You might not realize it after spending the week listening to the Boston sports media, but the Patriots open their 2017 playoff run against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night.
We’ve spent the past week hearing every possible theory about the lukewarm Seth Wickersham ESPN article that was being billed as a bombshell. It was really just the jumping off point for a week spent airing grievances toward the Patriots, and especially Tom Brady. Gross.
Even when they were talking football it was the same old thing we’ve been hearing for the past decade: yeah, the Pats were 13-3 but are they really that good? I kept flashing back to 14 years ago when it was the same thing. Remember? Yeah the Pats were 13-3 but Peyton Manning and the Colts are the best offense ever and they’re going to expose the pretending Patriots.
Again, it just illustrates why this dynasty has been so special, dominating despite the doubters, proving over and over that it’s about the team. Well, it’s still about the team and this Patriots team was ignoring the noise all week and will be ready to face a Tennessee team that had four 4th-quarter comebacks this season and five game-winning drives, and just knocked off a team that smoked the Pats at home in the season opener.
What do the Pats need to do to advance to their record seventh-straight conference championship game? Here’s the gameplan…
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The Titans defense ranked 24th in pass defense DVOA and 7th in run defense DVOA. They were 17th in points and 13th in yards. They ranked 24th covering tight ends and 32nd covering running backs. They were 1-2 in the regular season against playoff teams. 13 times they held their opponents under 100 yards rushing, including last weekend against the Chiefs.
Their defensive line is arguably their biggest strength with vet Jurrell Casey leading the way. Outside linebackers Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo combined for 14 sacks, while Wesley Woodyard led the team in tackles with 81.
The big news for the Patriots’ offense is that Chris Hogan was taken off the injury report on Friday. This is huge news that Hogan will be fully ready to go. I’ve been harping on it for weeks now, Hogan rounds out the passing attack and should really help out on third down. If James White can join him we’ll see a fully operational third down offense that we haven’t seen since October. This is of course always left out when talking about Brady’s “decline” toward the end of the season.
If the Patriots get back that balance they’ll be near impossible to stop. There’s no guarantee that Hogan steps back in and is the same player he was immediately. Remember Julian Edelman showing some rust after extended injury time off in 2015 when he returned for the divisional round. But fingers crossed.
Ultimately though it boils down to two players for me — Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis. Both are game-changing players and as much as everyone wants to talk about Brady, that tight end/running back duo could attack and exploit the Titans’ biggest weaknesses while making things a lot easier for Brady.
I can’t say it enough, Lewis is a true x-factor this playoff run. The Pats haven’t had a running back like him for the playoffs since Corey Dillon. He can change the complexion of the game early, he can seal the game late.
Lean on Lewis on early downs to keep the offense on schedule. Lean on Cooks, Hogan, Amendola and White on third down and Gronk in the red zone and this offense should remind everyone just how truly dangerous they are. After this week it’s been clear that almost everyone has forgotten.
Yes, everyone knows Tom Brady’s domination of Dick Lebeau, but I’d point to 2011 when Lebeau was still in Pittsburgh and moved away from his usual gameplans and the Steelers won, holding Brady to under 200 yards passing, despite an overall efficient performance where he threw two touchdowns. The biggest difference in that one was the Pats’ measly 42 rushing yards.
Lebeau was one of the first to catch on how to stop Brady’s strength, the quick-passing offense, by playing press man and not allowing his favorite receiver like Wes Welker or Julian Edelman get yards-after-catch. That’s been an effective gameplan against Brady and the offense since then for defenses who can do it for a full game. It’s why the Patriots needed a deep threat Brandin Cooks, so if the Titans do play a lot of press man with a single-high safety it’s imperative Brady connects with Cooks to back them off.
Logan Ryan is certainly familiar with it too, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as part of the coverage plan against Gronk.
Without Julian Edelman we’ve see the “Now we need a shallow threat” offense struggle at times this year. Usually they result in drives ending with Brady chucking a prayer pass deep to Cooks that falls incomplete or gets PI. Yes, they’ve connected on them quite a number of times, but leaning on Cooks on third down will not be a recipe for success. He’s at his best when they take shots to him on second-and-shorts.
So again, we’re back to Lewis. An effective running back, one who can make his tackler miss, can do a lot of damage against man defense as defenders are focused only on their receiver off the snap. It makes them slow to react and allows the receivers to get blocking angles on them. If offensive line is opening creases for the Pats’ running backs, they’ll roll.
Just keep feeding Lewis and everything else will fall into place.
The Titans offense ranked 20th in pass offense DVOA and 8th in rushing offense DVOA. They were 19th in points and 23rd in yards. They topped 100 yards rushing just five times in the regular season before exploding for 202 against the Chiefs last weekend. They’ve had at least one turnover in every game since Week 3, including two last weekend in the wild card round.
The Patriots will focus on Marcus Mariota, Derrick Henry and leading receiver, tight end Delanie Walker. I’d expect that the Pats are going to take a heavy approach to force Mariota to beat them by passing the ball. For the Titans to succeed they’ll have to break through that and get Henry loose in the second level. The more they can use Mariota in a variety of ways, especially with his legs, the better for them.
Like Hogan on the offensive side, Kyle Van Noy came off the injury report and looks ready to go. He should provide a huge boost as one of the best playmakers in the front seven. Van Noy’s athleticism will provide such a needed boost in a critical area of need.
While the Pats usually play with two defensive tackles, I expect with Alan Branch back that we’ll see three of big bodies in there, while the pass rush is mushed to keep Mariota in the pocket. James Harrison‘s strength on the edge could be really valuable making sure that everything is funneled back toward the tackles and Elandon Roberts in the middle.
Patrick Chung has had another great year covering tight ends so he’ll see plenty of Walker in this one. Walker is Mariota’s most trusted target and that means he’ll likely be taken away by the Patriots’ safeties.
If the Titans are going to beat the Patriots they’ll have to lean on their receivers — Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker and Corey Davis. If Mariota gets comfortable in the pocket, ala Mark Sanchez in 2010’s AFCDG, the Titans could really change the complexion of the game, sustaining long drives that are pretty common against this Patriots defense.
So it’s all on the Pats’ veteran secondary in this one. They’ve been inconsistent all year, though almost always locked it completely down in the fourth quarter.
We’ll see what they do in the biggest game of the season.
5 Points of Emphasis
- Dion Lewis FTW: As Mike Alongi said on our roundtable this morning, the Pats might ride Lewis to a Super Bowl. He’s playing that well right now, and I’d bet the number of times his name was mentioned in the media this week are a fraction of time spent on “BOMBSHELL” reports.
- Keep Mariota in Pocket: Set the edge, spy the QB and force him to throw the ball. Disguise the coverages to keep him on his toes. I don’t even care about the pass rush because-
- Put It On the Secondary: They’re making over $20 million combined this season. The amount of investment in the secondary is unprecedented under Belichick and it’s games like this where they have to deliver. No broken tackles turned into long gains. No blown coverages out of bunch sets. NO DEEP PASSES. 60 minutes.
- Ignore the Noise: You all know why. I’m done getting into it. Silence the critics and remind everyone of how the New England Patriots Football Machine is very much still at full power.
- Win: All the distractions of the last week can, at least momentarily, be put aside with a win. That seventh AFC Championship Game, their third at home in the last four years, is sitting there for the taking. Do your job.