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Six matchups that could decide the Patriots’ Wild Card game against the Titans

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Related: Sound tackling will be a key for the Patriots defense against the Titans offense

New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

For the first time in a decade, the New England Patriots will have to play a game on Wild Card weekend: the reigning world champions, who finished the regular season as the third seed in the AFC after losing their Week 17 matchup against the Miami Dolphins, will host the Tennessee Titans on Saturday in a highly anticipated matchup — one that will either end their season or send them to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs in the divisional round.

The game between the Patriots and the sixth-seeded Titans is projected to be a highly contested affair and as such could be decided by how a few key matchups unfold over the course of it. With that being said, let’s take a look at six of them that certainly could have a major impact on the game’s final result.

New England’s run defense vs. Derrick Henry

The Titans field one of the most explosive offensive attacks in all of football, and running back Derrick Henry is as a big reason for that as any other skill position player on the team’s roster. The league’s rushing leader in 2019 — Henry registered an NFL-best 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns on 303 carries — is a tough matchup due to his combination of size, speed and strength, and one the Patriots will need to find a way to contain come Saturday.

“He can make you miss in space. He can drop his pads and run with power and run over you. He’s a good inside runner, good outside runner, and catches the ball well and he’s got speed to go the distance,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about Henry earlier this week. “He doesn’t get caught much. He gets a step and then he’s able to finish it off. He’s got a good stiff arm. He breaks a lot of tackles in the secondary from guys that just can’t get close enough to wrap him up — he just pushes them away.”

Belichick, who also called Henry the best running back his team has seen so far this year, knows that it will take a special effort from his front-line defenders to slow the Pro Bowler down and get him to the ground upon initial intact: while the Patriots have been solid against the run so far this year and enter the postseason ranked sixth in the NFL while surrendering 95 rushing yards per game, they have yet to play a back as strong at creating yards after contact as Henry.

Successfully limiting the former second-round draft pick’s impact will be a key to New England’s defensive success on Saturday: not only does Harry — and to a lesser extent fellow running back and ex-Patriot Dion Lewis — have the ability to control the tempo of the contest by consistently generating positive yardage, he also is a central piece of the team’s potent misdirection concepts such as the play-action passing game.

So what do the Patriots have to do? According to defensive line coach Bret Bielema, playing sound fundamental football will be the key: New England’s players have to be able to get off their blocks — whether it is the defensive linemen or the linebackers playing downhill — and bring the ball carrier down when they get a chance to tackle him. It will not be easy, but doing those two things consistently should help at least eliminate the big-play threat that is Henry.

New England’s linebackers vs. Ryan Tannehill

As noted above, Derrick Henry’s ability to generate yards on the ground is also the basis for Tennessee’s play-action game. And this part of the team’s offense has been deadly as a look at quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s numbers compared to “regular” play calls shows:

Ryan Tannehill: Play-action statistics

Play-action Drop-backs Pass attempts Completions Completion % Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Rating
Play-action Drop-backs Pass attempts Completions Completion % Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Rating
Yes 100 86 66 76.7% 1,165 9 2 143.3
No 235 200 135 67.5% 1577 13 4 104.5
Pro Football Focus

Tannehill, who was acquired via trade from the Dolphins this offseason and took over starting duties for a disappointing Marcus Mariota in Week 7, has been terrific as a play-action quarterback. His completion percentage and passer rating are certainly impressive, as are his 13.5 yards per pass attempt. Needless to say that misdirection concepts are a staple of the offense under first-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.

“He’s doing a great job in the play-action,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty about Tannehill. “We’ve got to trust each other out there on the field that if it’s a run play the guys up-front that are in position to play the run are going to play it, and then if it’s play-action they’ve got to trust that the guys in the back-end are going to be ready to play the pass. And we’ve got to do that for 60 minutes.”

New England’s linebackers in particular play a big role when it comes to defending play-action concepts: they will need to be patient at the point of attack, read their run and pass keys consistently, and be quick to react to potential change of direction. Dont’a Hightower and company have performed well in this area so far this season, but any lapses against the Titans could have fatal results.

N’Keal Harry vs. Adoree’ Jackson and Tye Smith

So far this season, the Patriots’ passing game has only been able to consistently move the football down the field through wide receiver Julian Edelman: the reigning Super Bowl MVP was targeted 147 times during the regular season, coming away with 100 catches for 1,117 yards and six touchdowns. However, Edelman has been slowed down recently due to knee and shoulder injuries and because teams started to double-cover him on a regular basis.

The Titans are expected to use a similar approach on Saturday, even though it did not work perfectly well for them when they played against New England during last year’s regular season: the team regularly used a cornerback and linebacker to flood the zones to his side and force Tom Brady to look elsewhere in Week 10 of the 2018 season, but Edelman still finished with nine receptions on 12 targets for a combined 104 receiving yards.

Given his injury status and overall importance to the Patriots’ aerial attack, however, Tennessee will still invest resources to try and slow Edelman down. In turn, the team’s other receiving weapons will need to step up — something they have not been able to do on a regular basis so far this year. But while running backs James White and Rex Burkhead, and in-season trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu answering the call would be big, one player in particular could see his targets increase this week: N’Keal Harry.

The Patriots’ first-round draft pick missed the first nine games of the year due to an ankle injury, but saw an increased workload over the second half of the regular season: Harry is essentially the team’s third wide receiver alongside Edelman and Sanu at the moment, and a player who could play a big role for New England down the stretch — including this week’s game against a Titans defense that will be without star cornerback Malcolm Butler.

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels hinted at Harry getting a bigger role during a media conference call earlier this week: “N’Keal has been in the game much more as we’ve moved forward here in the last so many weeks. He’s improved every week, he’s practiced well and he’s made plays when he’s had his opportunities and almost made a spectacular catch there in the red zone [on Sunday], too.”

“We certainly don’t discriminate when it gets to this time of the year about what we want to do and where we want to do it, who we want to do it with,” added McDaniels. “Whether it’s a younger player, a player with a lot of experience, what we need is a great week of preparation and practice and go out there and we need to perform, because trying doesn’t matter, experience doesn’t matter — what matters is results.”

As the Patriots’ top perimeter target, Harry will likely go up primarily against two cornerbacks depending on where he lines up. The Titans, after all, rarely move their defensive backs which means that the rookie be matched up against Adoree’ Jackson — making his return after missing the previous four games due to a foot injury — when he aligns on the right side of the formation and against Tye Smith on the left.

Both are larger and quite physical cornerbacks, but the Patriots should still not shy away from getting Harry the football either through back-shoulder throws or quick passes and hand-offs into open space to take advantage of his running abilities. Either way, him winning his battles could go a long way towards New England establishing some rhythm when in possession of the ball.

Stephon Gilmore vs. A.J. Brown

The Patriots are not the only team that could see major contributions from a rookie wide receiver on Saturday: Tennessee’s second-round pick, A.J. Brown, has been terrific during his short career and leads the team in every major receiving category. Through 16 games, Ryan Tannehill’s favorite target has caught 52 of 84 passes throws his way for a combined 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns.

A big play threat that is outstanding when it comes to creating yards after the catch — no player in the NFL has gained more yardage following a reception than Brown and his 8.8 per catch — the Patriots will need to pay special attention to the first-year pro. This means that it would not be a surprise if they use their number one cornerback on him, Pro Bowler Stephon Gilmore who has played some tremendous football himself in 2019.

While Gilmore is coming off his worst game of the season, putting him on Brown could help the Patriots limit his impact. But despite New England’s defender having a clear advantage when it comes to experience and being in the middle of what should amount to another All-Pro and maybe even Super Bowl season, he knows that he needs to bring his A-game against the 6-foot-0 Ole Miss product.

“I don’t think of years, I just look at what I see on film because that’s the only thing that matters. He is a good receiver, he makes big plays, he can run and he’s strong. So, he’s having a good year for a reason,” Gilmore said about Brown. If that good year is to come to end on Saturday, the Patriots’ number one cornerback needs to be able to return to his shutdown play from before the regular season finale.

New England’s interior offensive line vs. Jurrell Casey and Jeffery Simmons

The Patriots offense has moved the football well on the ground over the last three regular season games, and a continuation of that trend could be key against Tennessee: if New England can control the pace and tempo of the game — plus keep drives alive on third down and score in the red area — the pressure would be on a quarterback that has turned the football over 15 times in 11 career games against the Patriots defense (albeit all with a weaker supporting cast both on and off the field).

For the plan to succeed, however, New England needs to win at the point of attack. This means that guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason and center Ted Karras have to be able to generate an upfield push against Tennessee’s talented interior defensive line led by veteran Jurrell Casey and rookie Jeffery Simmons — two players that are strong in the running game and also have had a considerable impact this year in pass rushing situations.

Luckily for the Patriots, their three interior blockers have played their best football of the season recently. If they can win their battles against Casey and Jeffery in particular, New England’s offense as a whole could be able to operate much more smoothly: the running backs — Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead will serve as the top two ball-carriers yet again — and quarterback Tom Brady would all benefit from some strong blocking up front, even though the latter has not been able to take advantage of it recently.

Patrick Chung vs. Jonnu Smith

Last week against the Dolphins, Patrick Chung surrendered the game-deciding touchdown with under 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter — one of four catches he gave up on the day against Miami tight end Mike Gesicki. While the numbers per se are not bad considering that Chung also broke up one of the seven passes thrown his way, the veteran safety was unable to keep his opponent from making an impact in pivotal situations.

A similar outing cannot happen on Saturday considering the quality of Tennessee’s tight ends, especially third-year man Jonnu Smith. The Titans’ number one player at the position both in terms of playing time and pass-catching statistics — he has caught 35 passes for 439 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season — has been a solid third/fourth receiving weapon for Tannehill this season and is expected to get his fair share of looks again this week.

Chung needs to be able to make sure the connection between the quarterback and his number one tight end cannot be established, something he was not entirely able to do during his two meetings with Smith so far: while Chung limited him to one four-yard reception during a divisional playoff game in January 2018, Smith was able to catch three passes for 45 yards and a touchdown against Chung during last year’s regular season meeting a few months later.

Smith getting the better of the three-time Super Bowl winner again this week could spell trouble for a Patriots defense and starting strong safety trying to bounce back from a disappointing regular season finale.