While the New England Patriots were enjoying their first round playoff bye, their upcoming opponent had to go on the road against one of the AFC's most talented teams. Despite being underdogs against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Tennessee Titans were still able to defeat the AFC West champions to advance to the divisional round – even after finding themselves down 21-3 at the half.
There are multiple factors that contributed to the Titans' comeback ranging from the Chiefs' play calling, to quarterback Marcus Mariota's performance to Tennessee's defense stepping up in quarters three and four. Another big reason for the Titans' win was a second-year running back that was thrust into the starting role after DeMarco Murray was deactivated prior to the game: Derrick Henry.
With Murray out again this week, Henry will also see plenty of action against the Patriots. Let's therefore take a look back at some of the most important plays from his wild card game to find out how he was able to gain 156 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries – and what this means for the Patriots.
1) 2-10-TEN 25 (11:42) D.Henry left tackle to TEN 32 for 7 yards (F.Zombo; D.Johnson).
Henry's first carry of the game set the tone for his performance and simultaneously illustrated what makes him a dangerous runner, especially behind as technically sound an offensive line as the Titans'. On a 2nd and 10, Tennessee's offense lines up in an i-formation set out of a 13-personnel package with three tight ends and one wide receiver and running back – Derrick Henry (#22) – apiece:
Two of the Titans' tight ends align on the end of the offensive line with the third, H-back Luke Stocker (#88), serving as the lead blocker in front of Henry. Kansas City countered with a basic 3-4 look with the three down-linemen shaded to the strong side of the formation. With more bodies on the offensive right, the play is designed to go to the other side.
At the snap, the blockers in front engage their respective assignments:
The still above shows that the Titans used isolation blocks on the side farthest away from the play: Tight ends Delanie Walker (#82) and Jonnu Smith (#81) had to block linebacker Justin Houston (#50) and defensive end Allen Bailey (#97) one-on-one. On the interior of the seven-man line, Tennessee used double blocks on Chris Jones (#95) and Benny Logan (#97). Logan is only double-teamed initially, though, as left guard Quinton Spain (#67) peels off of the defender to move on to the second level:
Spain being able to do this is a key part of the play as it also eliminates linebacker Reggie Ragland (#59) from having an impact. On Spain's outside shoulder, going against Derrick Johnson (#56), Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan (#77) is also winning his one-on-one matchup. Lewan taking care of Johnson allows de-facto fullback Stocker to take on outside linebacker Frank Zombo (#51). Stocker does a nice job of clearing the edge, allowing Henry to get to the outside:
The entire play is well executed by the Titans, from the blockers up front taking care of their assignments to Henry showing why he is a dangerous weapon out of the backfield: The Alabama product approaches the line with authority and uses a quick cut to get to the outside. Once there, he quickly moves up the field to gain as much yardage as possible.
2) 1-10-KC 49 (4:50) (Shotgun) D.Henry left guard to KC 40 for 9 yards (R.Ragland)
The play above illustrates how dangerous Henry can be when running behind a fullback. Tennessee did not often use him in an i-formation against the Chiefs, however. Most of the time, the 24-year old aligned as the off-set back in a shotgun formation, which also allows quarterback Marcus Mariota to run the read option. Mariota hands the football off on this 1st and 10 in the second quarter, though.
The Titans align in a 3x1 formation with a trips set to the offensive left side and a tight end in a three point stance on the right tackle's outside shoulder. Henry (#22) is in the backfield to the right of Mariota (#8):
After the snap, the trips receivers fake a screen pass to wide receiver Eric Decker (#87). This pulls safety Daniel Sorensen (#49), who is in coverage of the receiver, further towards boundary and in turn opens up more space for the actual play: a run with Henry.
The run itself is once again designed to go to the offense's left side – a continuous theme – and behind tackle Taylor Lewan (#77) and guard Quinton Spain (#67). Once the football is snapped, Lewan and Spain team up to take on outside linebacker Frank Zombo (#51). Meanwhile, the rest of the offensive line is able to eliminate defensive linemen Chris Jones (#95) and Bennie Logan (#97) from the play. Jones is blocked by a double-team while right tackle Jack Conklin (#77) takes on Logan one-on-one:
The most important part of the play, and what turns it into a nine-yard run, is what happens on the left side: Following his double-team block, Lewan peels off the defender to get to the second level and take on linebacker Reggie Ragland (#59), which – together with Sorensen being pulled away from the zone initially – creates a lane for Henry to run behind:
The technique and chemistry shown by Lewan and Spain is key: With off-the-ball linebacker Ragland staying in his zone, Spain moves to his left to help take on Zombo, which in turn then frees up Lewan to move up the field. Both players read the defense the same way, which allowed them to successfully clear a path for Henry.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick actually talked about the communication and chemistry between offensive tackles in his Thursday press conference: “If we both see the same thing and see it the same way, then we react the same way. If we see it differently, then we react differently.” The Titans' offensive linemen saw the play the same way and reacted properly to it. Nothing fancy, just perfect execution.
Also properly reacting to the play is Henry: He reads the set-up of blocks perfectly, accelerates to the edge and once again shows tremendous vision to turn up the field at full speed to maximize the yards gained.
3) 2-10-KC 35 (14:17) (Shotgun) D.Henry up the middle for 35 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Despite being down 21-10 entering the fourth quarter, Tennessee did not abandon the run. Instead, the team followed its plan and gave Henry plenty of opportunities. The second-year back made the most out of them, with his 35-yard touchdown run the most memorable play. The Titans approached the 2nd and 10 with an 11-personnel group, aligned in a trips-right shotgun formation:
While the alignment looks similar to the previous play we looked at, offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie's offense runs a different play especially in terms of the blocking pattern. Tennessee did not use a straight man-blocking scheme but instead used a zone-approach with four linemen moving to their right and the fifth – right guard and former Patriot Josh Kline (#64) – pulling across the formation.
Kline's pull leaves one defender unblocked: 4i technique end Jarvis Jenkins (#94) is free to run into the backfield but appears to read the play wrong. Instead of trying to shoe-string tackle ball-carrier Derrick Henry (#22), it looks as if Jenkins focuses on quarterback Marcus Mariota (#8). This allows Henry to hit the line of scrimmage without any obstacles in his way.
What also helps him do that is the fact that a) he does so without any hesitation, and b) his blocks materialized perfectly. Left tackle Taylor Lewan (#77) is already at the second level by the time Henry receives the hand-off and blocks linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis (#57). Meanwhile, Luke Stocker (#88), who originally aligned on Lewan's outside shoulder, is going one-on-one against Tamba Hali (#91). And while the Chiefs' star linebacker gains inside leverage on Stocker, the tight end sustains his block just long enough for Henry to get by Hali.
One player was still left unaccounted for in safety Eric Murray (#21). However, Kline's pull-block took care of him. Together with the combination block on Allen Bailey (#97) as well as the ensuing second-level block from Quinton Spain (#67) versus Daniel Sorensen (#49), the guard pull opened a hole for Henry to exploit:
The rest of the play belonged to Henry, who showed tremendous vision and breakaway speed to get through the secondary and into the end zone for six points. The running back made a cut to the outside to get by Darrelle Revis (#24) before breaking a tackle attempt by safety Ron Parker (#38):
Once again, the former second round pick was able to quickly accelerate into his second gear and demonstrate just how dangerous he was when running at full speed. In this regard, Henry is similar to former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount: He won't wow with his initial quickness but is tough to bring down when allowed to get into space.
4) 1-10-KC 40 (8:24) (Shotgun) D.Henry left tackle to KC 31 for 9 yards (D.Sorensen).
Henry's excellent vision and burst were also on display later in the fourth quarter, as was the very good run blocking by the Titans offensive line. While driving for the potential go-ahead touchdown, Tennessee did not shy away from handing the football off to standout performer the football – this 1st and 10 midway through the final period was no exception.
The Titans used their favorite personnel package on the play, an 11-personnel group with one tight end and one running back. The players aligned in a 2x2 formation with a slot set to the left, tight end Delanie Walker (#82) in a three point stance on the right tackle's outside shoulder, and wideout Corey Davis (#84) split wide. As he did on most of his snaps versus the Chiefs, Derrick Henry (#22) lines up off-set next to Marcus Mariota (#8):
Due to the situation and time left in the game, Kansas City used a nickel package to defend the pass – and the Titans were willing to run against the comparatively light 2-4 alignment. Tennessee used double blocks on the two interior down-linemen as well as isolation blocks by outside blockers Walker and former first-round left tackle Taylor Lewan (#77):
Lewan taking care of his assignment – outside linebacker Frank Zombo (#51) – opened up the left side B-gap. Furthermore, guard Quinton Spain's (#67) perfectly timed peel- off from his initial double-block created a hole for Henry to run through. The offensive lineman took on linebacker Reggie Ragland (#59) and moved him just enough to allow the ball-carrier to break a tackle attempt:
As has been the case multiple times during the game, the offensive line and Henry worked in unison on this play: Lewan, Spain and the rest of the blockers executed to perfection while the running back showcased an impressive anticipation to let his blocks develop, strength to run through tackle attempts and good vision to find openings in front of him.
Derrick Henry is a very good running back. The 24-year old ran for a team-high 744 yards during the Titans' regular season while also scoring five touchdowns. His wild card playoff performance against the Chiefs is further continuation of his success and showed why Henry is one of Tennessee's most potent weapons due to his excellent vision, anticipation and speed particularly when getting into open space.
What also stood out during the game against Kansas City, though, is the Titans' very good blocking up front. The team's offense used multiple alignments and run-looks – from i-formation to pull blocks to simple mano-a-mano blocking – an the linemen performed very well in all of them: Only eight of Henry's 23 carries failed to gain at least four yards, while only one run led to negative yardage.
So what does this all mean for the Patriots? Obviously, the team needs to find a way to limit Henry and the Titans ground game on Saturday – and it will take a joint effort by the defensive line and linebackers to do that. First off, New England cannot allow Tennessee's number one running back to get beyond the edge. Henry has shown that he is a dangerous player in space, so the Patriots need to ensure to keep him inside the pocket.
While defensive right-side edge Trey Flowers is a proven commodity when it comes to setting the edge and funneling runs inside to the defensive tackles or linebackers, New England has been uneven opposite him. Getting chess-piece linebacker Kyle Van Noy fully back should help when playing 5-1 fronts, but during more traditional 4-3/4-2 alignments, the Patriots' left-side edges – Deatrich Wise Jr. and Eric Lee – need play sound technique to set a hard edge.
Luckily for the Patriots, Tennessee prefers running behind the left side of its offensive line and tackle Taylor Lewan and guard Quinton Spain. It will be interesting to see whether or not the team changes its plans and instead opts to attack the weaker side of New England's defensive front. But no matter where the Titans run, the Patriots' front-line defenders need to be ready.
What defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's unit – particularly the linebacker corps – also needs to do is get off blocks. Tennessee loves to use peel and pull blocks to get its athletic linemen to the second level and New England has to a) be aware of that (they will be) and b) ready to counter. If off-the-ball linebackers like Van Noy, Elandon Roberts or Marquis Flowers fail to do that, Henry will be similarly effective against the Patriots as he was against the Chiefs.
Unless, of course, Henry does not even get past the first line of blockers. The Patriots' defensive tackles have had a slow start to the season but as of late have come along fairly well as both Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy are playing at a high level. If the unit, which should also get back veteran Alan Branch, is able to clog gaps at the point of attack, New England's second line of defenders should have an easier job to limit Henry's impact.
Ultimately, it will come down to both preparation and performance. If the Patriots know what to expect and play up to their talent, they should be able to slow down Tennessee's potent ground game. It will not be easy, though.