the passer. Behind the line, they play a vanilla zone, which is a defense that Pats QB Tom Brady has traditionally destroyed.

The Titans are near the bottom of the league when it comes to pressuring the passer. They blitz just 24.8% of the time (21st in the league) and get pressure just 21.2% of the time (25th). The odd thing is that in 2018, they blitzed the 9th-most, which seems to indicate they've become more conservative on defense. They will occasionally throw in a corner blitz; old friend cornerback Logan Ryan is fourth on the team with 4.5 sacks this season.

This style of play has not helped the secondary. Ryan allowed 66% completions on the passes thrown his way and gave up 5 touchdowns. And star Safety Kevin Byard dropped off from last year, too, allowing 57% completions and 3 touchdowns (versus 50% and 1 TD last year). Additionally, both have been targeted more, with Ryan's targets increasing an astonishing 61% (from 64 last year to 103 this year!).

Brady should have plenty of time to read the defense and choose the right receiver. In fact, with Tennessee's lack of pressure, he could have enough time to let receivers get open before throwing it -- something he hasn't always had in the past when he would throw to a spot and trust the receiver to be there.

The New England receiving corps isn't as great this year as it has been in the past. But this opponent seems tailor-made for Julian Edelman and James White to attack short and Phillip Dorsett and N'Keal Harry to attack deep.

Tennessee should be stouter against the run. They gave up just 4.0 yards per carry this year (ranking them 7th), and the Patriots gained just 3.8 yards per carry (ranking them 25th).

Expect the Patriots to soften up the defense with short throws, and then use the running game effectively. Don't expect them to lineup and run it down the Titans throats, it won't be happening.

Special Teams

As great as Patriots rookie Jake Bailey has kicked, Titans punter Brett Kern was even better this year. So no great advantage there.

And believe it or not, as we enter the playoffs the Patriots field goal game is in much steadier hands! Nick Folk successfully made 14 of 17 field goals (84%) and 12 of 12 extra points (I'll let you do the math on that). The Titans current kicker, Greg Joseph, hasn't attempted a field goal this season. He's been with Tennessee two games and has only tried extra points (of which he has made them all).

Neither team has particularly dynamic returners in the punt or kickoff game. Though the Patriots kick coverage teams are annually among the best in the NFL.

One place where the 2019 Patriots have excelled is in finding ways to block kicks. Special teams coach Joe Judge has done an amazing job identifying weak spots in opposing blocking schemes. And the Patriots have blocked four punts this year, returning two of them for touchdowns.


The 2018 game was former player Mike Vrabel's chance to show his stuff to his former head coach, Bill Belichick. And that has happened quite a bit, where a new head coach that was formerly associated with Belichick will clip him the first time.

But now that Vrabel's team has played two full seasons in his system, no doubt Belichick knows how to attack it, both offensively and defensively. The question is whether he has the horses on either side of the ball.

Quick Hits

1. Though Lewis might seem like a threat in the passing game, he has averaged exactly one reception per game in the last seven contests in which he played. He has 25 grabs on the year, but most of them came early on.

2. For some reason the Titans kickoff short and force teams to return the ball. That's probably a smart strategy against the Patriots, because running back Brandon Bolden isn't exactly Cordarrelle Patterson back there.

3. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has thrown 11 interceptions in 11 games against the Patriots. And some of those Pats teams fielded awful secondaries. He will need to be careful with the ball against this Pats team -- they have three players near the top of the NFL in interceptions.

Note: for all the consternation about the man Tannehill replaced, Marcus Mariota, Mariota has a lower interception rate (1.3%) than Tannehill (2.1%) this year.

4. No one would mistake Tannehill for Lamar Jackson, but the Patriots need to keep the Titans QB in the pocket. He's rushed 43 times for 185 yards (4.3ypc) and 4 touchdowns this year. And in a one-game elimination, all he'd need to do is make two or three plays with his feet to keep drives going.


If the Titans play their standard defense, the Pats should put up points. So the game will come down to how well the Patriots defense plays. Tannehill does better against zone-coverage, and the Patriots don't play much of that. So it would seem to lean in their favor.

However, Derrick Henry is the X-factor. If the Pats can't contain him with their front-seven, bringing extra players to stop him will make them vulnerable to the pass -- especially play-action passes. They'll need to read their keys and rally to the ball when it's a run. When it's a pass, they should be good enough to make Ryan Tannehill look like the player we all knew and loved-to-play when he was in Miami.

Statistical oddity that will likely never be repeated: The only two teams to use four field goal kickers this year meet in the playoffs -- that's right, your New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-4 & 0-0!

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