The New England Patriots are no strangers to the Tennessee Titans offense, despite not having played the team in two years. Former Titans coordinator Arthur Smith, after all, is now the head coach in Atlanta — coaching a Falcons team that played the Patriots just last week.
The philosophical similarities between Smith’s offense and the one run by his successor, Todd Downing, are apparent. In turn, the Patriots should have a pretty good idea of what they will be up against. Head coach Bill Belichick said so himself, when acknowledging that playing the Falcons in Week 11 should help the team transition into its preparation for the Week 12 game versus the Titans.
“There are some similarities,” Belichick said earlier this week. “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.”
So, what are those similarities? It all starts with the ground game. Just like Atlanta’s offense, the Titans’ also is built around the run game with play-action concepts sprinkled in. It also likes to turn to spread formations when taking to the air.
The key to stopping this Tennessee offense, though, is stopping the run — even without reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Derrick Henry available.
Be disciplined in the running game
Earlier this week, Belichick praised the Titans for their ability to move the football on the ground and create space with their offensive line.
“They’re a good run-blocking line,” Belichick said. “[Geoff] Swaim does a good job at tight end. He’s not an O-lineman, but he’s sort of an O-lineman. They employ a fullback, too, [Tory] Carter, [Khari] Blasingame. They get different combinations in the running game, and they’re all pretty effective.”
The Titans enter Week 12 ranked second in the league in rushing attempts (340), fourth in rushing touchdowns (16), seventh in rushing yards (1,419), eight in rushing EPA (-0.044). While those numbers surely are impressive, they do not tell the whole story.
For starters, Tennessee’s -6.5% run-game DVOA is ranked just 15th, while the team’s 4.2 yards per carry are ranked only 18th in the league. Furthermore, the majority of the production has come with Derrick Henry in the lineup: Henry gained 937 rushing yards and scored 10 touchdowns before a broken foot forced the Titans to send him to injured reserve earlier this month.
With Henry as well as fellow running back Jeremy McNichols out, the team will turn to Dontrell Hilliard and D’Onta Foreman (and possibly practice squad back Rodney Smith) to shoulder the load against a New England run defense that has played some very solid football as of late. The task sure projects to be a challenging one for Tennessee’s offense, especially considering that the Patriots held the Falcons to only 40 rushing yards last week.
Even with the injuries Atlanta’s offense is not on the same level as the Titans’, but the fact remains that the Patriots know pretty well how to counter an outside zone-based rushing attack such as Tennessee’s.
The key word for New England is discipline.
The Patriots cannot allow to run themselves out of position, fall for play-action shots, or get moved off the edge against zone blocks. If they do all those things at a consistent level, they should be good. Just take a look at the following play from the game against Atlanta to see New England’s run defense in action:
The Patriots are using a mix between a standard 3-4 Bear front and a so-called Tilt formation on this particular play: a somewhat symmetrical 6-1 look that gives the defense flexibility to stop the run to either side by using contain players on the edge, but also filling all the gaps inside the box. Furthermore, it uses an off-the-ball defender — Ja’Whaun Bentley (#8) in this case — reading the running back.
Schematically, the formation looks like this:
New England has used Tilt successfully in the past, most prominently versus the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53. Like that Rams team that was held to only three points, the Titans also use their fair share of zone-blocked run concepts.
While outside zone plays a big role in the Titans’ offensive attack, the team also uses other means of attack on the ground. On the following play, they use a straight-up man scheme with a combo block on 3-technique tackle Lawrence Guy (#93):
On this particular play, New England’s off-the-ball linebackers are key: Dont’a Hightower (#54) on the strong side of the formation and Ja’Whaun Bentley (#8) on the weak side. The two cannot over-commit or else they would vacate their zones against play-action concepts, but they read their keys well to know when to charge forward.
Tight end Lee Smith (#45) and left guard Jalen Mayfield (#77) are possible tip-off options for the two defenders; their movements tell them whether to play the run or the pass. Hightower and Bentley react swiftly and help shut down the play: Hightower stands up Smith, while Bentley gives up no ground against Mayfield.
Showing that same level of discipline will be key against a Titans offense that has had plenty of success on the ground this year, albeit with the NFL’s best running back in the lineup. The schematic ideas behind their attack, however, remain in place — and New England knows how to counter them.
Use a heavy dose of zone coverage
Losing players of the caliber of Derrick Henry or wide receiver Julio Jones changes an offense, and the Titans’ is no exception. In their particular case, the attack lost a bit of its aggressiveness: Tennessee dialed back some of its play-action looks, while quarterback Ryan Tannehill started relying more on short, quick passes.
Tannehill generally has fared well using this approach, but pushing the ball down the field has been a problem for the Titans and their quarterback recently. That is exactly where the Patriots’ new-found love for zone coverage comes into play.
While still referring to themselves as a man-based defense, New England has played a lot more zone during its five-game winning streak. Now going against a team capable of attacking especially the short areas of the field, going back to that well could be key in order to force Tannehill to hold onto the football and attack deep against a secondary ranked first in the NFL in interceptions.
Playing the game like this — taking away the underneath plays and forcing Tannehill to take his shots down the field — is one New England likely will feel comfortable playing.
It also is a game that the Houston Texans played last week, which in turn led to four interceptions and a 22-13 upset win. One of those picks saw Tannehill try to attack those short zones. However, he did not see linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill drop out of his A-gap alignment and back into coverage:
The Patriots have the players to present similar looks like this one as well, with Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley proven themselves solid zone defenders this season. Of course, New England also has a pair of box safeties — Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger — that could very easily fill similar roles as well.
No matter who the team will use, one thing seems certain. Using zone looks to muddy the waters, particularly against a rushing attack missing Derrick Henry, appears to be a solid battle plan — whether that means Cover 4 or Cover 2 behind the aforementioned 6-1 Tilt look up front, or a Cover 3 Buzz to add another underneath player.
Challenge the offensive line’s chemistry
“They work well together,” Bill Belichick said about the Titans offensive line earlier this week. “They’ve had a couple subs here and there where [Taylor] Lewan was out for a couple games. The right guard was out for a couple games. [Aaron] Brewer replaced him. [David] Quessenberry missed a game. For the most part, they’ve been there, and they’ve been pretty consistent.
“Certainly, [Roger] Saffold has been a solid guy for them at left guard, Lewan at left tackle and [Ben] Jones at center. We played against four of the five two years ago. They work well together.”
Belichick was full of praise for the Tennessee O-line this week, and it certainly is a quality unit. That said, it has shown some weaknesses this season that the Patriots can take advantage of — especially when it comes to the pass rush.
The Titans, after all, are ranked only 26th in the league in sack rate (7.7%) and are giving up pressures on one third of drop-backs. Every quarterback gets worse when pressures, but the drop-off is pretty drastic in Tannehill’s case: while he is completing 72 percent of his passes when kept clean, that number decreases to 52.9 percent when under pressure. He also has thrown just three touchdowns versus six interceptions when pressured.
Putting the heat on the former first-round draft pick will be key for a New England defense that has performed well as of late in just that area — one that should also be able to challenge the Titans’ pass protection on a fairly regular basis.
The Texans, a team with less talent on defense than the Patriots, did just that as well. How? By combining aggressive coverage calls with blitz packages, overload pressure or other games up front. The goal was to challenge the chemistry of Tennessee’s offensive line, and to subsequently force Tannehill into quick decisions or off-platform throws.
The plan worked well, with the QB going 7-for-14 for 51 yards and a pair of interceptions when pressured. One of those picks came on the following play:
The Texans are showing a 4-2 alignment up front, and they end up bringing all six defenders. Instead of attacking different gaps, however, Houston successfully created plenty of space in the left-side B-gap: left tackle Taylor Lewan (#77) was forced to go wide against 9-technique defensive end Jacob Martin (#54), while left guard Rodger Saffold (#76) moved inside to block defensive tackle Ross Blacklock (#90).
This left plenty of space for the off-the-ball linebackers to attack through. In fact, the team used both of them to exploit the gap — putting running back Dontrell Hilliard (#40) in a “pick your poison” situation: he was unable to block both, meaning he had to leave one run free at his quarterback. Aiding to that fact was that center Ben Jones (#60) did not help against Blacklock, which in turn might have freed Saffold up to pick up one of the blitzers.
However, the O-line was not on that page on this particular play. As a result, Tannehill was forced to throw off his back foot and the pass ended up as an interception.
While Tannehill’s throw was an issue, as was the route run by intended receiver Dez Fitzpatrick, the breakdown started before that: with the Texans successfully putting pressure on the protection.
New England, of course, has shown that it knows how to do that as well.
Play the ball
Let’s end this on a minor note. The Titans will be without some key members of their offense. Wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones will not play, neither will running backs Derrick Henry and Jeremy McNichols. Tennessee will therefore travel to New England without its top-four players in terms of yards gained from scrimmage.
The Titans need to replace them, obviously, but in doing so will have to turn to players with less experience playing alongside Ryan Tannehill. That could very well lead to some friction, with the quarterback and his receivers possibly not being on the same page — a result of them not having spent a whole lot of time together.
If that happens, the Patriots’ ball-hawking secondary needs to be ready to go for the ball. Houston did just that successfully, even in a game that saw the Titans have A.J. Brown in the lineup. Him being added to the list of the other high-profile absentees only increases the chances of Tennessee’s offense being out of sync. If it is, New England should get its opportunities to capitalize.
That is especially true if the focus on stopping the run pays off: forcing the game into the hands of Tannehill and his makeshift receiving corps has to be one of the goals for the Patriots.