The Patriots head to the beautiful city of Nashville Sunday to face off against the Tennessee Titans. The Titans are currently second in the AFC South with a 4-4 record and are within spitting distance of a Wild Card spot.
The Titans AKA the Baby Patriots
The Titans had one of the more aggressive offseasons in the NFL. They signed Malcolm Butler to a $61 million deal and Dion Lewis to a $20 million deal. They also hired Texans defensive coordinator (and former Patriot) Mike Vrabel to be their head coach. In the blink of an eye, the Titans became the Baby Patriots.
Tennessee has had an odd 2018. They started the season strong at 3-1, with impressive wins over the Texans, Jaguars, and Eagles. They then proceeded to lose their next three games to the Bills, the Ravens, and the Chargers. The Bills are horrendous, the Ravens held Tennessee to no points, and the Chargers are probably equal to Tennessee in talent. The losses don’t make a whole lot of sense. They beat the Cowboys convincingly last week, but Dallas is a dumpster fire right now, so that win doesn’t really tell us much. It’s really hard to predict how the Titans will finish out this season.
Tennessee’s offense has some talent but hasn’t been able to put it all together. Their offensive line is one of the best in the league thanks to Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain, and Jack Conklin. They excel in both run and pass blocking, making them a diverse unit. The Titans have an impressive two-headed monster at running back with Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry. They are averaging 3.5 yards-per-carry this season. Marcus Mariota has developed into a decent quarterback. This season he has 1270 passing yards and five touchdowns at a 67% completion rate. He has also run for over 200 yards.
The Titans receivers are where the talent falls off. Former first-round pick Corey Davis and second-year receiver Taywan Taylor have been carrying the load for Tennessee. Former UMASS star Tajee Sharpe has also been productive. Outside of those three, the Titans receivers have been an underwhelming group.
Tennessee’s defense has quietly been one of the best in the league. They are first in the league in scoring defense, giving up just over 17 points per game. They also rank in the top half of the league in pass defense and run defense. Vrabel has turned them into a formidable group that can surprise teams.
The Titan’s linebacker corps is one of the better units in the league right now. With Brian Orakpo, Will Compton, Wesley Woodward, Jayon Brown, Derrick Morgan, and Rashaan Evans, they are a group heavy with both talent and depth. They defend well against the run and have the speed and athleticism to be effective in the passing game as well.
The Titans secondary is another elite unit. Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson Kenny Vaccaro, Kevin Byard, and Malcolm Butler combine to make an extremely talented group. Nearly all of them are rated near the top of their position according to Pro Football Focus. Butler has struggled a lot this year, but Patriots fans are no strangers to his talent. At any point, he could return to form as an elite cornerback who makes game-changing plays.
This game will be a challenge for New England because of the Titans talent and their familiarity with the Patriots thanks to Vrabel. They are going to need to be much more creative because Vrabel will do everything to take away the Patriots usual stuff. The Titans will likely put extra effort into stopping James White because of how lethal he has been in the passing game. This will make it harder for Tom Brady to hit an easy check down. Tennessee will also do their best to eliminate Julian Edelman, who is essentially a first-down machine.
With Rob Gronkowski likely out again on Sunday, the Patriots will need to rely on Josh Gordon, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Chris Hogan to make plays. The good thing for Patterson and Hogan is that the attention given to White, Edelman, and Gordon should give them more favorable matchups.
The Patriots running game is also going to be extremely important. Tennessee is not overwhelmingly good against the run, giving up over 100 yards per game. Controlling the game on the ground will help the Patriots wear down the Titans defense and control the clock. Who takes up this role is not exactly clear. Sony Michel may return this week, but it’s unclear whether he would get a full workload, or just play sparingly. Patterson may see more time as running back because of that.
The most important thing for the Patriots is going to be putting points on the board whenever possible. Yes, that sounds obvious, but it’s especially important against a team like the Titans that excels at limiting opponents points scored. New England needs to put up points every single time they get a chance. Last week against Green Bay they gave up a golden opportunity to score points when they were on the Packers one-yard line. This week they need to convert those chances into any form of points.
This week is a step down for the Patriots from having to face Aaron Rodgers. However, the Titans should not be underestimated. New England’s Achilles heel over the last few seasons has been covering mobile quarterbacks. The Titans happen to have one of the more mobile QBs in the NFL.
Keeping Marcus Mariota contained in the pocket is going to be the most important thing for the Patriots defense this week. New England’s front seven did a fantastic job of this against Rodgers, and it prevented the Packers QB from extending plays and running for first downs. If they can keep Mariota contained, the results will be even better. Rodgers is still lethal in the pocket because he has an arm gifted from God. Mariota is not nearly as prolific of a thrower. Forcing him to stand in the pocket and make accurate throws into tight windows with defenders surrounding him will be a recipe for disaster for Tennessee.
Stopping the run game will also be crucial for the Patriots. The Titans have relied heavily on that all year, and for good reason. Lewis and Henry are an incredible one-two punch because of the difference in their playing styles that can distract and confuse defenses. The Patriots defensive line needs to be tough up front against a talented offensive line for the Titans. Allowing Henry or Lewis to consistently get to the second level could be a disaster. Once again, Malcolm Brown and Lawrence Guy need to step up and set the tone.
Tackling will also be extremely important. Patriots fans have seen how hard it is to take Lewis down. New England needs to prevent him from breaking tackles and extending plays. Taking down Henry is no easy task either, and Patriots defenders are going to need to fly to the ball to stop him.
This week is a mixed bag for the Patriots secondary. On one hand, this is one of the easier matchups they have had this year in terms of opponent talent. However, because of that and because of the Titans run game, it also means that the Patriots secondary will be more exposed. The Patriots will likely try to keep as many defenders in the box as they can. New England’s defensive backs will be forced to play more man coverage, potentially without help. They cannot take plays off, and need to continue to play as well as they have. They match up well; Stephon Gilmore should be able to handle Corey Davis; Jason McCourty is a good matchup for Taywan Taylor; Jonathan Jones has the speed and tenacity to stay with Sharpe. They just need to execute as a unit.
Tennessee has been too inconsistent to trust them to beat the Patriots in a big game like this. They have the talent and are certainly heading in the right direction. But their offense lacks explosiveness, and won’t be able to keep up with New England’s. As good as the Titans defense is at limiting points, Tom Brady is a whole different beast.
New England 33 Tennessee 17