The Titans’ chances of beating the Patriots on Saturday night in Gillette stadium were not great to begin with. However, the way they approached the game on defense all but ensured that they would have absolutely no shot.
The Patriots have such a well-balanced attack and one of the more underrated running games you’ll find in the NFL. However, to thwart them as a defense, it has to start with the passing game. As we have mentioned many times before, the Patriots do a great job of distributing personnel and manufacturing mismatches. Their passing game is based on Tom Brady planting his back foot, making immediate decisions, and getting rid of the ball quickly. Between Brady’s accuracy and coverage recognition skills, the talent he has around him, and the advanced scheme we see every week, slowing down New England’s passing game is always a daunting task. It isn’t impossible, though.
We’ve heard a thousand times that you need to get pressure on Brady with your front-4 to have a chance. What always gets missed in this piece of analysis is that pass-rush pressure cannot happen unless Brady is actually forced to hold onto the ball. If he can plant his back foot and quickly get rid of the ball where he wants to, it doesn’t matter what your pass rush does. This is why defenses cannot predominantly play soft coverage against the Patriots, whether in man or zone. You have to physically disrupt New England’s receivers, throw off Brady’s timing, and give your pass rush a chance. The Titans did not do this on Saturday night.
The play below perfectly illustrates this. The Patriots faced a 3rd-and-3 here. Focus on the bottom of the screen, where Rob Gronkowski was aligned to the outside next to Danny Amendola, who had just motioned across the formation.
You can see that cornerback Tye Smith was playing with outside leverage and safety help to his inside. Notice the cushion he was playing with on 3rd-and-3.
At the snap Smith dropped a few yards, giving even more cushion. Again, this was 3rd-and-3.
At this point, you can see that Brady had already planted his back foot at the top of his drop and was ready to get rid of the ball. Look at the space between Amendola, who Brady was targeting, and the defenders in coverage.
Below you can see where Tennessee’s defenders ended up in relation to Amendola as he caught Brady’s pass.
The result was another easy 3rd-down conversion for the Patriots. And as you could probably tell, it didn’t matter if Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White were rushing Brady there. They would have been irrelevant given this type of coverage.
Again, it is hard to understand why the Titans played this particular coverage on 3rd-and-3. Perhaps it was a miscommunication. After all, the Titans did have trouble adjusting to the Patriots’ use of motion all night. And to be fair, Gronkowski and Amendola were in a stacked alignment tight to the formation. Both their alignment and the motion made it difficult for Tennessee to jam or disrupt them at the line of scrimmage.
Difficult, but again, not impossible. Defenses across the NFL are willing to jam the point man of a stack all the time in order to disrupt the timing of the routes. Or, they’ll play the receivers’ releases. We showed you last week how the Falcons were able to deal with a trips bunch formation and still play tight coverage.
Furthermore, the Patriots use motion, stacks, and tight formations to deter press-man coverage all the time. These are consistent traits of their offensive scheme and have been for several years. That’s why it was shocking to see how ill-prepared Dick LeBeau’s defense was for New England’s approach.
If you’re looking for more evidence that Tennessee’s decision to play so much soft coverage on Saturday night made life too easy for Tom Brady, consider the following numbers. Of Brady’s 35 completions on the night, 20 came on throws less than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. He was also 10 of 10 for 79 yards and a touchdown on throws at or behind the line of scrimmage. These numbers are staggering. When it was all said and done, Brady was able to comfortably throw 41 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He completed 28 of those 41 attempts (68.3%) for 215 yards and 3 touchdowns. This is what the Patriots do on offense. If you give them a few yards, they will take them over and over, up and down the field.
One of the many reasons the Patriots are so tough to defend is that they will throw the ball on any down. Defenses can’t get away with playing soft on 1st down and expect not to get burned. Brady will take those easy short throws no matter when they occur, ensuring that the Patriots stay in manageable down-and-distance situations.
Case in point, on the 27 throws Brady attempted within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage on Saturday night, 24 came on 1st or 2nd down. Brady completed 18 of those 24 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Now, that might not seem like a lot of yards per attempt (5.46), but considering that 14 of those 18 completions gained at least 5 yards, the Patriots were able to consistently live in easily manageable situations all night. This made it extra difficult for Tennessee’s defense to get off the field. For any defense to have a shot of stopping the Patriots offense, an easy 5 yards on so many 1st and 2nd downs simply can’t happen.
None of this necessarily means that the Titans would have won this game had they changed their defensive approach. They had too many issues on both sides of the ball to be able to hang with this Patriots team. However, they gave themselves absolutely no shot by playing into New England’s hands. The Jaguars would be well served to pay close attention to the Titans’ defensive approach this past weekend so they’ll know exactly what not to do in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.