Yes, ladies and gentlemen, David finally meets Goliath. He who overcomes all odds to make the playoffs, also known as the Tennessee Titans, is facing off against the sleeping giant who rules the playoffs, the New England Patriots. Everyone should remember the last time these two met in the playoffs, but let’s just say Goliath slaughtered David.
Even after then-starting quarterback Marcus Mariota’s incredible will to win against the Chiefs during the previous round, New England annihilated Tennessee in each facet of the game. So, what needs to happen for David to finally defeat Goliath, and what can Goliath do to prevent said defeat from happening?
This Tennessee Titans team will only go as far as Derrick Henry takes them. While it is obvious that the Patriots’ top priority would be to stop the 2019 NFL rushing leader, Tennessee should prioritize using its smashmouth playstyle to its advantage.
The Titans’ mauling offensive line should be able to take advantage of the Patriots’ interior defensive line to spring Henry open, and if it doesn’t work there, design a different style of run to help Henry get going.
Avoid Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore at all costs. Ryan Tannehill is starting his very first playoff game, and New England usually does not travel their cornerbacks. So, whenever Titans OC Arthur Smith calls plays, keep the presence of Gilly Locks in mind, and design concepts to target the opposite side of the field.
If there are plays that can take advantage of Gilmore’s aggressive, ball-hawking tendencies, feel free to use them as much as possible. But if there’s a play used to exploit the Patriots’ talented secondary, never come back to that play in the near future. Always disguise, no matter what.
Get the ball to tight end Jonnu Smith as much as humanly possible. While the Titans do have a trio of talented playmakers at wide receiver in A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, and Tajae Sharpe, Smith is a mismatch nightmare. He’s way too big for safeties, and way too fast for linebackers. If this reminds you of a certain All-Pro tight end who plays for the San Francisco 49ers, it should.
Smith’s athleticism ranks near that of George Kittle’s, and a tight end with superhuman speed and immense build should be used all over the field, as a blocker and as a pass-catcher. Arthur Smith needs to help Ryan Tannehill by providing him with safety valves, which Jonnu can do very well. However, getting the ball to Jonnu Smith in open field is the best way to exploit his immense athletic ability.
Tennessee’s best advantage against this Patriots team is their interior defensive line. Rookie Jeffery Simmons and veterans Jurrell Casey, Daquan Jones, and Austin Johnson are the human conception of a brick wall. Literally. Moving them off of the line of scrimmage is a very difficult task, so compound it by bringing blitzes.
If those defensive tackles/3-4 defensive ends are given their 1-on-1 matchups, they are going to get to Tom Brady. That is certain. Even if they don’t get their 1-on-1s, they are such large and powerful human beings that their disruptiveness will force blockers to commit to them, allowing talented edge rushers Cameron Wake and Harold Landry III to get around the Patriots’ tackles, who have not played very well for most of the season.
This is a public service announcement for the Titans’ linebackers, especially Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans: use your eyes. The Patriots love to run screens with their running back trio of James White, Sony Michel, and Rex Burkhead. All 3 backs have very similar skillsets, and they can be substituted into whichever playcall offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dials up.
Current Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ experience with the Patriots and the Ravens should also tell him that New England’s most powerful weapon on offense is isolating favorable matchups and then exploiting them. In order for this to not happen to the Titans, Tennessee cannot be in situations where Evans and Brown are playing man coverage on the Patriots’ running backs. It is a recipe for disaster. Instead, use more versatile defensive backs like Amani Hooker, who can also play in the nickel and defend the run.
Finally, Tennessee needs to play coverages that allow their corners to aggressively pursue and jump whatever downfield routes the Patriots choose to run. Cover 1 and Cover 3 are fantastic examples of these coverages. Kevin Byard is one of the best free safeties in football, and allowing him to cover for the aggressiveness of Tennessee’s corners will let those corners jump whichever routes they see while knowing Byard is roaming behind them as a fallback option.
Furthermore, these types of coverages with a single-high free safety (Byard) let more versatile defensive backs like safety Kenny Vaccaro and the aforementioned Hooker to play man coverage in space against mismatch nightmares, such as White, Burkhead, and Michel. If Tennessee’s defensive backs can aggressively pursue and tackle, covering the Patriots’ receivers will become much easier, allowing the Titans’ front-7 to disrupt the pocket and most importantly, get to Tom Brady.
Take advantage of Tennessee’s weakest defensive unit: cornerbacks. The Titans’ defense is very very good, so use the different skillsets of the receiving corps to take advantage of that one weakness. N’Keal Harry can bring in backshoulder passes and is very dynamic in open field, veterans Mohamed Sanu SR and Julian Edelman are very agile and run extremely good routes as well.
Taking advantage of Harry’s large catch radius by aligning him as an X receiver makes life much easier for Tom Brady. Edelman and Sanu’s quick route-running makes them best suited for the slot. Furthermore, Edelman and Sanu can exploit slot corners with lateral routes, such as whips, pivots, and double moves. Harry’s versatility as an incredible red zone weapon also allows for him to be involved in the run game (reverses, end arounds).
Finally, let Tom Brady game manage this team to a win. If the look is there, it’s there. If pre-snap adjustments need to be made based on a certain defensive look, make them. Do whatever it takes to let Brady make as few mistakes as possible, which includes an emphasis on different styles of runs.
If Brady takes what Tennessee gives him, he’ll be able to efficiently control time of possession, which keeps the more talented Titans’ offense off the field. While the Patriots do have a very talented defense, keeping them rested is a priority, because their ability to generate turnovers will assist Brady in winning the game.
In order for this Patriots defense to gain momentum, they’ll need to rattle
Ryan Tannehill early. One of Bill Belichick’s favorite calls against
inexperienced quarterbacks is called Cover 0 Blitz, also known as Blitz 0.
Blitz 0 is a coverage with no deep safeties, and everyone outside of the
blitzers is in man coverage. Belichick sends 6-7 defenders to disrupt the
pocket while everyone in coverage aggressively tracks their matchup.
Quite often, this rattles quarterbacks because they immediately feel
pressure, which can come from any gap. In almost every case, there are not enough men in pass protection and a defender comes free. The quarterback is then forced to throw the ball for an incompletion or to take a sack, neither of which are positive outcomes for the offense. With calls such as Blitz 0, Belichick can play mind games with Tannehill, frustrating him and thus forcing mistakes.
Another way Belichick can play mind games with the inexperienced quarterback is to make Tannehill lose trust in his targets. Disguises. Blanket coverages. Press- bail. Any way to guarantee that the Titans quarterback will not throw to a certain target on a specific down and distance is a win for this Patriots defense. That becomes one less target to worry about, and thus, constrains the options Tannehill has when he’s reading coverages.
However, the most important priority for the Patriots’ defense this Saturday is stopping Derrick Henry. Based on futile efforts from other defenses to choke off the Titans’ run game, this will definitely not be the easiest task, despite New England being a top-6 rushing defense. So, the solution is simple: Stack the box. While other teams haven’t had much success stopping Henry even with stacked boxes, not a lot of those teams possess the depth and talent of the Patriots.
Furthermore, everyone except the edge protectors should spill inside on any threat of a run, based on down and distance. Henry can break a big run at any given moment, so it’s important that the Patriots stay disciplined. Overcommit inside to force Henry outside, into the waiting arms of faster and more athletic linebackers/edge protectors. As the NFL rushing champion is the heart and soul of the Titans’ season, it’s fair to say
stopping him is the equivalent of stopping the Titans.
While many want the storybook ending of David slaying Goliath, this game will most likely not present that narrative. Do the Patriots have an anemic offense that has struggled to produce for most of the season? Absolutely. However, Ryan Tannehill has been playing incredibly well, but because this is the NFL, there will have to be a game where he comes back down to Earth. He will struggle against this defense, no doubts about it.
The Patriots will commit to stopping Henry on early downs, keeping Tennessee behind the chains. This will be the 1 game where Tannehill cannot uplift the Titans’ passing game, and as a result, Tennessee will not have much success on offense. There is no greater defensive mind in football history than Bill Belichick, and if anyone can terminate the magic of the Tennessee Titans, it’s most definitely him and his monster.
Final Score: Patriots 17, Titans 9.