FOXBOROUGH — As the Patriots prepare for their first Wild Card matchup since 2009, Bill Belichick and his staff need to deliver their best performance of the season.
Over the last five games, we’ve seen opposing offenses expose some of New England’s tendencies on the defense side of the ball, culminating in the Dolphins’ Week 17 upset.
In my film review this week, we discussed the vulnerabilities in the Patriots’ favorite coverage scheme, cover-one, and how Miami exposed them with a terrific game plan and execution.
Furthermore, the Dolphins and others since the calendar turned to December might’ve figured out Belichick’s cover-zero blitzes that were once a dominant play-call for the Pats defense.
From this perspective, it’s strong to say that teams figured out the Patriots defense, but whatever remaining wrinkles Belichick has up his sleeve, now’s the time to let them loose.
The Patriots need to make adjustments as teams digest weeks of tape on New England’s top-ranked defense, and show some things they haven’t during the regular season.
With the Patriots defense coming off it’s most disappointing performance of the year, they’ll welcome one of the league’s hottest offenses and quarterbacks to town on Saturday night.
Since Ryan Tannehill took over as the starter in Week 7, the Titans offense is one of the most productive and explosive units in the entire National Football League.
Tennessee is averaging over 30 points and a league-best 6.9 yards per play in Tannehill’s ten starts, leading to a 7-3 record that helped them pull out of a slow start to make the playoffs.
To stop the explosive Titans offense, we must first understand the roots of their success.
Under offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, Tennessee is a west-coast based offense that resembles what they were last year under now Packers head coach Matt LaFleur.
LaFleur, of course, comes from Mike Shanahan’s Washington Redskins staff that also produced Rams head coach Sean McVay and the Niners’ Kyle Shanahan.
As is the case with the Rams, 49ers, and Packers, the basis of the Titans offense is an outside zone rushing scheme led by the NFL’s rushing champ in fourth-year running back Derrick Henry.
Henry led the NFL during the regular season with 1,540 rushing yards, averaging a league-best 4.2 yards after contact per rush (min. 90 carries) and had the fourth-most avoided tackles (58).
In outside zone, the offense will try to stretch the defense out, forcing them to run horizontally across the field to match the flow of the blockers.
(via Rich Madrid)
For the running back, he has three options depending on the positioning of the end of the line of scrimmage player (EMLOS) and the defensive tackle on the play side.
If the EMLOS gets turned inside, the back will “bounce” the run to the edge, which is the most likely path. He can also “bang” the run between the two defenders or “bend” it on a cut back run.
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The Titans will run outside zone out of a single-back set like McVay, sometimes opting to replace the third wide receiver with an extra tight end, or they’ll use a fullback.
Over 45 percent of Henry’s carries this season are on outside zone, and he leads the league with 204 carries behind zone-blocking by his offensive line.
From there comes the most dangerous element of the Tannehill-led Titans: play-action.
The Titans use play-action on 30 percent of Tannehill’s drop-backs, mostly from under center, and Tannehill leads the league in both yards per pass attempt (13.5) and passer rating (143.3) off of play-action (stats via Pro Football Focus).
Most of their play-action concepts work off of their outside zone running game.
“The quarterback makes good, quick decisions and the receivers are big targets,” Belichick said of the Tennessee’s potent play-action attack.
“They make their passes and their runs look the same. It’s hard for the defense to recognize the difference, and if they just get a step on you, Tannehill’s done a good job of sticking the ball in there in some tight spaces before the defense can recover off those play-actions and hit them.”
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The Titans get to their favorite route off of play-action in a few different ways, but the primary action is to run a bootleg off of outside zone. Smith will put either rookie sensation AJ Brown or Corey Davis at the “X” in a reduced split opposite the tight end, then send them across the field with the flow of the quarterback. Both Brown and Davis are lethal on intermediate crossers, using their size to gain leverage and break tackles after the catch. Brown, in particular, is a monster after the catch.
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Tennessee will also leak tight ends and backs into the flats off of the bootleg motion, either hitting the tight end on the “slide” route or sneaking the fullback out on a flat route.
To combat the prolific outside zone rushing attack and inevitable play-action that follows, the Patriots might turn to the Super Bowl 53 game plan against a similar scheme in McVay’s Rams.
A four-down defensive line would be a change-up for New England’s three-down heavy approach this season, but a welcomed game-plan wrinkle from this perspective.
Like the Rams, the Titans will show the defense some different things from shotgun as well, but the under center zone running and play-action married off of that is their bread and butter.
(via Rich Madrid)
In Super Bowl 53, the Patriots played out of a six-one or what’s known as a 4-3 “tilt” front. The front puts six players on the line of scrimmage, giving the defense two wide defenders at the ends of the line of scrimmage, which forces the ball carrier back into the teeth of the defense. Remember, in an outside zone scheme, the offense wants to get the ball on the perimeter, and the tilt front forces them back inside towards the big run stuffers. With six across and seven in the box, the defense can also plug every gap, making it difficult for the offense to run the ball.
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The Patriots also got vertical against the Rams, going with a one-gap penetration rather than their typical two-gapping system. LA couldn’t get the defense turned inside, so Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson were running into Danny Shelton, Lawrence Guy, and Dont’a Hightower all night long.
In the secondary, the Patriots used four deep defenders to track the horizontal stretch and misdirection element of McVay’s offense, opting to play either one cross or quarters (cover-four).
(via coach Cody Alexander)
The Pats would show a two-deep shell, then either drop a safety into a robber position to “cut” the Rams’ crossing routes or stay in four-deep to pass off the crossers, eliminating big plays.
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Here, the Rams run an outside zone bootleg acton with the tight end crossing behind the linebacker, a very similar look to the Titans’ crossing combinations. New England defends it with one cross, throwing a game-plan wrinkle in there with Jonathan Jones, their fastest defensive back, playing as the robber to run across with the crossers. Hightower perfectly drops underneath the crosser while Jones cuts the tight end, Kyle Van Noy pops the slide route going across the formation, and Jared Goff has nowhere to go with the football.
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The Patriots also played quarters coverage, dropping four defenders across the field, which took away LA’s deep throws off of play-action.
Studying Bill Belichick, he always forces opposing offenses to play left-handed, and he’ll start by slowing down Derrick Henry and the Tennessee rushing attack.
The Patriots defense will likely load up to stop Henry, and then from there, eliminate big plays off play-action, forcing Tannehill to beat them on conventional drop-back passing plays.
With everyone discussing Brown and Davis versus Stephon Gilmore and company, don’t be surprised if New England plays zone on early downs.
Hopefully, they’ll get the same results as Super Bowl 53, and advance to play Kansas City in the Divisional Round.
SCOUTING REPORT ON THE TITANS DEFENSE
The Titans defense under Mike Vrabel and former Pats DC Dean Pees does resemble New England’s defense from a front seven perspective, but their coverage system is different.
Tennessee doesn’t blitz much, ranking 24th in blitz frequency, but they’ll cycle through a few different pass-rushing fronts that put linebackers on the line over the guards and center.
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Last season, the Titans gave Tom Brady problems with an aggressive game plan aimed at pushing the middle of the pocket with those linebackers and Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey.
We can expect to see a similar pass-rush plan, but where the Titans defense differs from the Patriots is that they primarily play zone coverage, and they aren’t particularly effective in man.
The Titans play zone on 67 percent of passing plays, mostly cover-two or cover-three, and allow over 12 yards per completion with a 96.6 quarterback rating when they play man coverage.
Overall, the Titans finished the season ranked 21st in DVOA against the pass, with injuries at cornerback making them vulnerable at that position; you can throw on these corners.
With the Patriots’ struggles against man and the likely return of Adoree Jackson, the Titans could play man despite their zone tendencies, and they did double Michael Thomas some in Week 16, so they have that in their toolbox if they want to double Edelman on Saturday.
The strength of the Tennessee defense is against the run, where they ranked tenth in DVOA during the regular season and feature Casey, Daquan Jones, and run-stuffing linebackers such as Wesley Woodyard and Rashaan Evans.
If the Week 16 version of Tom Brady and the Patriots offense comes to play on Saturday night, they should be able to move the ball against a below-average Titans pass defense.
For the second consecutive week, the Patriots will play a coaching staff that has some familiarity with their operation in all three phases.
And let’s face it, Brian Flores, Matt Patricia, and Vrabel last season all got the better of the Patriots.
No, Vrabel isn’t a former Pats assistant, but he has institutional knowledge from his playing days, and he, along with Pees, know some state secrets from inside the walls of Gillette Stadium.
Speaking the players this week, facing former Pats disciples can be a challenge, and some even said it’s noticeably easier to play against teams that don’t have Pats ties on their staff.
Belichick already has to throw some curveballs at the Titans to break regular-season tendencies, but now they’ll need to mix it up even more.
The Dolphins picked on all of New England’s vulnerabilities a week ago, using Flores and Chad O’Shea’s expansive knowledge of the Patriots’ system against them.
To avoid a first-round playoff exit, the Patriots will need to keep Vrabel on his heels.