The hottest team in the NFL welcomes the number one seed in the conference; as Bill Belichick likes to say, “if you like football, Sunday at 1 pm ET at Gillette Stadium is the place to be.”
In their five-game winning streak, the Patriots aren’t just hot, they’re on the surface of the sun, ranking first on offense and defense in expected points added since Week 7.
The top-seeded Titans were stunned by the lowly Texans last week, but Tennessee is a formidable opponent that has won six of their last seven games to reach the top of the AFC standings.
Despite their record, the Titans (8-3) aren’t an analytical darling like the Pats and are slipping in many offensive categories without star running back Derrick Henry, who won’t play on Sunday.
According to Football Outsiders, Tennessee is 18th in total DVOA and ranks outside the top ten on offense (19th) and defense (12th).
Furthermore, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Titans offense feel Henry’s absence, going from eighth in expected points added (EPA) to 16th after three games without Henry.
In particular, the Titans’ passing attack is taking a hit without Henry. Although there are other factors such as injuries to the offensive line and at receiver, it’s evident that Henry’s presence significantly changes how defenses scheme against Tennessee’s play-action heavy attack.
With the Patriots in their current form and at home, this is a game against the banged-up Titans that, quite frankly, New England should win easily.
However, there are intangible qualities in this Titans team that cannot be overlooked. They’re a hard-nosed, resilient, and fundamentally sound group that takes on the personality of their head coach.
Plus, Mike Vrabel has won both matchups against Belichick since taking over in Tennessee in 2018, including putting the final nail in the Brady era by upsetting the Patriots in the 2019 playoffs.
Vrabel will have his guys ready to play against the Patriots, and with a short-handed offense, don’t rule out anything; trickery is in the air.
Let’s get into potential game plans for the Patriots offense and defense to take down the Titans:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Although the season-long metrics aren’t super high on the Titans’ defense, they’re better lately and are significantly improving against the run.
Tennessee hasn’t allowed 100 yards rushing in a game since Week 5, and they’re sixth in EPA per rush allowed and fifth in rushing success rate over that span.
New England can run the ball on anyone, and we’ll get into how they can attack a stout Titans front, but the vulnerabilities on paper in the Tennessee defense are through the air.
Saints backup quarterback Trevor Siemian threw for 298 yards, two touchdowns, and 0.13 EPA per play (60th percentile) against the Titans pass defense two weeks ago.
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Shane Bowen mix it up, but they’re primarily a post-safety coverage team that plays a fair amount of man coverage (23.7% cover-one).
New Orleans attacked cover-one by putting the post-safety in conflict and running low crossing routes to pick on out-leveraged corners.
The Saints ran a low mesh-sit concept against man coverage in this play. Tennessee drops linebackers into low zones to help on underneath routes, so Siemian throws the crosser open on the other side of the help defender. Mesh is also a good call against the Titans’ cover-three schemes because the “sit” route will open up with the crossers stretching the underneath zones.
Here, New Orleans attacks man coverage by running a 989 concept, two go routes on the outside, and a post/crosser from the slot receiver in the three-man route combo. When the post safety helps the crosser, Siemian recognizes the outside vertical route winning down the field and hits it for a big play. The cross is there if the post safety shades more towards the sideline.
In their split-safety coverages, the Titans tend to play match quarters or cover-two, and the Saints beat those structures by attacking matchups and flooding zones downfield.
In this big play against match quarters, the vertical route on the left sideline takes the outside corner upfield, opening the sideline up for the wheel route out of the backfield. With the outside release, it’s on the linebacker to turn-and-run with the running back, and Mark Ingram beats Jayon Brown for a 34-yard gain.
New Orleans then flooded the Titans’ cover-two zone with the smash concept. When the flat defender jumps the underneath route after Siemian gives a little pump that way, it leaves the corner route open in the cover-two hole for a big gainer.
Here, the Saints use a sail concept with the vertical route clearing out the sideline coverage for a deep corner route to fill the vacated area for another explosive play through the air.
The Titans defense is a middling unit on deep passes, ranking 18th in DVOA while allowing the ninth-most completions of 20-plus yards this season. They can be had in the passing game.
PATS RUN-GAME PLAN
Again, the Titans are a physical group up front that makes it difficult to run the football, but a few game-plan wrinkles succeeded in recent weeks that the Pats could use.
First, New Orleans had success with crack tosses by running away from Tennessee’s stout defensive line to the outside. The play above is similar to how New England runs its fake jet/crack toss scheme, and you can expect to see it on Sunday.
The Patriots can set up crack tosses with motion at the snap by running jet sweeps that’ll attack the vulnerabilities on the perimeter as well.
The wildcat is another interesting wrinkle when the Patriots are in the red zone. Although it’s hard to run on the Titans straight up, they gave up two rushing touchdowns to Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and the Saints’ Taysom Hill had three carries for 23 yards in Week 10.
Designing plays for Damien Harris in the wildcat gives the Patriots an extra blocker to get hat-on-a-hat in the box instead of running against the numbers with Mac Jones under center.
With their offensive line and running backs, New England has to feel good about their ability to run on anyone, but it’ll be a heavyweight fight in the trenches against Tennessee this week.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
The Titans’ offense is very similar to the Patriots’ last two opponents, with Falcons head coach Arthur Smith building their offensive system under Vrabel.
“There are some similarities,” head coach Bill Belichick 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.”
Tennessee wants to run the football, build play-action off their runs, and transition into a west-coast/spread scheme in obvious passing situations.
As the Patriots did with similar offenses in Atlanta and Cleveland, the key again this week is to stop the early-down run and play-action sequencing. Once they do that, it puts the game on Tannehill’s shoulders, where you want it.
The Titans feature an outside zone run-blocking scheme on 40% of their runs, and an improved Pats run defense is shutting down those plays. By engaging blockers quickly on the line of scrimmage, setting the edge, and firing their linebacker at the combination blocks inside, New England’s run defense is creating negative plays against outside zone.
Discipline will be critical for the Pats’ defense on Tennessee’s schemed run with pullers and motion blocks. The second level of Houston’s defense aggressively flowed to the blockers in motion and left cutback lanes open for the Titans’ running backs.
Along with less production on the ground, Derrick Henry’s injury has also sunk the Titans’ play-action passing game. Since Henry’s injury, Tannehill went from tenth in yards per attempt off play-action (10.2) to 19th (8.2).
Although it’s not as lethal without Henry, the Pats still need to respect play-action, and Tannehill’s efficiency plummets without play-action, so getting him into traditional drop-backs is huge.
This season, New England is allowing the second-fewest yards per attempt off play-action (6.4) thanks to their zone coverage schemes taking away crossing routes and pressure on the QB.
Expect a similar plan where the linebacker level “robots” underneath crossers, the post-safety jumps down to cut off crossers, or they rotate a safety into the box or leverage crossers out of cover-two with two deep safeties. Since Henry isn’t there, playing two-high becomes easier.
With the Patriots relying on their cover-two/cover-three sequencing on early downs, one would expect more cover-two and some man coverage on third down.
Last week, the Texans forced Tannehill into four interceptions by running trap coverages and sending pressure to rush his decisions, which could be a formula for the Pats on Sunday.
Here, Houston’s outside corner on the flat route stays down in cover-two to bait the quarterback into throwing the corner pattern. With his eyes on the QB, Terrence Mitchell reads Tannehill and falls underneath the corner route for the interception.
Another scheme the Texans used to pressure Tannehill was a “follow” blitz, threatening Tennessee’s protection rules. Having one blitzer follow behind the other leaves the running back in a two-on-one situation; the back can’t block both rushers. The free runner to the quarterback causes Tannehill to panic, and he throws an easy interception.
Lastly, Tannehill had some issues with linebackers dropping into short zones off the line of scrimmage. Above, Houston lines up in a mugged look with two standup rushers in the A-Gaps. At the snap, they drop off, and Tannehill throws the ball right to Texans linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill.
Like the Patriots did with Baker Mayfield and Matt Ryan, turning it into a traditional drop-back passing game by neutralizing Tennessee’s run and play-action sequencing feels like a win.
If they can put the game in Tannehill’s hands, the Titans’ offensive line is vulnerable in pass protection (33.3% pressure rate) while Tannehill is shaky under pressure (43.8 PFF grade).
1. Pats Interior O-Line vs. Titans DT Jeffrey Simmons
For the Patriots to succeed offensively, handling Simmons on the interior is an absolute must. Simmons is an explosive rusher who uses his get-off and upper-body power to beat blocks in a hurry. With interior pressure, Simmons builds a wall against the run and wrecks passing games. He’s one of the best interior defenders the Patriots will face this season.
2. Pats LB Matthew Judon vs. Titans RT David Quessenberry
Quessenberry is still an effective run blocker, but he has surrendered seven sacks in pass protection this season. The Titans’ right tackle is susceptible to speed/dip/rip moves where flexible and explosive rushers get underneath him to turn the corner, a Judon specialty. Expect the Pats to put Judon over Quessenberry on passing downs to rush the passer.
3. Pats CB J.C. Jackson vs. Titans WR A.J. Brown
Although he may not play, Brown deserves a note in the game plan just in case he does go on Sunday. Brown is a premier matchup for Jackson due to his explosiveness and contested-catch ability. The Titans like to run Brown on crossers from the slot to get him the ball on the move, and they’ll also run him on isolation routes to get one-on-one opportunities on the outside. When the Pats play man coverage, they’ll need Jackson’s best on Brown.