The New England Patriots put forward a dominating performance during the divisional playoff round. The AFC's number one seed defeated the visiting Tennessee Titans 35-14 behind a perfectly clicking offense, an effective defense and the usual high level of special teams plays. In short: It was exactly the performance you would like to see from your team coming off its first round playoff bye if you are Bill Belichick.
New England's head coach has to be especially pleased with the performance of his defense against both the rush and the pass: The unit coordinated by Matt Patricia limited the Titans' potent ground game to 65 yards on 16 carries; only 28 yards of which were gained by running back Derrick Henry. Furthermore, the Patriots' pass rush applied constant heat on quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Overall, New England was able to take down the former first round draft pick a total of eight times – a franchise playoff record and testament to how well the defense played in this area on Saturday. Let's take a look at the tape to find out how exactly the Patriots were able to sack Mariota that often and find out what this might tell us about New England's game plan for the upcoming AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
1) 3-7-TEN 25 (10:03) (Shotgun) M.Mariota sacked at TEN 21 for -4 yards (D.Wise).
New England's first sack of the day effectively ended the Titans' first offensive series of the game. Tennessee approached the down in an 11-personnel group with Marcus Martiota (#8) in shotgun and running back Derrick Henry (#22) as the offset back to his right. Given the nature of the situation, the Patriots countered with a dime package featuring three down-linemen and two stand-up linebackers:
At the snap, all five of New England's front-line players initially attacked the pocket. However, both linebackers backed off: Kyle Van Noy (#53) dropped back to cover Henry, while Marquis Flowers (#59) served as a spy on the athletic Mariota. Still, their initial rush was enough to occupy two of Tennessee's defenders and force one-on-one matchups across the board – and the Patriots were able to take advantage.
It all started in the middle, where 1-technique defensive tackle Adam Butler (#70) was able to attack the offensive right-side A-gap versus Tennessee center Ben Jones (#60). And even though right guard Josh Kline (#64) moved over to help Jones once it became clear that Van Noy was not rushing the passer, Butler's upfield movement was enough to move Mariota off his spot:
What should not go unnoticed is that the Patriots secondary also contributed to the pressure – and by extension the sack – by locking down the quarterback's initial reads. With Mariota unable to get rid of the football before Butler's rush got to him, his only chance was to climb the pocket. At that point, he could have tried an off-balance throw to wideout Rishard Matthews (#18), who had shaken Malcolm Butler (#21) on a crossing route.
However, Mariota was never able to do that as he was running directly towards the spying Flowers. But before the first-year Patriot had a chance to tackle the scrambling quarterback, Mariota was taken down from behind by another player in his first year with the club: Rookie defensive edge Deatrich Wise Jr. (#91) recorded his first playoff sack – and sixth overall of the season.
Before the snap, Wise Jr. lined up as a 7-technique defensive end outside of Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan (#77). The rookie attacked his one-on-one matchup straight up and drove the Pro Bowler a few steps back. At that point, it appeared as if Lewan had stopped Wise Jr.'s momentum enough to guarantee Mariota no blind-side pressure. However, what the tackle did not see – and the defender did – was Mariota moving up:
Wise Jr. reacted quickly, disengaged from Lewan and grabbed Mariota with his left hand to complete the sack. An impressive, heads-up play not only from the defensive edge but also from fellow rookie Adam Butler to quickly get into the backfield.
2) 3-7-TEN 28 (13:24) (Shotgun) M.Mariota sacked at TEN 23 for -5 yards (A.Butler).
As has been the case on the Patriots' first sack of the day, Adam Butler was also in the spotlight on the second. Facing a third down on the opening drive of the second half, Tennessee again used an 11-personnel group. New England, in its dime defense, countered with three down-linemen and two stand-up linebackers – with a few minor differences the same alignment used on the first play we looked at:
This time, the Patriots rushed four players as only Marquis Flowers (#59) backed off to cover running back Derrick Henry (#22) in the offensive left-side flat. Henry basically served as Marcus Mariota's (#8) safety blanket but the quarterback never looked his way as New England again brought pressure up the middle and covered exceptionally well in the secondary:
Mariota's initial reads are again on the offensive right side, and again the Patriots lock them down. The coverage in the backend of the defense forced the quarterback to hold the football long enough for the pressure to again get to him – and again it was in the form of Adam Butler (#70).
From his 0-technique spot Butler was working versus center Ben Jones (#60) and as has been the case on New England's first sack, the rookie was able to beat the center to his right shoulder to move Mariota off the spot. At that point, the third year man went into scramble-mode trying to make something happen. He could not as the Patriots' tight coverage continued and the rush got to him:
Not only was Butler looping around Jones, linebacker Kyle Van Noy (#53), who originally tried to rush on a stunt, was patiently watching Mariota. Van Noy pressured up the field just when the rookie defensive tackle arrived to take the second overall pick of the 2015 draft down for a loss of five yards.
3) 1-15-TEN 18 (10:36) M.Mariota sacked at TEN 10 for -8 yards (R.Jean Francois).
Tennessee's next offensive series did not go any better than the last. Following a false start penalty, the team found itself in a 1st and 15 situation and tried to use a 13-personnel group – three tight ends, one running back, one wide receiver – to get itself out of the self-created hole. The three tight ends lined up on the opposite edges of the offensive line prior to the snap.
The Titans' best tight end, Delanie Walker (#82), motioned from the offensive right to the left before the football was snapped. New England's number one cornerback, Stephon Gilmore (#24), followed him and thus indicated a man-coverage look from the Patriots' defense. Coordinator Matt Patricia's unit, facing a three-tight-end set, opted to go big itself and used a rather standard 4-3 look:
The Patriots used James Harrison (#92) and Kyle Van Noy (#53) on the edges with four players in between them in a three point stance: Lawrence Guy (#93) and Trey Flowers (#98) aligned in a five-technique over the two opposite C-gaps, while Malcom Brown (#90) and Ricky Jean Francois (#94) where shaded over the right and left guard, respectively. Behind them, was off-the-ball linebacker Elandon Roberts (#52).
At the snap, the three tight ends and running back Derrick Henry (#22) spread out on routes leaving the five offensive lineman to account for New England's four rushers. Tennessee opted to double-team New England's biggest lineman – Brown – with right guard Josh Kline (#64) and center Ben Jones (#60), leaving everybody else in one-on-one matchups.
At the snap, Jean Francois attacked the B-gap between the Titans' left guard and tackle. Simultaneously, Flowers used a quick inside move to stunt around behind him and challenge the offensive left-side A-gap. And while Flowers was originally matched up on offensive tackle Taylor Lewan (#77), his impressive inside move forced left guard Quinton Spain (#67) to abandon Jean Francois and slide further inside to block him. Unfortunately for the Titan, this left Jean Francois wide open to get to the quarterback:
The veteran, who is in his first year with the Patriots, was able to get by Lewan thanks to a) Flowers' inside cut and Spain following him, and b) a short arm extension to create space between him and the offensive tackle. This was all it took for Jean Francois to burst through the suddenly open B-gap and right towards the quarterback, who had no chance to escape.
As has been the case on the previous two sacks, downfield coverage was again solid by New England's secondary. But even if it were not, Jean Francois quickly bursting through the offensive line would have certainly made up for any lapses in coverage.
4) 2-23-TEN 10 (9:58) (Shotgun) M.Mariota sacked at TEN 2 for -8 yards (M.Flowers).
The very next play after Jean Francois' sack saw New England take Marcus Mariota down again. Tennessee approached the 2nd and 23 situation with a 2x2 11-peronnel set, with Marcus Mariota (#8) lined up in shotgun. New England countered the formation with a dime package that saw all front players align on the line of scrimmage; the two outside linebackers in a 7-technique, the down-linemen in a three-point stance:
When the football was snapped, New England's interior defenders started to attack the pocket. Upon seeing edge defenders Kyle Van Noy (#53) and Marquis Flowers (#59) drop into the underneath zones, the Tennessee offensive line opted to double-team 3-technique Adam Butler (#70) on its right side and 5-technique Trey Flowers (#98) on its left. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown (#90), aligning as a 0-technique defensive tackle was blocked one-on-one.
Mariota's two initial reads ran patterns to his left but New England opted to use three defensive backs on this side of the field, eliminating the chance of a quick completion. If the quarterback would have been able to go further through his progressions, he might have been able to find wide receiver Eric Decker (#87) open on a crossing route. Alas, Marquis Flowers prevented this from happening.
As noted above, the first-year Patriot originally aligned on the right defensive edge in a 7-technique position but dropped back into coverage. This move made Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan (#77) turn inside to help block Trey Flowers and open his outside shoulder:
At that point, Flowers opted to attack the pocket. When Lewan realized this, it was already to late. The Pro Bowl tackle disengaged off his initial block to try to slow down the linebacker but to no avail: Flowers simply ran by him on his way to the quarterback. Mariota tried to escape but he had nowhere to go as Trey Flowers, at that point, was already pursing the passer:
After Lewan disengaged from his block to leave Flowers in a one-on-one with left guard Quinton Spain (#67), the defensive lineman was able to get away from the block by running a stunt to his left around Spain and right guard Josh Kline (#64). This left Mariota nowhere to go but down.
5) 1-15-TEN 31 (3:55) (Shotgun) M.Mariota sacked at TEN 24 for -7 yards (T.Flowers).
Following a false start penalty, Tennessee again found itself playing from behind the sticks. The team, down 28-7 at this point of the game, used a 01-personnel group – one tight end, four wide receivers – to get its drive and possibly comeback going. The players aligned in an empty 3x2 set with wideout Taywan Taylor (#13) motioning across the formation prior to the snap.
New England used seven defensive backs against the obvious passing group with three down-lineman and linebacker Marquis Flowers (#59) on the initial weak side of the formation:
At the beginning of the play, Flowers chipped tight end Delanie Walker (#82) before starting to tenderly move inwards, potentially to serve as a spy. Consequently, only the down-lineman attacked the pocket – and again rookie Adam Butler (#70) was one of them, playing an important role in ultimately creating the sack of quarterback Marcus Mariota (#8).
Butler lined up as a 0-technique defensive tackle right over center Ben Jones (#60). As he has done multiple times before in the game, the undrafted rookie attacked the A-gap to Jones' right. The gap was open due to right guard Josh Kline (#64) moving to the outside to help block 5-technique defensive edge Trey Flowers (#98). Butler was able to drive up the field and as a result forced Mariota off his spot.
At that point, the quarterback would have had space to climb the pocket and step into a throw to hit either Walker or wide receiver Corey Davis (#84) on their respective crossing patterns:
However, the window to deliver a throw was shut quickly by Trey Flowers. New England's best pass rusher – just like he did on the Patriots' previous sack – cut to the inside to disengage from his blocker, right guard Kline. The ex-Patriot was unable to follow Flowers and Mariota ran right into his waiting arms while climbing up in the pocket.
6) 2-10-TEN 38 (9:15) (Shotgun) M.Mariota sacked at TEN 30 for -8 yards (D.Wise).
When the Patriots registered their sixth sack of the day, the game was effectively over: With under 10 minutes left in the contest, New England led 35-7 and was in total control. The Titans, on the other hand, found themselves in clear passing situations down 28 points – this 2nd and 10 was no different.
Tennessee used an 11-personnel group aligned with a single receiver on the right side of the formation and a trips set on the left. Marcus Mariota (#8) was in a shotgun formation with Derrick Henry (#22) as the off-set back to his right. New England answered with a six-defensive back package, three down-linemen and two standup linebackers aligning over the left-side B-gap and right tackle, respectively:
At the snap, four of the Patriots' front-line players rushed the passer: The three down-linemen plus linebacker Marquis Flowers (#59), who as previously mentioned aligned over the left-side B-gap. Tennessee went one-on-one on the outside and opted to use two blockers on 0-technique Adam Butler (#70). The plan actually worked well early on and also allowed Henry to move upfield as a potential pass catcher.
Enter Kyle Van Noy (#53). New England's defensive signal caller faked a drop-back at the snap, which led right guard Josh Kline (#64) to move inside on the double-team block against Butler. However, after a short head movement, the linebacker speed-rushed up the field and trough the B-gap. Henry, who was moving in the opposite direction did not obstruct this blitz in any way:
Van Noy's blitz forced Mariota from his spot and to his left as Trey Flowers (#98) was driving right tackle Dennis Kelly (#71) back towards his quarterback. When Mariota started scrambling to his left, Deatrich Wise Jr. (#91) had already been able to get off his block by left tackle Taylor Lewan (#77) and left guard Quinton Spain (#67). The rookie then simply chased down the quarterback and sacked him from behind for a loss of eight yards.
As has been the case on some of the previous sacks, the mixture of creative front-line play and tight coverage in the secondary played a key role in creating the takedown. Once again, Mariota was unable to attempt a quick pass as New England locked down his receiving options in their cover 3 scheme.
7) 1-10-NE 28 (4:15) (Shotgun) M.Mariota sacked at NE 40 for -12 yards (G.Grissom).
New England's seventh and eighth sack of the day both came courtesy of Geneo Grissom, who usually is only a depth option on the defensive edge but saw some playing time on the game's final defensive series. His first quarterback takedown occurred on a 1st and 10 midway through the drive.
Tennessee went with its favorite personnel group – 11 –, aligned in a 1x3 shotgun set. New England again countered with a dime defense that used three-lineman and two linebackers:
All three linemen attacked the pocket as did linebacker Nicholas Grigsby (#50), like Geneo Grissom (#96) primarily a special teamer. Tennessee picked up the pressure well initially as the team doubled 1-technique defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois (#94) and won its one-on-ones elsewhere. The Titans were even able to stop the stunt by 5-technique Grissom behind Jean Francois as left guard Quinton Spain (#67) slid over to pick up the third-year man.
However, Spain was unable to keep up with Grissom once the 25-year old used a spin move to get out of his block and up the field:
The sack was made possible by Grissom's effort as well as the outstanding downfield coverage played by the Patriots' secondary. Marcus Mariota (#8) had a relatively clean pocket but with his initial targets shut down, had to look elsewhere. Before completing his progressions, however, the pressure had gotten to him and Grissom took him down for his first-ever postseason sack.
8) 2-10-NE 12 (3:08) (Shotgun) M.Mariota sacked at NE 12 for 0 yards (G.Grissom).
Grissom's second postseason sack – and third overall of his career – came only five plays later. The Titans ran an empty 2x3 formation out of an 02-personnel group (two tight ends, three wide receivers). New England used only one down-lineman – Ricky Jean Francois (#94) on the play to go along with two edge defenders in a two-point stance and off-the-line linebackers Marquis Flowers (#59) and Nicholas Grigsby (#50) shaded to the strong side of the formation:
At the snap, the two linebackers dropped back into coverage and New England rushed only three players. Jean Francois and defensive end Eric Lee (#55) were double-teamed, while Geneo Grissom (#96) found himself in a one-on-one situation versus right tackle Dennis Kelly (#71). Rushing from a 7-technique spot, Grissom used a quick side-step to attack the tackle's outside shoulder.
The move proved to be a successful one as it allowed New England's defender to get past Tennessee's backup right tackle (Kelly filled in for injured starter Jack Conklin). Marcus Mariota (#8) reacted quickly to the rush and started to tuck the football and run towards the line of scrimmage:
While Mariota did reach it, Grissom tackling him from behind still went into the books as a sack – the eighth of the day for New England.
The Patriots' pass rush had a spectacular performance against the Titans. To expect the unit to repeat it against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday is unrealistic. After all, the Jaguars' offensive line has proven themselves superior as pass protection unit this season: While the Titans gave up 2.2 sacks per game entering their matchup against the Patriots (one every 14.3 pass plays), Jacksonville allowed only 1.4 (one every 20.1 pass plays).
Still, we might see some of the concepts used by New England on Sunday during the AFC Championship Game. The team used a lot of movement on its pass rushes, mostly in the form of stunts as well as delayed blitzes, and tried to keep the quarterback in the pocket all while a) playing tight man-to-man coverage in the secondary, and b) mostly leaving a player back to spy Marcus Mariota.
We will see if the Patriots use a similar plan but it would certainly make sense given the similarities between the two offenses. And if the results come close to what New England achieved on Saturday, the ticket to the Super Bowl should be ready there for the taking.