The Patriots and Titans will face one another in the Divisional Round of the 2018 NFL Playoffs on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. The winner moves on the AFC Championship Game, for the Patriots, a win guarantees them the home game for the conference game. If Tennessee wins, they’ll have to travel to the winner of the Pittsburgh – Jacksonville game.
The Titans and Patriots don’t play each other very often so they present a bit of the unknown for New England. The teams that faced each other back in 2015 are pretty different than the ones who’ll face off this week. The Patriots running backs that day were Joey Iosefa and Brandon Bolden. Marcus Mariota injured his knee on a sack by Akiem Hicks and left the game early in the second quarter.
Tennessee had a big second half, rallying from a 21-3 halftime deficit to defeat Kansas City 22-21. Derek Henry had a big day rushing for 156 yards on 23 carries. Marcus Mariota completed a touchdown pass to himself and the defense shut out the Chiefs offense after struggling badly in the first half.
So, let’s take an early look at Tennessee and get some early impressions of the Titans and we’ll get to our key matchups later in the week.
Henry and Murray are the Keys to this Offense: The two-headed monster of Henry and Demarco Murray in the running game is what makes this Titans offense go. They play the old style smash-mouth football style that grinds down opponents and keeps the opponents’ offense off the field.
That opens up play-action passing where they get the linebackers and safeties to bite up in run support and creates a seam behind them to throw the ball to their tight ends and wide receivers.
Murray has a knee injury and is considered “day-to-day” but it is doubtful that he’ll be able to play this week. So Henry is the guy the Patriots will have to slow down. The Titans don’t have a dynamic, down-the-field passing offense so we may see some elements of a 3-4 look at times for the Patriots with Alan Branch or Malcom Brown on the nose and big men at defensive end while players like James Harrison and Trey Flowers line up as outside linebackers and set the edge.
Mariota Struggled in 2017, Can He Turn it Up Now? Marcus Mariota, thru an assortment of injuries and struggles, had a down year in 2017 throwing just 13 touchdowns against 15 interceptions with a passer rating that plummeted to 79.3.
That is a big slide from 2016 where he threw for 26 touchdowns against just nine interceptions for a passer rating of 95.6. He remains a threat to scramble and he definitely helped his own cause against the Chiefs, running eight times for 46 yards.
The Patriots plan this week will be focusing on the 2016 version and not concerning themselves with the guy who struggled this year. Since he only faced them for basically a quarter in the past, Mariota is still pretty much of an unknown factor for Matt Patricia’s defense.
The Wide Receiving Trio of Matthews, Decker, and Davis is Solid: Mariota has good weapons outside the numbers to throw the ball to. Two of the wide receivers should be quite familiar to Patriots fans. Rishard Matthews and Eric Decker have faced the Pats many times, the former with the Dolphins and the latter with the Broncos and Jets.
Matthews is the main guy outside and he put up solid numbers in 2017 with 53 catches for 795 yards and four touchdowns. Decker had 54 receptions for 563 yards and a score but it was he who was the recipient of the game-winning pass last week.
Davis is the rookie wide receiver who was taken with the #5 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and put up decent rookie numbers with 34 catches for 375 yards but he was the most targeted wide receiver against the Chiefs
But Mariota’s favorite target and the guy the Patriots will have to shut/slow down is TE Delanie Walker. Walker led Tennessee with 74 catches for 807 yards and three touchdowns. He’ll be the go-to guy in the passing offense. He’s a big athletic target who is difficult to stop. In 2015, he caught just two passes but one of them was a 57-yarder.
Dick LeBeau’s Defense Will Look Different: The Titans defensive coordinator is a marvel. At 80 years young, not old, LeBeau still has the energy and the passion to be a full-time coach in the NFL. His zone-blitz schemes are well known in NFL circles and by Tom Brady and the Patriots. Those schemes hold no illusions for Brady, who has routinely carved them up. So, look for the Titans to mix things up considerably.
The Titans know that Brady has routinely carved up this style of defense, so look for them to mix in plenty of man coverage this week. It will be a chess match as Brady and LeBeau will be trying to figure out what the other is doing.
LeBeau also knows, being the smart veteran coach that he is that the way to get to Brady is right up the middle. Look for the Titans to mix in some A-gap blitzes this week. Even still, I expect Tom Brady to be able to find plenty of targets in this one….
Titans Have Issues Defending the Pass vs Tight Ends/RBs: This is the key to the game from a Patriots perspective. Tennessee is among the worst at defending the tight ends as well as the running backs, which are the staples of the Patriots offense.
Expect Tom Brady to target Rob Gronkowski early and often in this one, as well as Dion Lewis, James White, and Rex Burkhead (if they’re available) this week. Look for the Patriots to try to keep the Titans in their base packages by giving a heavy 2-TE, or 2-RB look and take advantage of their linebackers in coverage.
How successful each team is in this matchup will go a long way in determining who comes out on top.