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Sound tackling will be a key for the Patriots defense against the Titans’ high-flying offense

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Related: Patriots’ run defense prepares for its toughest test yet

Divisional Round - Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Ever since inserting quarterback Ryan Tannehill into the starting lineup in Week 7, the Tennessee Titans offense has been one of the most productive in the NFL. The change under center certainly played a role in this development, but the improved production also is based in part on the skill position players’ ability to challenge opposing defenses on a down-to-down basis — something that improved even further with Tannehill on the field.

Whether it is running back Derrick Henry, who led the league in rushing attempts and yards during the regular season, talented rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown, or the rotational and depth options used alongside them, the Titans have made a living out of putting up additional yards either through contact or after receiving the football. This rings especially true when looking at the numbers some of the numbers they have put up.

As can be seen when analyzing Tennessee’s yards after catch (YAC; wide receivers, tight ends) or contact (YACo; running backs), its players consistently rank among the best in the NFL in the respective categories:

  • WR A.J. Brown: 8.8 YAC (1st among wide receivers)
  • TE Jonnu Smith: 8.4 YAC (2nd among tight ends)
  • WR Corey Davis: 4.9 YAC (50th among wide receivers)
  • RB Derrick Henry: 4.2 YACo (2nd among running backs)

How impressive are those numbers apart from the rankings? Just compare them to the Titans’ opponent this week, the New England Patriots. In the passing game, Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu are their most productive players when it comes to generating yards after receiving the football with only 3.5 (98th) and 3.3 (107th), respectively. On the ground, the Patriots are a bit more competitive as Rex Burkhead ranks ninth in the league with 3.4 yards gained after contact.

Needless to say that Tennessee’s abilities to gain yards after touching the football are certainly impressive and a major factor when it comes to their offensive production. Unsurprisingly, strong tackling and a sound technique against ball carriers will therefore be a key to the Patriots’ defensive approach this week — something that defensive back Devin McCourty also pointed out during his press conference on Wednesday.

“It’s a quick slant or a slim post and A.J. Brown catches it, now he breaks a tackle and now you’re trying to catch a guy that you’re not going to catch. Or Derrick Henry gets an open field, or Corey Davis makes a play,” he said. “Tajae Sharpe ran a stutter-and-go against Jacksonville and got behind. They still have those vertical-nine routes. A.J. Brown ran one against Houston, 60-yarder. A lot of the plays, even the reverse he had against New Orleans, breaks a tackle and now he’s gone.”

“Jonnu Smith — the guy that people really don’t talk about a lot in that offense — he has a toss-play for 60 yards, he has a quick slant for like another 50 yards,” McCourty added. “A lot of it is going to come down to, obviously, you can’t let the ball behind. You can’t let your guys run by you. We’ve got to do a good job when they make catches of everyone getting to the ball and tackling because they’ve got a lot of big, strong, fast guys on that team, a lot of guys that don’t really look like they fit in the position they’re in. Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, guys that are huge, playing different positions and they’re really good at it.”

McCourty’s statements reflect that the Patriots have been focused on tackling drills this week, and for good reason as the numbers above show. That being said, the team has been one of the best in the league when it comes to stopping opposing ball carriers: New England is rated third in this area by Pro Football Focus and has missed only 93 tackles during the regular season. Given the challenge at hand, the team will need a repeat performance this week to slow Tennessee’s potent offense down.