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What the Patriots defense has to do to beat the Titans: Tennessee will try to establish the run, and New England needs to be ready

Related: Asking Music City Miracles: Patriots’ passing game needs to step up

New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ defense finished the regular season as the top scoring unit in the league, but it also ended it on a low note: with just under four minutes left in the Week 17 game against the Miami Dolphins, all that was needed for a victory and by extension a first-round playoff bye was one defensive stop. Unfortunately, the unit failed to deliver and instead gave up a game-winning touchdown with less than 30 ticks left on the clock.

Now, the Patriots will have to play on wild card weekend and go up against one of the hottest teams in the league: a Tennessee Titans squad that enters the postseason as just the sixth seed in the AFC, but one that features considerable talent especially on the offensive side of the ball: the Titans offense averaged 23.3 points per game on this side of the ball — New England’s, for comparison, scored only 23.1 — ranking 10th in the NFL in this category.

So, what can the Patriots defense expect from its upcoming opponent? To get a clearer picture of the Titans offense, we spoke with Music City Miracles editor-in-chief Jimmy Morris. And what he says about the unit coordinated by Arthur Smith essentially echoes the tune coming out of Gillette Stadium all week long: New England needs to be able to slow Tennessee’s running game and its number one weapon, Derrick Henry, down.

“This offense runs through Henry, so my guess is they will stack the box and make Ryan Tannehill hit some throws down the field,” Jimmy said when asked what he thinks the Patriots’ primary defensive focus will be on during this week’s playoff game. “The Titans have the weapons on the outside to win some of those match-ups, so it will be interesting to watch that game of cat and mouse.”

“One thing is for sure, the Titans are going to try to establish the run. They won’t go away from it, even if they are having limited success, until they absolutely have to,” he continued. Tennessee, of course, features the NFL’s leading rusher in Henry and has used the Pro Bowl running back not just to control the tempo of games and keep defenses honest, but also to set up one of the most productive play-action attacks in all of football.

Henry is not the only reason for the Titans’ offensive success, however, as quarterback Ryan Tannehill has also played a big role. Ever since getting inserted into the starting lineup in Week 7, the former Miami Dolphins first-round draft pick has played lights-out: he looked outstanding running play-action concepts and continuously put the offense in a position to be successful after it struggled mightily under previous starter Marcus Mariota.

“It is hard to believe how much better this offense has looked with Ryan Tannehill,” said Jimmy. “Marcus Mariota had just lost all of his confidence playing the position. He was being indecisive in the pocket and wasn’t pushing the ball down the field at all. None of that has been a problem with Tannehill. He is averaging 9.6 yards per attempt while Mariota was at 7.6. This offense just has a complete different attitude with Tannehill under center.”

Tannehill has played some terrific football since taking over for Mariota and the numbers reflect it: in 12 games so far this season, he has completed 70.3% of his pass attempts (201 of 286) for 2,742 yards with 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions. While Henry is the motor that powers the Titans’ offensive machine, Tannehill is the one driving it in marvelous fashion — and the one who allowed it to reach the playoffs in the first place.

As Jimmy pointed out, however, Tannehill is not the only core piece to this offense: “The other two keys to this offense are Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown. Henry has been awesome down the stretch once again, ending the season as the rushing king. He is such a big dude that wears defenses down as the game goes along. There have been so many games where he is limited in the first half but breaks off some big runs in the second half.”

“Brown should be the the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He honestly looks like a young Terrell Owens. He can break tackles once the ball is in his hands, but he can also get over the top and make big plays down the field,” he continued when speaking about a second-round pass catcher that has led Tennessee in every major receiving category and could very well be covered by New England’s number one cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, on Saturday night.

Slowing down Brown is only one piece of the puzzle for the Patriots, though. Henry needs to be contained as well, while the play-action game with Tannehill also has to be kept in check. Not selling out one way or the other and playing fundamentally sound football will be the keys to doing all those things, but as other defenses have seen this season it will not be easy. Then again, the Patriots led the league in scoring in 2019 for a reason. They just need to go back to playing that way.