With an upset victory against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills’ loss to the Jaguars, the Tennessee Titans head to Foxboro this Saturday, squaring off against a rested Patriots squad that will be favored by two touchdowns. The Titans have had a very strange season with many ups and downs. Starting out 8-4, with a lot of close wins (and a point differential of -16 at that point), they dropped three straight games to the NFC West against the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals, before wrapping up a playoff spot in week 17 by beating the Jaguars at home.
On paper, the Titans could be a tough opponent for the Patriots. But when you look at the individual matchups, the game looks easier. Out of the three postseason teams that the Patriots could have played in the divisional round, I believe that the Patriots drew the most favorable matchup, by a good amount.
What can the Patriots learn from the previous matchup?
The short answer to this question is nothing. The long answer to this is also nothing... but some tendencies may be the same on the Titans defensive side of the ball.
When the Patriots last played the Titans on December 20th 2015, Joey Iosefa was the Patriots leading rusher. In fact, Iosefa and Brandon Bolden got 24 out of the Patriots 26 carries. None of the Titans that carried the ball are on an NFL roster anymore and Marcus Mariota was knocked out of the game, and ultimately the season, from the knee injury suffered from this Akiem Hicks sack.
The one constant that the Patriots can exploit is Dick LeBeau’s defense. Yes, that Dick LeBeau, former Steelers mastermind, is still in the NFL at 80 years young. LeBeau is perhaps best known for inventing the modern zone blitz that made the Steelers zone defense so dangerous throughout the early 2000s. However, since his move to Tennessee in 2015, LeBeau has introduced many more man coverage principles to his defense.
Check this play out from the last matchup between the Patriots and the Titans back in 2015. The Patriots are in the red zone, facing 3rd and 3 from the 5-yard line and Gronkowski easily wins his 1 on 1 matchup vs Avery Williamson in man coverage, on a left breaking route.
Flash forward to this past Saturday. On the first 3rd down of the game (timestamp 11:39), Kansas City runs the same exact route combo (post/out) on the right side of the field to get Travis Kelce open against #55 Jayon Brown in man coverage. Easy 3rd down conversion. There is only one subtle difference in the defense and that is #98 Brian Orakpo spying Alex Smith. Against the Patriots, he would be joining the rush.
The Titans linebackers and safeties have struggled mightily against opposing tight ends and running backs in the passing games. According to DVOA, they were 24th against tight ends and dead last against running backs. The Titans roll out one inside linebacker that plays basically 100% of defensive snaps (Wesley Woodyard, 93% of snaps) and rotates their other two guys in Avery Williamson (60%) and Javon Brown (45%). None of these three are particularly good in coverage and Gronkowski, Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead should all have extremely favorable matchups. We may even see the first Brady to Hollister touchdown.
Essentially, the Patriots can expect a defense that’s very similar in terms of scheme to the Steelers defense that we saw this year. Both of those defenses...
- Play a primary 3-4, with a DE being their best front 7 player (Cam Heyward/Jurrell Casey)
- Will play ~2/3rds of snaps in man coverage
- Will drop an OLB into coverage a lot more than expected (TJ Watt/Erik Walden)
- Will have a designated deep safety on ~90% of the snaps (Mike Mitchell/Kevin Byard)
- Don’t have a single player on their roster that can match up with Gronk in man coverage.
Matchups the Patriots can exploit
I want to avoid highlighting obvious mismatches like Gronk vs anyone or Dion Lewis vs a linebacker and focus a little bit on some favorable matchups that may fly a little under the radar.
Brandon Cooks vs Adoree Jackson
Adoree Jackson is a fascinating player and prospect. Many people believed that Jackson was not a real outside cornerback in the NFL and would really only be a slot guy and special teams wizard against stronger competition. Devin McCourty and Cyrus Jones received similar “mixed reviews” on draft scouting reports.
Nonetheless, Jackson was selected in the first round by the Titans and after one year, he really hasn’t answered those questions. He remains a boom/bust player: a guy that looks like a future Pro-Bowler sometimes and looks like he doesn’t belong in the NFL at other times.
Tyreek Hill had his way with Jackson throughout the majority of the game last Saturday. On the first play from scrimmage, Jackson had Hill in press-man from the slot and Hill beat him cleanly with a great release.
Alex Smith screwed up the throw by placing it to the left shoulder of Hill instead of hitting him in stride and Hill dropped the errant pass. But with a good throw, that’s an easy 6 points for someone with Hill or Cooks’ speed. Kevin Byard is late with the help over the top.
On the Chiefs’ second big 3rd down of the night, Jackson again draws the assignment of Hill in the slot, only it’s a zone defense. However, Jackson shows some horrible technique against Hill’s shallow crossing route. He never jams Hill or attempts to re-route him, even though Hill is inside the 5 yard limit. Hill gets a clean release and picks up a huge gain, while Jackson trails behind, uninterested in making the tackle after the catch.
The Titans are enamored with Jackson’s quickness and ability to play man coverage, so often times he takes the fastest wide receiver on the field. Expect a lot of Cooks vs Jackson matchups and for Brady to exploit the times that he looks like a raw rookie.
Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler vs Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews
The Patriots brought in Stephon Gilmore in order to deal with pesky wide receivers like Eric Decker – the 6’3 giants that win with technique and give smaller cornerbacks like Malcolm Butler fits. Gilmore has an athleticism advantage over Decker, while not giving up any physical advantages. On the other side, Butler should be familiar with Matthews from back in his days with Miami. While Matthews is a quality possession receiver, Butler matches up well with him. Matthews isn’t going to overpower Butler with his speed or physicality, which plays to Butler’s strength, his technique.
We’ll also see the disappointing rookie Corey Davis vs Eric Rowe matchup, but the key to the Patriots defense on Saturday is locking up the top two wide receivers for the Titans. Because of the deep positional group the Titans have at tight end (Walker, Smith, Stocker, Supernaw) the Titans are in 11 formation with three wideouts on the field an NFL low 39% of the time. In total, the Titans had at least two tight ends on the field for 47% of their snaps.
Keep the Titans in base
I’ve already highlighted the Titans’ three primary inside linebackers in Woodyard, Williamson, and Brown, and how they are mediocre at best in coverage. The Patriots should try to make the Titans keep all three on the field at the same time.
Recall the Patriots’ game plan against the Denver Broncos this year. The Patriots did not want to have to face Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., and Bradley Roby at the same time and loved the matchups against the Broncos’ linebackers. The result of that gameplan:
- James Develin played 45 snaps (64%), easily a season high
- Dwayne Allen was targeted in the passing game more than ever before, catching a touchdown against Von Miller
- The Patriots targeted running backs or tight ends 19 times (53%). Wide receivers not named Brandin Cooks got six total targets
- Tom Brady when targeting running backs or tight ends: 16/20 for 177 and three touchdowns; passer rating of 143.1
- Bradley Roby played 41% of defensive snaps, his lowest mark of the season
Now I’m not saying that LeShaun Sims is a world beater, but if I’m the Patriots, I’d much rather have rookie fifth rounder Javar Brown in coverage than the Titans’ nickel cornerback. In addition, similar to what the Broncos do with Chris Harris Jr., the Titans like to match up old Patriots friend Logan Ryan in the slot as much as possible. Having only two defensive backs on the field will force Ryan to play on the boundary, where he may face more problems.
Force Marcus Mariota to beat you
Fair or not, Marcus Mariota got a little bit of criticism about his ability to play in cold weather games coming out of the draft. As a quarterback that grew up in Hawaii and played his college games on the west coast, he never really had to deal with throwing the ball in cold weather. For the record, I never bought those concerns and still believe that he’s a better long-term quarterback than Jameis Winston, but the early returns on his cold weather quarterbacking have not been promising.
When the weather dips below 50 degrees, Mariota is unrecognizable. In the eight games Mariota has played in those conditions (including last week’s victory in Kansas City), Mariota has a 57% completion percentage (118/206) with a 6:7 touchdown:interception ratio for a 75.9 passer rating. For reference, Brock Osweiler’s career passer rating is 76.5.
I fully expect the Patriots to do anything and everything to stop Derrick Henry this Saturday. It’s the only matchup the Titans can exploit offensively and it’ll be the top priority for Belichick to stop. Stopping the run may mean an extra man in the box, a few Cover 1 or Cover 0 looks, or some 1 on 1 island coverage on the sideline. But the Patriots should be able to live with that. Shut down Henry and Mariota’s scrambling abilities and force him to make tough downfield throws in the bitter cold.
In all three phases of the game, the Patriots have matchups that they can exploit, and in many cases, they are glaring. Tennessee is a young up-and-coming team that will make that next step when Mariota does, but they’re not there yet. Through both scheme and personnel, the Patriots are poised to take advantage and advance to their seventh straight AFC Championship Game.
Prediction: Patriots 37, Titans 19