Here's a novel concept: try to copy something the Patriots do to beat someone that keeps beating you.
Looking at you, John Harbaugh, Mr. Offensive-Line-Trick-Plays-Are-No-Fair-Unless-I-Use-Them.
The New England Patriots have been stuffing the Indianapolis Colts in a locker and taking their lunch money ever since Peyton Manning was ceremoniously dumped by the Colts in 2012, and in a few notable games, the Patriots employed the most basic of brutally simple game plans – jumbo sets and pounding the rock. And occasionally let Tom Brady throw it so he doesn’t get bored, but mostly, ram it down Indy’s throat and dare them to stop it.
Here’s a quick refresher, since all the games where the Patriots just run the ball against the Colts look like, as Grantland’s Robert Mays put it "…Bill Belichick has become that (expletive) who’s found one unstoppable Mortal Kombat move and refuses to do anything else".
2014 AFC Divisional Round – LeGarrette Blount rushes for 166 yards and four touchdowns, Stevan Ridley rushes for 52 yards and two touchdowns. Final score: 43-22
November 16th, 2014 – The Jonas Gray game! New England ran formations with six offensive linemen on almost half of their offensive snaps, burning boatloads of time off the clock and keeping Andrew Luck on the bench. Gray rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns. Final score: 42-20
2015 AFC Championship – In the NFL Network Patriots documentary "Do Your Job", Bill Belichick explained that there wasn’t really any need to change the game plan from earlier that season. LeGarrette Blount ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns, and then after that game, that whole other thing with the balls started (but that’s another story). Final score: 45-7
October 18th, 2015 – In a game best known for Indianapolis’s puke-all-over-your-shoes fake punt, the Patriots didn’t exactly run all over them, but LeGarrette Blount still chipped in 93 yards and a touchdown. Final score: 34-27
…Which brings us to the 2016 season, and it looks an awful lot like the Titans, who haven’t beaten the Colts since 2011, and their new GM are copy-and-pasting the Patriots’ strategy. Until last season, the Colts have basically had a stranglehold on the AFC South, beating up the Titans (and Jags and Texans) for what seems like an automatic ticket to the playoffs every year.
Tennessee GM Jon Robinson, of course, was a long-tenured New England Patriots guy, rising from an area scout in 2002 to the Director of College Scouting in 2011. Titans coach Mike Mularkey hasn’t beat around the bush with his offensive strategy for 2016, calling it "exotic smashmouth" football.
This would be pretty laugh-worthy if they hadn’t hit free agency and drafted accordingly.
Before the draft, the Titans fleeced the Eagles and picked up running back DeMarco Murray for pennies on the dollar. They also signed center Ben Jones, fortifying their dumpster fire offensive line.
And then, at the draft, Tennessee traded the number 1 spot for a treasure chest of picks, and then traded up to draft Michigan State offensive lineman Jack Conklin. They also snagged Alabama’s beastly running back Derrick Henry – the Heisman winner that somehow almost fell out of the second round.
Derrick Henry, by the way, is two inches taller and three pounds lighter than LeGarrette Blount.
Meanwhile, the Colts haven’t really improved their defensive front-seven too much. They didn’t draft any defensive linemen until pick 116 in this year’s draft, and didn’t invest much in D-linemen or linebackers in free agency either. Unless linebacker Trent Cole turns in a career season at 33 years old this year, it’s hard to imagine Indy’s run defense will be much, if any, better in 2016.
It’s way too early to talk about the Titans, who won 5 games in their last two seasons, contending for an AFC South championship, but their game plan is clear. They tabbed a longtime New England guy – with no general manager experience, mind you – as their GM. They hit free agency and the draft and stacked their lineup with big guys to beat up weaklings in the run game. Heck, their coach has straight up told everyone "I hired guys who like to win, and they like to win by beating the hell out of people."
Not exactly subtle.
Then again, neither is what New England has done to the Colts for two years and running now. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…or, in this case, Tennessee sure looks like they’ll try to copy it.