Two Questions Following the Titans’ Conquest of the Patriots

The pass game and the run game support each other in so many ways that it is difficult to quantify the impact that each has on the other.

The Tennessee Titans began last Saturday’s contest in New England with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 6:58 of the first quarter clock.  Coming into the game with the NFL’s third most prolific running attack – backboned by the NFL’s leading rusher – The Titans played nearly the entire first drive with three tight-ends on the field.  Although this is a pronounced running formation, the Patriot defense’s respect for the Tennessee passing attack was such that they responded to these formations with a standard 4-3 defense and two deep safeties.

This provided an edge that Tennessee took full advantage of, as running back Derrick Henry chewed up 49 yards on 7 carries.  He did the heavy lifting in a drive that produced the touchdown that gave Tennessee a temporary 7-3 lead.

The Patriots responded quickly to the problem, switching to a 3-4 defense, replacing Deatrich Wise with Jamie Collins.  They also began dropping secondary players toward the line.

This strategy enjoyed a brief success, as Tennessee went three-and-out on its next two possessions, with Henry held to 4 yards on 2 carries.

So Tennessee responded just before the half by playing two wide receivers and just two tight ends.  Two tight ends is still a strong run formation, and in previous versions of the Titans might have had no impact on the Patriots.

But the reborn Tennessee passing attack – featuring the NFL’s top rated passer – is increasingly impossible to ignore.  Ryan Tannehill finished 2019 with a 117.5 passer rating.  His 70.3% pass completion percentage didn’t come by virtue of a series of dump-off passes either.  Ryan also led the NFL in yards per completion (13.6) and yards per attempted pass (9.59).

So when the Titans introduced a second wide receiver, the Patriots responded with five defensive backs.  That was the personnel grouping they were in when Henry broke a 29-yard run off of right tackle – the first play of a 7-play, 75-yard drive that consumed most of the last 2:16 of the half.  Henry carried 4 more times in that drive for 24 yards – including the last yard for Tennessee’s last offensive score of the game.

This was the beginning of the chess match between Bill Belichick and Titans’ OC Arthur Smith.  Throughout most of the second half, New England returned to the formation that frustrated the Rams in last year’s Super Bowl – a 6-1 that was really four down-linemen with a linebacker wide to each side and one linebacker roaming the middle.  The intent here was to defend the edges – which they did with great effectiveness.

But sending Henry back up the middle didn’t stop the Tennessee running game.  It just slowed them down.  Instead of ripping off 7 to 12 yard bursts, the Titans wore down New England under a series of 3-to-6 yard body blows.  After gaining 106 yards on 14 carries in the first half, Henry ground out 76 second half yards on 20 grueling second half runs – allowing Tennessee to run the clock for 19:42 of that last half.

For the game, it was another sizeable rushing performance by Henry.  Derrick finished the evening with 182 yards on 34 carries.  He was the engine that fueled the Titans’ 20-13 WildCard victory over the defending champions from New England (gamebook) (summary).

Wither the Patriots

In the aftermath of this win that apparently caught everyone but me by surprise, there are the expected questions about the Patriots.  Is that it for the dynasty?  Is Tom Brady finished?

Well.  Every dynasty does, eventually, end.  And some day Brady will – in fact – have to yield to age and mortality.  Those days may not necessarily be upon us yet.

Clearly, New England and Brady took steps backwards this year.  The 420 points they scored was their fewest since they managed 410 in 2008.  That, of course, was the year that Brady missed and Matt Cassel quarterbacked the team.  The Pats also finished fifteenth in total offense – their lowest in 16 years.

As for Brady, his 60.8% completion percentage was his lowest in 6 years, his 24 touchdown passes were his fewest (in a full year) since 2006, his 3.9% touchdown pass rate was the lowest of his career, his 10.9 yards per completion was his lowest since 2002, and his 88.0 rating was his worst since he rated 87.3 in 2013.

Far too often in sports you are only as good as your last game.  Exercising a bit of memory is frequently more effort than fans and sports writers want to expend.  There are some things that need attention in New England, but the future isn’t as black as it no doubt appears to some of the faithful.

About 80% of everything wrong in New England can be fixed by fixing the offensive line.  Over the long history of the New England dynasty, the Patriots have had to rebrand themselves several times depending on the skill sets of the roster at any given time.  Throughout all these re-inventions, the Patriot offensive line was always ready to enable whatever offensive focus the team decided to embrace, from power running to short passing game.  Without any exaggeration, the most underappreciated aspect of the New England dynasty has been the consistent excellence of its offensive line.

More than any other part of the team, the line drastically underperformed this season.  There was never a running game to turn to, as there were never holes to run through.  New England finished 18th on the ground this year (106.4 yards per game) and 25th in yards per carry at a struggling 3.8.

On the pass blocking side, Brady finished as the fifth hardest quarterback to sack as he went down on just 4.2% of his dropbacks.  That number belies the struggles his line had in pass protection.  A frequent sight in any New England game this season was Brady flinging the ball into the dirt to avoid a sack.

This year, football reference has been tracking – among other things – passes thrown away.  To no one’s surprise, Brady led the league in that dubious category, his 40 throw-away’s being almost a third more than the next closest quarterback (Aaron Rodgers threw away 31).  Brady only tossed away 22 passes last year.

At no time was the offensive line’s shortcomings more apparent – or more costly to the team – than on the goal line situation that provided the turning point of the game.

With a little more than five minutes left in the first half, a 12-yard pass from Brady to Rex Burkhead gave the Pats a first-and-goal at the one yard line.  Running back Sony Michel lost a yard on a first-down carry.  Burkhead gained that yard back on a second-down run.  Then Michel lost two more yards running on third down.  Then Nick Foles kicked the field goal.

This kind of futility is never seen in New England.  Not until this year, anyway.

Yes, their receivers didn’t get the separation they have in the past, and there was almost zero production from the tight end spot (in the absence of Rob Gronkowski).  But the season long headache in New England was a poor offensive line.

The Patriot dynasty will end one day.  But as long as Belichick and Brady are still wearing Patriot blue, New England will never be more than a tinker away from their next Super Bowl run.

Can the Titans Do It?

The other question that deserves a look concerns the prospects of the Titans authoring another upset tonight in Baltimore.  Can Tennessee take down the seemingly unbeatable Ravens?

Yes, I believe they can.  But it won’t be easy.  There are a couple of enormous challenges that any opponent of Baltimore faces.

First, of course, is Lamar Jackson.  Almost every team has difficulties with him the first time they face him.  His quickness is nearly impossible to simulate in practice.  Most teams play much better the second time around against Lamar, but his athleticism is an extreme shock the first time you line up against him.

But, while Jackson garners most of the attention, I believe the more remarkable story (and challenge) is the Baltimore defense.  After allowing 96 points in consecutive games against Kansas City, Cleveland and Pittsburgh in Weeks Three through Six, the Baltimore defense has become inviolable.  Over the last 11 games of their winning streak, Baltimore is yielding just 14.5 points, 16.5 first downs, and 268.9 total yards – including just 174.1 passing yards – per game.

Along the way, they have accounted for 19 turnovers, while allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 56.3% of their pass attempts while struggling to a 70.7 passer rating against them.

The secret sauce here is the blitz.  Baltimore comes at you from all over at the highest rate of any team in the NFL.

If Tennessee can’t come up with an answer for the Baltimore blitz, they will be in for a long evening.

The way I see this game, the first half will tell the story.  If the Titans can get out in front by ten or more points, it will be difficult for Baltimore to keep running throughout the second half – especially with Tennessee being all too willing to drain the clock with their own running game.  This could force the Ravens into a situation where they will have to rely on Jackson’s passing skills.  For the record, Lamar has never overcome a deficit of more than seven points to lead his team to victory.

On the other hand, if the Ravens take a nice lead into the second half, they will be nearly uncatchable.  They will continue to grind the clock with their running game and the Raven pass rushers will pin back their ears and come full speed for Tannehill – who will be forced to take on a larger role as Tennessee won’t be able to use Henry as much as they would like.

And if the first half ends more or less even, then we’ve got a coin flip.  It will depend on which defense wilts under the pounding of the other team’s sledge-hammer running game first.

The Titans have a significant (but not impossible) challenge ahead of them.

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