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2020 NFL playoffs: A Nashville New Englander’s Guide to the Tennessee Titans

Pats Pulpit’s official Nashville correspondent (a title I definitely did not just make up) gives his two cents on New England’s wild card round foe, the Tennessee Titans.

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New Orleans Saints v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

If someone had told me on the morning of December 11th, 2018, in between first and second breakfast and pre-tailgate, that the final score of Titans vs Patriots that afternoon would end up a 34-10 barbecue and I’d be taking an Uber on Monday morning to retrieve my car downtown because even someone like me that hit their head a lot playing pond hockey back in the day knows to put down the keys when your first beer of the day is before most folks get to church, I’d have said “our lord and savior Thomas Edward Patrick Brady teaches the importance of getting lubed up for a big game, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him down”.

Of course, I would’ve also assumed that the Patriots would be on the other side of that 34-10 final score, like they were on January 13th of 2018 when the Titans hit paydirt in the first quarter and didn’t cross the end zone line again until Brady & Co had already hung a cool 35 on the scoreboard.

Fortunately, as I’ve learned since moving to Music City USA full-time after college, the locals are a mostly a friendly bunch that loves their football, so even when you’re walking out of the stadium into downtown like “did I hit a glitch in the Matrix, or, what just happened?” when the Titans absolutely dominate the eventual Super Bowl champions, all you have to worry about are some twangy Yankee jokes and general ball-busting, as opposed to, let’s just say some other fanbases that, you know, are known for throwing batteries or condiments something.

This year really feels like the turntables have turned, though, right? The Patriots seem like they’re finding new ways to have trouble moving the football ever since the Ravens game, and the Titans come into this weekend with the swag of King of the 4th Isaiah Thomas after punching their playoff ticket last weekend.

So in the spirit of last time I wrote this column, I’ll try and spare you the Captain Obvious points about the Titans like how Derrick Henry is a large human who runs very fast and does not enjoy being tackled, or how Ryan Tannehill looks like everyone thought Marcus Mariota should look right now. Or that half the team is Patriots alumni. And the GM, and the coach, and the defensive coordinator (remember when Dean Pees ran the Patriots defense for a minute?). The goal here is to share what I’ve learned from watching the Titans all year from the 100 level (and occasionally 300 level, and on friends’ couches).

The Titans still love their trick plays

Remember this one from last year, when the Titans ran almost the exact same play that Brady couldn’t haul in back in the Philly Super Bowl?

Yeah, that one stung a little.

We all like big man touchdowns though, right? As of right before Christmas, though, the Titans were the only team in the *entire* NFL to have not one, but two offensive linemen haul in TD passes. And ironically, one of those was with now-second-banana Marcus Mariota slinging the rock all the way back in Week 2, when this happened...

And this one from the end of November’s definitely the more memorable of the two, and, if we’re being honest, well worth shotgunning a beer over like Dennis Kelly and the rest of the big boys did:

Even the Dan Fouts commentary couldn’t ruin that one.

There was also this one in that same Jags game, on the same drive, where Derrick Henry tried his best to audition for the Titans’ starting QB job in 2020 and it...actually was a decent pass to tight end Jonnu Smith and kind of worked in the sense that it drew a PI flag and set Tennessee up on the goal line. I mean, Henry’s no Julian Edelman, but this one’s an inch or two from being right in the bucket, from a dude who’s been trucking linebackers all game. Observe!

Here’s Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith on their philosophy on trick plays (or, as Belichick calls ‘em, misdirection plays):

“The biggest part of the job is figuring out how it fits us, whether it’s a college play or a play that somebody else did in the NFL. Will it be beneficial to us? It kind of comes together. Everybody has input. If anyone has an idea, it’s never too small.”

“It’s all just a part of game planning. I think you try to see where you can best take advantage. You just try to look at the defense, come together, talk about it, see where things fit, say, ‘Hey, I like this. What do you think?’ Sometimes it goes in. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it fits. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

You can just say that they’re badass and everyone likes them and if you think you can get away with it, you’ll call one, dude. We’re all in the same boat on this one.

Speaking of offensive linemen doing stuff...

The offensive line is extremely good... when they’re not getting penalties

We’ve had our own fair share of offensive line issues in New England this season, no doubt, and having said that, it’s hard to imagine a more nightmarish, “are you freaking kidding me?” start to your season than All-Pro tackle Taylor Lewan had in 2019.

First up: Lewan got popped for PEDs over the summer, and of course, he rolled with the classic “I have no idea how this happened and that’s not who I am” excuse and took a polygraph test to prove he was telling the truth. The NFL was not impressed. Automatic 4-game suspension.

Second: Once Taylor got back on the field, all was not good in the hood. The big man, who accurately and succinctly assessed in November that his penalties were a “f*cking problem”, racked up 9 flags in his first 6 games back, including 3 in one game against the Chiefs. He really diversified his portfolio too: of those 9 penalties, 3 were offensive holding, 4 were false starts, 1 was a face mask, and finally, the Lewan special, unecessary roughness for 1.

Third: Fortunately, if you’re the Titans, Lewan’s been a borderline angel lately by comparison - since that Kansas City game on November 10th, he’s only been flagged once, bizarrely, for an ineligible downfield pass.

As an offensive line unit, Tennessee’s been flagged 32 times on the season, and for comparison purposes, (ok, and a little ball-busting), the cheating-ass Patriots only have 14 O-line penalties over 16 games. Ironically, the two team’s offensive line grades are pretty similar - the Titans checked in at PFF’s #8th-ranked line for the regular season, while New England ranks a couple spots lower at #10...with a second-string center, occasionally a third-string center, and however many games of Marshall Newhouse, of course.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is the Titans line is a force to be reckoned with, when they’re not busy shooting their own dicks off.

Beware the Cornerback Blitz... and Logan Ryan in general

You know how Bill Belichick loves corners that aren’t afraid to get their nose dirty and punish a ballcarrier? Check this out:

  • Titans tackles leaders: 1) Logan Ryan (113), 2) LB Rashaan Evans (111), 3) LB Jayon Brown (105)
  • Titans sack leaders: 1) LB Harold Landry (9), 2) LB Kamalei Correa (5), 3) LB Jurrell Casey (5), 4) Logan Ryan (4.5)
  • Titans interception leaders: 1) S Kevin Byard (5), 2) Logan Ryan (4)

Logan’s also got 19 passes defended and 4 forced fumbles this year.

And finally, according to Sports Illustrated, he’s one of only 3 DB’s in the past decade to log at least 4 sacks and 4 picks in the same season, the other two being now-Washington safety Landon Collins when he was still with the New York Football Giants in 2016 and Mike Mitchell back in 2013 with the Raiders.

Rutgers, man.

Interestingly enough, the Titans pass defense as a whole this year has not been great; they’ve allowed the 9th-most passing yards in the NFL, with 4,080 allowed on the season. The Patriots defense? 2,886.

Logan Ryan’s just been playing out of his mind, and with everyone guessing he’ll draw the Julian Edelman matchup on Saturday, that’ll be a heavyweight main-card event to see.

Random Stat of the Day

Thought this was an interesting way to look at all these playoff teams on both sides of the ball, and also a fun way to say “allowing your QB to get clobbered and coughing up the ball is bad, while clobbering opposing QBs and taking the ball away from the other team is good”:

About that whole “quarterback getting clobbered” part: the Ryan Tannehill we all know and love from Miami still has a bit of a problem keeping the ball out of the other team’s hands. Since taking over in Week 6, he’s thrown 6 picks and, more promisingly for a Patriots defense that thrives on turnovers, Tannehill’s also coughed up the ball 6 times on fumbles and gotten sacked 31 times. Having said that, Tanne-thrill, as the locals call him, also hasn’t fumbled since Week 13 against our mutual enemy the Colts, so, there’s that.

Like usual, keep your head on a swivel for play-action

If Bill says to watch out for play action, and you don’t watch out for play-action, you’re going to have a bad time.

And as our old buddy Evan Lazar points out, between pre-snap motion and the Patriots classic of making one thing look like something else with O-line play, you’ve got the Titans recipe for big strikes if the defense can’t figure it out in time. And by “in time” I mean “in a matter of split seconds”, of course.

It should not blow anyone’s mind that play-action, and deception in general, are effective ways to catch a defense snoozin’. Especially since all the analytics dorks agree that it seriously does not matter how well you are or aren’t running the football; it’s not a question of whether PA’s effective, just how effective it is. And the Titans have done a great job building that element into their game, complete with a QB that can still bomb it down the field if there’s an open man.

Like this one! Tannehill quickly fakes the handoff to Derrick Henry, and then rips this 91-yard house call to Pats Pulpit draft crush A.J. Brown:

Yeah, so, Pats defense better be reading their keys and all that.

One more thing

And to wrap this up, if you see any Titans fans and want to try something fun, ask them how to pronounce “Tannehill”. The possibilities are endless!