Eventual supremacy in the AFC might not be on the line just yet, but the New England Patriots’ Week 12 game versus the visiting Tennessee Titans still projects to be a big one. The Patriots are currently at 7-4, and a victory would — at least for the moment — lift them past the 8-3 Titans in the playoff standings and in a position to compete for the top spot in a highly competitive conference.
In order to indeed beat the Titans, however, New England will need to play some solid football on both sides of the ball and get contributions not just from starter-level players but rotational options as well. With that said, here are our five players worth keeping an eye on this week. They may not all play equally important roles, but their impact or development at this point of the season certainly is intriguing enough to warrant special attention.
CB J.C. Jackson
There is no question about J.C. Jackson’s role heading into Sunday’s game: he will again serve as New England’s number one cornerback, and as such tasked with taking one of the opponent’s top receiving weapons out of the equation. The question, however, is who that will be this week.
Usually, the Titans’ one-two punch at wide receiver is A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. With Jones set to miss the game on injured reserve, and with Brown not having practiced so far this week due to a chest issue, there is a chance Tennessee will be down its most productive pass catchers (on top of also missing star running back Derrick Henry). As a result, the team might turn to a starting duo of Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Chester Rogers.
In that case, Jackson would likely go up against Westbrook-Ikhine as the more heavily featured of the two. Obviously, though, all that would change if Brown makes the trip and suits up for the game: if the start wideout is good to go, expect Jackson to line up opposite him quite a bit.
OL Michael Onwenu
While the Patriots do not have the same injury questions as the Titans, there is some uncertainty surrounding starting right tackle Trent Brown. The veteran was a non-participant during Thursday’s practice due to a calf issue after already having missed substantial time earlier in the season because of a calf issue.
Whether those two are related is not known at this point, but there is a chance that Brown will be held out of the game against Tennessee or at least not go wire-to-wire. Inn case that happens, second-year man Michael Onwenu would be the leading candidate to take over.
Onwenu, who opened the season as New England’s left guard, started three games at right tackle between Weeks 7 and 9. Following Brown’s return, he was relegated to a backup role but there appears to be a realistic chance that he will see more prominent action versus the Titans this week.
DT Carl Davis
Speaking of players missing practice due to injury: standout rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore was a no-show on Thursday as well. Dealing with a knee issue, the second-round draft choice is in question for Sunday’s game.
If he will miss the game or is projected to be limited, New England will likely turn to its practice squad to bolster the depth; the team has three defensive tackles — Daniel Ekuale, Bill Murray, Niles Scott — on its developmental roster at the moment. The lion’s share of Barmore’s snaps, however, would go to the DTs already on the active roster.
One of them is Carl Davis, who has been the fourth man so far this season behind Barmore, Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux. While more of a true nose than Barmore, Davis also possesses the versatility to play all over the line. If Barmore is indeed out or limited, he appears to be a prime candidate to see some added snaps come his way.
But even if the youngster is good to go, Davis should be an important role player yet again to help slow down the Titans’ run game and push the pocket into quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
C David Andrews
The Tennessee defense has had its ups and downs this season, but it is still an impressive unit — especially up front. One player that stands out in particular is defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, arguably the Titans’ best front-seven defender.
Simmons is capable of playing multiple techniques along the defensive line, but he most prominently lines up between the tackles. Center David Andrews in particular will therefore be important to help contain the 24-year-old: he will be part of double teams with guards Ted Karras and Shaq Mason, and also will make the protection calls to help keep Simmons as well as fellow defenders Harold Landry and Demico Autry in check.
New England will need Andrews to be on top of his game on Sunday. So far this season, he has proven to be just that regardless of opposition.
WR N’Keal Harry
N’Keal Harry continues to serve as the Patriots’ fourth wide receiver, playing roughly one third of offensive snaps any given week. So, why is he included on the list of players to watch against the Titans?
For one, Harry is coming off his two most active games of the season — games that saw him catch a combined three passes, including two from starter Mac Jones. While that production is not worth writing home about, or anything close to first-round level, it is something.
More importantly, though, Harry has been impressive as a blocker in the running game. With New England likely relying on its ground attack once more to counter an aggressive Tennessee front, he should be expected to be involved quite a bit yet again. And — who knows? — maybe he will see more passes thrown his way as well.