The New England Patriots are playing in the wild card round for the first time in a decade. Their opponent, somewhat fittingly, is the Tennessee Titans, who are coached by former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, who left New England prior to the 2009 season and did not play in New England’s most recent wild card game.
Vrabel’s Titans team is built a lot like the early Patriots squads, with a power running game complemented by efficient quarterback play and an above-average defense. The Pats don’t necessarily look like the recent version of themselves, so it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with such a throwback of a team.
Before we break things down, here’s a look at how you can consume this weekend’s game.
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When the Titans have the ball
For the first six weeks of the season, the Tennessee Titans started Marcus Mariota at quarterback. Their offense was dreadful, scoring only 98 points — good for a 16.3 average that ranked 28th in the NFL. Tennessee’s averages of 290.5 yards per game and 4.8 yards per play also ranked terribly, sitting 27th and 29th in the league, respectively. The also was also one of the least efficient in the NFL, ranking 29th in DVOA. From the time Ryan Tannehill entered the starting lineup in Week 7 through the end of the regular season, Tennessee raised its averages to 30.4 points per game (fourth), 406.2 yards per game (third), and 6.9 yards per play (first). The Titans also saw the second-largest jump in offensive DVOA in the entire league.
Tannehill ended the regular season having completed 70.3 percent of his passes at an average of 9.3 yards per attempt, making him the second player in the history of football to exceed 70 percent and nine yards per attempt while throwing at least 250 passes in a season. (The other guy to do it is Joe Montana.)
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Tannehill finished the year first in the league in passer rating, ninth in QBR, and fifth in DVOA. He threw a touchdown on 7.7 percent of his pass attempts, the highest mark ever for a player who completed at least 70 percent of his passes.
The Titans kept Tannehill extremely well protected, allowing him to throw from a clean pocket on more than 70 percent of his pass attempts, per Pro Football Focus. Considering his passer rating dropped off from 122.8 when unhurried to 98.4 when under pressure, that was obviously a pretty big deal. (Not that a 98.4 under-pressure rating is bad. It was actually second-best in the NFL behind only Drew Brees.)
Tennessee utilized a ton of play-action for Tannehill, allowing him to find windows that were far wider than those afforded him on straight dropbacks. Throws after run fakes accounted for 30 percent of his pass attempts during the regular season, and he registered a league-best 143.3 passer rating on those plays, per Pro Football Focus. The use of play-action will be of particular importance against New England, whose defense saw the fourth-largest drop-off in yards per play allowed against play-action passes (7.3) vs. straight drop-backs (5.1), according to Football Outsiders.
It’s been shown numerous times that play-action passing can be successful independent of whether your run game is successful or even existent, but the Titans’ ability to marry Tannehill’s play-action success with their Derrick Henry-led ground game is a large part of what made them so dangerous during their run to the playoffs. Henry averaged just 3.7 yards per carry during the six games started by Mariota, and after six weeks he had just 416 yards on the ground. Henry only played in nine of Tannehill’s 10 starts, and yet he still managed to rush for 1,124 yards during that time, averaging a completely absurd 5.9 yards a pop and storming his way to the NFL rushing title by season’s end. The Titans’ success rate on run plays spiked from 45 percent with Mariota under center to 51 percent with Tannehill, per Sharp Football Stats.
How Bill Belichick and company decide to approach shutting down this Tennessee offense is a fascinating question. It’s clear Tennessee bases much of its attack around Henry’s exploits, but Tannehill is playing so well that Belichick might choose to prioritize slowing down the aerial game. The secondary is the true strength of this defense, anyway. In that case, whether or not shutdown corner Stephon Gilmore shadows explosive rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown — by far the Titans’ most dangerous receiving threat, particularly in the open field — is the biggest open issue. Gilmore has shadowed a whole lot this season, but Brown’s relentless physicality is not the best matchup for Gilmore’s skill set. He’s more of a technician.
The Patriots will also have to deal with the Titans’ use of heavy personnel, particularly on passing plays. Tennessee ranked second in success rate from 12 personnel and fourth from 22 personnel this season, per Sharp Football Stats, and as Phil Perry of NBC Sports Boston noted this week, the Patriots had some issues with multiple tight end sets this season — particularly against the Ravens. The Pats play more man coverage than any team in the NFL, though, and the Titans saw a ton of zone as a reaction to their run game and Tannehill’s ability to make plays with his legs. Only 92 of Tannehill’s 286 passes attempts came against man defenses, per Sports Info Solutions, a rate of about 32 percent. Seeing more of a defense that he didn’t see as often during the regular season could potentially throw a wrench into Tannehill’s rhythm.
When the Patriots have the ball
This New England offense is unlike any in recent memory. The Pats finished the season seventh in scoring, the first time since 2006 they’ve finished outside the top six. They ranked 15th in total yards, their worst mark since 2003. New England ranked 21st in yards per play and 17th in points per drive, worse than at any time since 2002 and 2003, respectively. They also finished outside the top 10 in offensive DVOA at Football Outsiders for only the third time in the Brady-Belichick era, and the first time since 2003.
Just about the only thing about the New England offense that resembles previous years is the Julian Edelman.Brady and
Julian Edelman has been Tom Brady’s No. 1 wide receiver for most of the past seven seasons. There was a year where he played only nine games and another where he missed the entire season due to injury, but for most of that time, he has been Brady’s guy on the perimeter. Want to know how consistent this connection has been? Take a look at the chart below, which shows Edelman’s season averages in receptions per game, yards per game, yards per reception, and catch rate during each of the six seasons where he’s been healthy.
Year Rec/Gm Yds/Gm Yds/Rec Catch % 2013 6.6 66.0 10.6 69.5% 2014 6.6 69.4 10.6 68.7% 2015 6.8 76.9 11.3 69.3% 2016 6.1 69.1 11.3 61.6% 2018 6.2 70.8 11.5 68.5% 2019 6.3 69.8 11.2 65.4%
In the Patriots’ three most recent games, however, Edelman has pretty obviously been playing injured, getting in limited practices with knee and shoulder injuries. His snap rate in those three contests is way down from where it usually is, and he’s been targeted only 18 times, collecting just 10 catches for 107 yards and no scores. Notably, for this particular matchup, the Titans’ best cornerback is slot man Logan Ryan — a former Patriot. He’ll be the one matching up with Edelman for the majority of the game, as Edelman has gone back to spending most of his time (67.7 percent of his snaps) on the inside.
The major weakness of the Tennessee defense is the team’s perimeter corners, which right now means Tye Smith and Tramaine Brock Sr. Smith allowed a 111.7 passer rating on throws in his direction this season, per Pro Football Focus, while Brock was merely at a 110.7 rating. So, not great.
But the Patriots’ perimeter receivers have not exactly lit the world on fire, either. Mohamed Sanu never really got into a rhythm with Brady, catching only 26 of 47 targets for 207 yards and a touchdown across eight games in New England. Phillip Dorsett began the season flashing a connection with Brady, but has pretty much disappeared from the rotation over the past few weeks, logging on 27 snaps across the Pats’ final three games. N’Keal Harry only recently got on the field, but he looks like he might now be among Brady’s inner-circle of trusted targets, which is pretty scary to consider.
The Titans have also flashed a vulnerability to pass-catching running backs (23rd in DVOA), but James White’s involvement in the offense has waxed and waned more over the course of this season than in the recent past. White caught 42 passes for 358 yards in his first seven games this year, but only 30 for 287 yards over the final eight. There was a few week span where he was more heavily involved as a runner, but after logging 14 carries in a loss to the Texans, he totaled 14 over the next four games combined. It might seem like Rex Burkhead has sort of taken over a large share of the backfield, but his season-high snap rate of 46 percent came all the way back in Week 1, and he hasn’t played more than 20 snaps in a game since Week 11.
The past few weeks, the Patriots seem to have realized the relative weakness of their pass offense and have tried to lean into being a power running team, as was the case late last season. Sony Michel was an outright disaster for much of this season, averaging only 3.3 yards per carry over the first 10 games of the year. With the exception of an inexplicably hellacious five-carry, eight-yard performance against the Chiefs, however, Michel has actually been pretty good down the stretch. He’s been over 4.3 yards per carry in four of the other five games, and averaged 4.42 overall in those five. The issue is that his presence on the field is a pretty obvious tell that the Patriots are running: he had 247 carries on 420 snaps this season, a 58.8 percent hand-off rate. That’s insanely high for the modern NFL.
The Titans are a bit better against the run than they are against the pass, but they have been hurt by runs out of two-tight and two-back formations (12 or 21 personnel), which is how the Patriots most often like to get into their running game, especially with Michel on the field.
Prediction: Patriots 23, Titans 20