When they faced the Tennessee Titans in Week 10 of the 2018 regular season, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense struggled. The unit was able to score only one touchdown and a field goal during a 34-10 rout and failed to get into much of a rhythm throughout the game: it gained only 284 net yards, converted just three of 15 third downs and averaged a mere 2.1 yards over 19 rushing attempts. From top to bottom it was a bad day.
But even though a lot has changed over the last 14 months, one thing has not: Tennessee still fields a disruptive defense capable of making life hard for its opponent. The numbers may not quite reflect this — the Titans ranked 13th in scoring (surrendering 20.7 points per game) during the regular season and 16th in DVOA (+1.0%) — but as the Patriots pointed out during their media availability session this week, statistics only tell one part of the story.
“They’re physical, they capitalize on your mistakes, have a very good secondary — everybody back there can catch the football, so you make a mistake, they’re catching the ball,” said running back James White on Tuesday. “They run a couple different looks, try and run some jab blitzes, all that good stuff, and they’re very well-coached. We’ve played them a couple times and it’s always a tough football game. Have to bring our A-game.”
“They do what they do; they do it really well,” added offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “This is a really well-coached football team. They’re very disciplined. They make you deal with a lot of different things. This is not a team that’s going to play a couple coverages, they’re going to spin the wheel on you. They play zone, they play man, they play blitz zone, they play blitz man, they drop eight in the coverage, they play different fronts, they blitz a lot of different people and they do it all pretty doggone well.”
Tennessee’s challenging and versatile approach to playing defense is somewhat similar to New England’s, which is rather unsurprising when looking at the team’s coaching staff: head coach Mike Vrabel won three Super Bowls as a linebacker with the Patriots in the early 2000s, while defensive coordinator Dean Pees worked for the organization from 2004 through 2009 — including the final four years as its defensive play caller.
“They have an understanding of what we do, but it’s been a long time since we’ve been together on that stuff,” McDaniels said about the familiarity between the Patriots and the Titans. “Dean and Mike have definitely put their own spin on everything that they do. They certainly had our number last year, which we’ve seen that game already and now we have an opportunity to get ready and play our best game against them. It’s a great challenge. They’re certainly going to make it difficult.”
“They have to be confident because the way they’re playing, they’ve got a lot of good players,” the Patriots’ long-time offensive coordinator added. “They’re very physical up front, they’re tough to block, they play extremely hard. They do a lot and they do a lot with a lot of good players. We need to do a really good job of preparing on a short week, similar to what we did a week ago when we got ready for Buffalo.”
One of the more difficult aspects of facing this Titans defense is the production they have received from their pass rush. Whether it is through linemen straight-up winning their one-on-ones at the point of attack or by scheming defensive backs open with blitz packages, Vrabel and Pees have been able to put a lot of heat on opposing quarterbacks. One thing they do not do, however, is tipping their hand as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick pointed out.
“They blitz secondary players and they blitz linebackers, and then they fake up there and don’t blitz anybody,” the future Hall of Famer said. “They do a good job. Dean and Mike do a very good job of keeping the offense off balance with a variety of what they do defensively, so they’re not very predictable and they give you a lot of different looks, but it’s all things that they’re pretty familiar with and they play well. It’s not like a couple blitzes each week and it’s a bunch of new stuff every week — that’s not really their main thing.”
“They have a good plan and a good package and they have good variety in it, they mix them up, they keep you honest,” added Belichick. “If you’re looking for one thing over here, you could get something else over there and vice versa. They kind of make them look the same and make you figure it out after the snap. And if you guess wrong, then they’ve gotten a lot of sack production out of their DBs. They don’t bring them all the time, but they bring them enough that you’ve got to worry about it. If you’re watching the wrong one then somebody else will get you.”
Needless to say that the Patriots will have to be well-prepared against a potent Titans defense, which could present a challenge in itself: New England, as noted above, has struggled with consistency on offense for much of the year. Even though the running game and blocking up front have improved recently, the aerial attack still is an area of concern — one Tennessee certainly is capable of exploiting if any vulnerabilities present themself.