The Tennessee Titans are major underdogs this weekend against the New England Patriots. If they have any chance to pull off the upset they will need to take advantage of a porous Patriots defense that is bottom five in the league in yards allowed over the 2017 regular season. We will go unit by unit to examine where the Titans can attack most effectively and what aspects of the game are strengths for the Patriots.
The Patriots deploy one of the most versatile defensive schemes in the league. Showing both four-man and five-man fronts consistently. Interior run-stuffers Lawerence Guy and Alan Branch(who is returning from injury this week) are used on obvious run downs and early down situations. Interior lineman Malcolm Brown has also been traffic this year and has the ability to be used as a pass rusher as well. This gives Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia the ability to keep his big men fresh throughout the game and use them situationally. This situational philosophy is also used with the edge defenders. Eric Lee and Trey Flowers typically man the edges as traditional defensive ends, but Kyle Van Noy and Marquis Flowers, who also will play as traditional stand-up linebackers, take turns on the edge in passing situations. Recent free agent signing James Harrison is also going to be used sporadically as well. You will see a bevy of different packages and combinations showcasing each of these players so that their strengths are utilized best, but that does not mean this unit has been fantastic. The Patriots are thirteenth in rushing yards allowed and are especially vulnerable on the left side where Tennessee has been most successful.
Patricia is one of the best defensive coordinators in the business. His ability to teach his players multiple techniques and alignments allows him to elevate his players’ performance above what their talent may allow. This is why he is considered a lock to become a Head Coach in 2018. However, this linebacker group is not one of the better units during Patricia’s run as defensive coordinator in New England. Previously mentioned Van Noy and Marquis Flowers are used frequently as edge and stand up linebackers. Elandon Roberts plays more of a run-stuffing role as the middle linebacker on early downs. Stud linebacker Don’t’a Hightower went on IR earlier in the season with a torn pectoral muscle and free agent signing David Harris has not been able to see the field consistently. Not having these two on the field has led to a reliance on younger, less talented players and has hurt the effectiveness of the Patriots defense overall. This has led to the miscommunications in play calling as Hightower was the defensive quarterback. Due to his absence, the pass defense has struggled the most. The Patriots are third in the league in passing yards allowed at 251.2 yards per game. This led them to play safety Patrick Chung at linebacker to counteract the success had in the air. The downside of that decision manifests itself as struggles in the run game. This vicious cycle has led to the Patriots being ranked 31st in Defensive DVOA per Football Outsiders.
A quick glance at the Patriots depth chart would lead you to believe that this is the most talented unit on the defensive side of the ball. Led by two-time Pro-Bowler Devin McCourty, Super Bowl Hero Malcolm Butler and free agent signing Stephon Gillmore, this grouping has been a disappointment. McCourty has been banged up much of the season, Butler has regressed and Gillmore has struggled to acclimate to the scheme. Run support safety Patrick Chung has been used as a linebacker more than ever to help with the team’s struggles in pass coverage over the middle. With how often teams are lining up in three wide receiver sets it is common for teams to have a defensive back who can play in the box and challenge tight ends and backs on passing plays. Moving Chung down to linebacker has allowed back up safety Duron Harmon to get on the field for 702 snaps this season, roughly two-thirds of New England’s snaps. New England has been especially vulnerable in the secondary. For those who play fantasy football, starting your receivers against New England was a must as they surrendered the fourth-most fantasy points to that position this season, highlighting the issues mentioned.
The Patriots are the definition of “Bend, Don’t Break” defense. They have allowed the fourth most total yards this year while also allowing the fifth fewest points per game. The Titans offense has struggled to put up points and has routinely settled for field goals in the red zone. The game will come down to the Titans ability to score touchdowns in the red zone when New England’s defense ultimately allows them to gain chunks of yardage as it has all year. This defense will give you opportunities, but more often than not they have come away the victor in the end. The matchup of the Titans’ offense against the Patriots defense will go to whoever succeeds in the red area.