The playoffs are here, and so was a vintage Tom Brady performance on Saturday night.
Brady’s 53 attempts were his most in a game since Super Bowl LI, and 50 of those 53 pass attempts traveled less than 20 yards in the air.
Coming into Saturday night’s game, the expectation was that the Patriots’ pass offense could have a big day and that the middle of the field would open up once again for Tom Brady.
That was indeed the case as Brady completed 19 of his 24 pass attempts in the middle of the Titans’ defense for 199 yards, two touchdowns, and a passer rating of 129.0.
With Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola running at full tilt, and other Pats pass catchers such as Chris Hogan and James White getting healthier, we saw Brady at his best picking the Titans’ coverages apart in the short and intermediate area of the field.
We also saw Brady’s time to throw decrease with the high-volume of short passing attempts.
Brady’s time to throw of 2.54 seconds was his fastest release since Week 10 against the Broncos (2.39).
Ideally, you’d like to see the connection between Tom Brady and Brandin Cooks heat up, and they just missed on another deep attempt this week, but his ability to stretch the field while the others work underneath proved to be more than enough to get the win.
This is one of those weeks where the stats look worse than they are for the Patriots’ offensive line.
The Patriots’ two starting tackles, Nate Solder and LaAdrian Waddle, combined to allow nine total pressures and three quarterback hits, which is a decent amount on the stat sheet.
But this is one of those instances where volume comes into play with pass protection stats.
In all, Brady was under pressure on 16 of his 53 drop-backs, which equates to a modest 28.3% pressure percentage, below his regular season average of 31.4.
There were a handful of notable plays where Brady had terrific protection from the offensive line, which allowed him to hold onto the ball in the pocket until a receiver opened up downfield.
The tests will only get harder for the Patriots’ offensive line as the Jaguars possess arguably the best pass rush in the NFL, but they were able to win the matchup against the Titans.
As the games get bigger, it does seem that Danny Amendola’s role and production both increase.
The stakes may have been more significant than a divisional round playoff game in the past, but statistically, for Amendola, this was one of his best games as a Patriot, and maybe of his career.
Out of his 11 receptions, 10 of those came in the slot, and you could tell that there was more of an emphasis to get Amendola involved in the passing game now that the playoffs are here.
Amendola was nearly unstoppable on Saturday night, creating on average 3.9 yards of separation on his 13 targets, which is well above the NFL average of 2.75 yards according to Next Gen Stats.
The matchup against the Titans also saw Rob Gronkowski’s usage change slightly.
Gronk played a season-low 16 snaps out of the slot in the divisional round and played a season-high 14 snaps as a wide receiver.
Gronkowski is the ultimate matchup player with his unique athleticism, so it’s not uncommon for the Patriots to move him around the formation to target certain defenders or areas of the defense.
PASS RUSH/RUN STOPS
As a franchise postseason record eight sacks would indicate, the Patriots’ pass rush had one of its best games of the season against the Titans.
However, what was even more impressive was the nature in which the Pats pulled it off.
The Patriots spent most of the night rushing three or four defenders on passing plays and almost always had either Kyle Van Noy or Marquis Flowers serving as a spy on quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The Pats were able to accumulate sacks in part due to playing with a big lead, but also because of some terrific contained rushes by the defensive line.
This group made more Titan offensive lineman miss in one-on-one pass rushing situations than just about any other game all season.
Trey Flowers (5 pressures), Geneo Grissom (5 pressures), Deatrich Wise (4 pressures), and Adam Butler (3 pressures) in particular played great football putting pressure on Mariota but also containing him in the pocket.
Instead of chasing Mariota, the Patriots held their angles and caved the pocket in on the Titans quarterback, which led to five different Patriots recording a sack in this game.
In all, the Patriots pressured Mariota on 39.6% of his drop-backs and converted 42.1% of those pressures into sacks.
The Patriots run defense held up very well in the first half and then their big lead forced the Titans to throw the football.
Stopping the run early on in the game was key to playing in a positive game script, and again it was a team effort all around.
The Patriots stacked the box against Derrick Henry and did a great job of plugging gaps across the defensive front.
Henry often ran into a pack of Patriot defenders rather than taking them on one-on-one, which made it significantly easier to tackle the bruising running back.
Bill Belichick often says that the Patriots’ struggles setting the edge against the run this season has to do with all 11 players doing their job well and not just one or two.
As the run stop numbers suggest, all 11 defenders on the field contributed to stopping the run against Tennessee.
It has been long overdue for Patriots fans and media alike to bury any hatchet that may have existed with Stephon Gilmore.
Gilmore allowed just one completion into his coverage on Saturday night on a busted zone coverage in the first quarter.
On the other four passes thrown Gilmore’s way, he recorded a pass breakup on two of them and didn’t come close to giving up another reception.
Gilmore’s overall grade on Pro Football Focus is now up to 87.5 on the season which ranks 12th among cornerbacks in 2017.
The Titans don’t have any imposing outside receivers besides their talented rookie Corey Davis, whose time will come but hasn’t yet.
But by PFF’s standards, Gilmore is now considered a high-quality starter on their grading scale.
On the other side, the coverage stats aren’t as friendly to Malcolm Butler.
Butler appeared to be in good position on both of the touchdowns he allowed into his coverage but was beat by good offense, especially in the case of Davis’ first-quarter touchdown.
Where we have continuously seen Butler struggle this seen has been when it comes time to win the battle at the catch point.
In other words, Butler is in good position to defend the pass for 90% of the play, but can’t finish out that final ten percent when the pass comes his way.
Butler still plays long stretches of high-quality man coverage, and his overall grade is that of an above average starter at 80.4, but the eight touchdowns he has surrendered into his coverage this season is the second-most by any cornerback in the NFL in 2017 (Jalen Mills - 9).
Butler has also played the second-most snaps in coverage of any cornerback this season (688) and has been targeted 97 times (T-9th most), however.
(h/t Pro Football Focus: https://www.profootballfocus.com/products/elite#edge)