The New England Patriots keep climbing up the standings, and at 7-4 are entering Week 12 as the owners of the third playoff seed in the AFC. In order to position themselves well for another leap, however, they will need to defeat the current top team in the conference based on record: the 8-3 Tennessee Titans will visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
While they are coming off an ugly 22-13 loss to the Houston Texans and are currently listed as 7-point underdogs, the Titans cannot be taken lightly on either side of the ball. The offense might have some question marks, but the defense is one of the most talented and fundamentally sound in the league — something Patriots head coach Bill Belichick pointed out during a press conference earlier this week.
“They’re a very good fundamental team,” Belichick said about the Titans defense. “It’s not a lot of exotics. They give you different looks and all that, but they don’t play a lot of different things. They just play them very well, and then they’re hard to block. The linebackers fill their gaps well. They tackle well. Just a good, solid, sound, fundamental football team.
“They don’t try to out-gadget you. They keep you honest with a little pressure here and there, mix in some blitz zones with their zones, but they’re really just a good, solid, sound, fundamental team. You’ve got to stop [Kevin] Byard. [Harold] Landry is a dynamic player. [Jeffery] Simmons pushes the pocket in the middle, which really helps Landry on the edge, [Denico] Autry on the edge. They’re all hard to block. They do a good job.”
In order to find success against the unit and help overtake the Titans in the AFC playoff race, New England therefore needs to play a sound game on the offensive side of the ball. How can they do it? Let’s find out.
Take advantage of Tennessee’s aggressiveness
If there is one term to describe the Titans it would probably be “impressively aggressive.” What is meant by that? That it is obvious the Tennessee defense is extremely well-coached. The group is aggressive to a point where it almost looks careless, but it is able to pull it off and there is always another player nearby to help finish plays.
This aggressiveness extends to all three levels of the defense. It is one of the foundational principles of the unit led by first-year coordinator Shane Bowen and head coach (and former Patriots linebacker) Mike Vrabel.
So, what can New England’s offense do to counter this? The keys are getting creative in the running and passing games, and not having rookie quarterback Mac Jones hold onto the ball for too long.
As with other aggressive defenses the Patriots have faced, the run game will again be key: it keeps the defense honest while it simultaneously limits Jones’ exposure against the pass rush.
When it comes to this week’s game, three concepts in particular are worth taking a closer look at: trap/wham, toss and draw plays. The goal behind all of them is to get offensive linemen to the second level while simultaneously punishing the defense for being too aggressive at the point of attack.
Obviously, the Patriots will mix things up and still run their fair share of duo concepts, but those three could come in handy on Sunday.
The first is trap/wham as run by New England in Week 2 against the New York Jets:
The Patriots aligned in an under-center look with Damien Harris in the backfield and fullback Jakob Johnson serving an H-back role behind the tight end. In this scenario, Johnson is the “wham” player.
As such, he is asked to take on the 4i-technique defensive lineman — a player that is left unblocked by the right tackle and the right guard. In turn, both the right tackle and the center are freed up to get to the second level while all front-line defenders are still accounted for.
Toss concepts work similar, with interior linemen also moving up to the second level:
On this particular play, called Toss 38 Bob, the quarterback pitches the football to the running back after taking the hand-off, with the fullback aligned in an H-back positioning helps the right tackle seal the edge against the second-level weak-side linebacker. With the center and left guard both on the second level as well, the ball-carrier should have space to gain yardage.
There are multiple variations to this standard play, but one is particularly intriguing: the fake toss bootleg. In this case, the quarterback would keep the ball and advance it himself. Optionally, he could also throw it on a play-action concept. The possibilities are near-endless.
Finally, a draw concept with the fullback as the lead blocker:
On this play, called H 42 Ace, the fullback has to read the defensive line to find a path to the middle linebacker — a path the halfback has to follow through the hall. Along the way, the center-right guard double-team block might be dissolved with the center moving to the second level again.
The goal on this play is clear: gain yet another numbers advantage down the field while simultaneously overpowering the defensive line at the point of attack.
Running all these plays successfully against a talented Titans defense will not be easy. That said, they do allow New England to attack Tennessee’s aggressiveness and angles towards the ball by getting players to the second level.
Don’t telegraph plays
The Tennessee defense might not be among the best in football as far as creating turnovers is concerned — the unit has registered 14 of them, tied for 12th most in the league — but it certainly is capable of making the big play if given the opportunity. The Patriots obviously have to take care of the football whenever in possession, with one player in particular in the spotlight: Mac Jones.
The first-round rookie QB has played some impressive football so far this season, but one of the areas he has struggled with performing at a consistent level is eye discipline. Against a defense like the Titans’, which has tremendous closing speed at all three levels and is quick to the football, being sloppy with look-offs or starting down receivers can lead to disastrous results.
To be fair, Jones does not telegraph his intentions often. However, he is good for one or two such throws every week — thus giving defenses an opportunity to make a play for the football. Tennessee’s is well-equipped to take advantage of this, especially considering that safety Kevin Byard is one of the rangiest defensive backs in football. He also is third in the league in interceptions, having picked off a team-high five passes.
With Byard regularly serving as the deep man, Jones needs to be careful with his deep pass attempts and disciplined with his eyes when going through his progressions. Every mistake in that area could be costly, and even more so in a game projected to be a close affair.
Distribute the football quickly
Even though they are middle of the pack in terms of pressure percentage, the Titans are able to disrupt opposing offenses with their pass rush. Three players stand out in particular: defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry as well as outside linebacker Harold Landry. Together, the three have registered 22.5 sacks this season as well as a total of 144 quarterback disruptions.
The rest of the team has been rather pedestrian when it comes to pressuring QBs, but those three are a problem — one New England needs to be ready for. Having a stout offensive line certainly helps, but so does a game plan with an emphasis on quick passing concepts to get the football out of Mac Jones’ hands before any pass rush can get home.
The Patriots would not be the first team to use this approach. Take the following play from the Buffalo Bills’ game against the Titans in Week 6. It’s nothing fancy, just a quick play-action concept, but it works well against Tennessee’s off-man coverage for a short gain to move the sticks:
The Patriots have used similar concepts, with last week’s game against the Atlanta Falcons featuring such a play on the very first drive. Here, Mac Jones (#10) fakes the hand-off to Damien Harris (#37) before passing to N’Keal Harry (#1) on a quick out to the far hash mark:
In general, the Patriots’ 25-0 win in Atlanta can be seen as a blueprint of sorts when it comes to New England’s mode of attack in the passing game. The Falcons, after all, are led by former Titans assistant Arthur Smith. Former Patriots coordinator Dean Pees is leading the defense — the same Dean Pees who previously worked in the same position in Tennessee.
Bill Belichick himself mentioned the similarities of the two defenses earlier this week.
“There are some similarities,” he said.
When asked whether or not this helps with the preparation, Belichick agreed.
“Yeah. A little bit,” he said. “I think it speeds up the communication process. You can certainly relate something this week that you’ve talked about in the previous week, and players have a re-call picture of what you’re talking about.”
As a result, it would not be a surprise if New England used other plays run last week in order to distribute the football quickly against a talented front. One popular method of doing that, and a staple of Josh McDaniels’ Patriots offenses, is the screen pass — no matter if thrown to running backs, wide receivers or even tight ends.
The following throw to Kendrick Bourne (#84) is an example for a wideout bubble screen:
Originally aligning in the left-side slot, Bourne moves back in a curved route to receive the quick pass after a fake hand-off. Fellow wide receivers Nelson Agholor (#15) and Jakobi Meyers (#16), who aligned alongside him on the trips side of the formation, move up the field to serve as the lead blockers.
What makes this concept interesting against the Titans, is the role played by left guard Ted Karras (#67). Moving on a pull-block across the formation, he is filling a similar role as the wham player mentioned above. The Patriots do not run the ball on this play, obviously, but they use a design that could very well be employed against Tennessee in a different context as well.
McDaniels is also regularly calling “classic” screen passes to running backs, like the one from the game against the Carolina Panthers:
The Panthers’ front has a similar aggressiveness as the Titans’, meaning that the Patriots might copy-paste some of the concepts used back in Week 9.
This screen pass to Damien Harris might be one of them, and it has an interesting design: after the snap, right tackle Michael Onwenu (#71) does not engage with a defender in front of him; instead, he waits for Harris to initiate contact and bounce back off again. Onwenu then scoops in to help create an alley for the receiver to run through.
The Patriots may or may not run this play on Sunday, but the idea behind it and the others mentioned above is all the same: get the ball out of Mac Jones’ hands quickly and counter an aggressive defense.
What New England could also do to help with that is the following:
Josh McDaniels is one of the most creative play designers in all of football, and the Patriots make use of misdirection concepts as much as any team in football. Not every misdirection play necessarily has to be a trick play or come out of a non-standard formation, though: New England’s offensive play caller is also not afraid to run relatively standard looks but add some wrinkles to challenge a defense’s reactionary skills.
Take the following pass to Damien Harris (#37) from last week’s game in Atlanta and how the Patriots create space for the third-year running back by moving the entire formation to the other side:
The play has various layers to it — from Kendrick Bourne moving (#84) moving across the formation to help Mac Jones (#10) diagnose the Falcons’ one-deep man coverage, to the offensive line zone-blocking to its left without getting too far up the field (and risk any ineligible-player-downfield penalties), to Jakobi Meyers (#16) successfully opening the edge by bumping into two defenders.
The key, however, is making the player in coverage of the intended target take a wrong step or get lost in traffic. In this particular case, that player is linebacker Deion Jones (#45), who bites against the fake-handoff before colliding with tight end Jonnu Smith (#81) to get slowed down even more. This, in turn, gives Harris space to get up the field in a hurry.
While that is just one example of misdirection against a Titans-like defense, it serves the same goal: to make life hard on a defense that is quick to the ball but that can be exploited by using its aggressiveness against it. The use of misdirection therefore goes hand in hand with the more traditional run-play concepts mentioned earlier.