In order to even have a fighting chance against Tom Brady and the Patriots, defenses have to do a number of things. They have to challenge receivers by jamming and redirecting them at the line of scrimmage. They have to be prepared for New England’s route concepts in zone coverage and react to patterns instead of dropping to a spot. They have to disguise coverage and prevent Brady from trusting what he is seeing. You can’t get pressure on Brady unless he has to hold onto the ball. And he won’t hold onto the ball unless the timing of the passing game is disrupted. The Titans managed to disrupt Brady and the Pats in multiple ways on Sunday.
The most noticeable aspect of Head Coach Mike Vrabel and Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees’ game plan was the disguise. The Titans often did not end up in the same coverage they were showing pre-snap. We saw them use multiple inverted cover-2’s for instance. The most effective one occurred in the 3rd quarter.
Look at the Titans’ pre-snap alignment below. You can see that they looked to be playing a conventional cover-3 zone look, with the safety responsible for the deep middle, the two corners responsible for the deep outside-third zones, and the 4 underneath defenders.
At the snap, though, the deep middle safety dropped into the UNDERNEATH middle zone of the field.
The coverage was actually Tampa-2, a variation of cover-2. Normally, Tampa-2 coverage has two safeties playing the deep halves of the field. The coverage here is inverted because the corners, instead of sitting in the outside underneath zones as they would in traditional Tampa-2, actually ended up as the two deep-half defenders.
The Titans finished with 2 deep and 5 underneath defenders as opposed to the 3 deep and 4 underneath defenders they started with.
The safety in the middle of the field ended up as the Tampa-2 underneath defender. This defender normally gets to this spot on the field from a linebacker position. In this coverage, he was coming from the deep safety position. Whatever Brady did read, he didn’t see this defender sitting in the middle of the field and made an uncharacteristically inaccurate read.
Also notice that the Titans blitzed two linebackers inside and dropped their two outside rush linebackers into coverage. They still ended up with just four pass rushers, but it wasn’t their front-4.
The Titans brought several similar intricate blitzes on Sunday. The below one got to Brady for a sack on 3rd down. Again, notice the difference in the pre-snap alignment vs. the post-snap alignment:
If Brady had perfect anticipation and was actually looking to his right, he might have been able to hit a wide-open Julian Edelman for the first down. The quick pressure off the edge and blitz pressure up the middle were too much, though. The disguises he had faced throughout the day likely made him hesitant to attempt an anticipatory throw. Brady didn’t trust what he was seeing, and this was how half of the battle was won for Tennessee.
It wasn’t just coverage disguise that disrupted Brady and the Patriots Offense, though. The Titans did lots of things physically to make life difficult for New England’s passing game. They played a fair amount of man coverage and provided a healthy dose of contact throughout the day. Take this play below, with cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (who had a great game) covering Josh Gordon.
Help defenders also did their part in disrupting the routes of Pats receivers. On the below play, you can see safety Kevin Byard re-routing Julian Edelman on a shallow crossing route. The contact ensured that Logan Ryan (#26), who was covering Edelman, would not be outrun across the field. Brady was looking at Edelman initially and had to move off of him as a result.
The final piece of the Titans’ defensive puzzle was pattern reading. When they played zone coverage, their defenders didn’t just drop to a spot and let Brady pick them apart. They were ultra-aware and prepared for New England’s route concepts. Watch linebacker Wesley Woodyard (#59 on the left side of the screen) drop into coverage and hunt up Julian Edelman’s route over the middle.
He effectively took the route away, and this contributed to another incompletion. Brady finished with 20 on the day.
Slowing down the Patriots Offense isn’t easy. And yes, it would have been a tougher task for the Titans if they were facing a healthy New England offense. But the recipe for success exists in Tennessee’s Week 10 defensive game plan. It was a far cry from the approach we saw in last year’s AFC Divisional Playoff under the Mike Mularkey/Dick LeBeau regime.
All season long, the Titans have shown the ability to generate pressure on the quarterback and play great team defense. It is not a coincidence that they have the #1 scoring defense in the NFL. If their offense can figure things out and gain some consistency, the Titans can be real players in a very intriguing AFC.
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