Can Vrabel and the Titans Defense Shut Down New England Again?

A year ago, the Titans took it to the Patriots in a surprising 34-10 blowout win. Tom Brady completed just 21 of 41 passes for 254 yards and was sacked 3 times. Yes, the personnel will be a little different this Saturday on both sides of the ball. But the scheme used by Mike Vrabel and Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees (both former Patriots) showed that they have an acute understanding of what makes Tom Brady and the Patriots Offense tick.

Almost as a requirement, defenses have to use disguise against the Patriots to have a fighting chance. Tom Brady is too good and too quick of a decision-maker for a defense to just lay its cards out on the table and not get burned. The Titans understood this and made sure Brady could not be certain what defense he would see based on pre-snap alignment.

The below play is a great example. This was 3rd-and-8 in the first quarter. Pre-snap, the Titans appeared to be showing some kind of split-safety look.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Post-snap, they brought a zone blitz inside and rotated to a 3-Under 3-Deep coverage look. Safety Kenny Vaccaro even took a few steps to his right to sell the split-safety look before moving to the middle of the field.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Brady initially wanted to get rid of this ball to Julian Edelman (slot right). However, linebacker Rashaan Evans, who was showing blitz at the line of scrimmage, dropped into the middle-hook zone, taking away the inside.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Brady pulled the ball down at the last second. By that time, the pressure got to him and the result was a sack.

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The uncertainty the Titans were able to plant in Brady’s mind on this play set the tone for the rest of the game. This is the battle Tennessee will need to win early on Saturday.

On another 3rd down in the 2nd quarter, the Titans again appeared to be showing pressure. There was a high probability that this was another zone-blitz look. With the middle of the field having already become a precarious area of unpredictable defender movement, Brady decided to play it safe and stay to the outside. He worked a 1-on-1 matchup between Josh Gordon and Adoree Jackson on the perimeter.

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The result was an incompletion.

The Patriots passing game is at its most dangerous in the short-to-intermediate middle of the field. It is not as effective outside the numbers. This is why disguise is so critical vs. Brady. If you can make him uncertain enough to stay out of the middle, your chances of success go up significantly by forcing him to attack the outside.

To further their effort of taking away the middle of the field, the Titans also mixed in a couple of Cover-3 Robber (or inverted Tampa-2) looks. Below, you can see the Titans appeared to be playing Cover-3 pre-snap.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Post-snap, the deep safety crept up to the intermediate level of the field and the corners dropped deep.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

There was a ton of movement by other defenders after the snap on this play as well. Two front-4 defenders ended up dropping into coverage. The Titans also brought a blitz up the middle. When it was all said and done, Tennessee got home with the pressure scheme (while only rushing 4) and were able to get 5 defenders into the underneath zones that Brady loves to target. Brady had to throw the ball away right at the top of his drop, knowing the down was lost.

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Later in the game, the Titans used the exact same look. They again started off in Cover-3, again moved to Cover-3 Robber post-snap, and again brought a blitz up the middle while rushing only 4.

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That’s not a throw/misread you see Tom Brady make every day. He did not seem to anticipate that there would be a 5th underneath defender there. This ball would have been intercepted if the safety had been looking at Brady.

One of the key elements of the Titans’ success was their ability to blitz without sacrificing men in coverage, as we alluded to above. The Titans blitzed on 19 of 43 Brady pass attempts (44%). They only brought more than four men on 6 of those blitzes. Tennessee has not blitzed as much in 2019 as they did a year ago. Still, we wouldn’t be surprised to see them target the middle with 4-man pressures similar to what we saw here.

There were other ways the Titans took away what the Patriots do best in the passing game. There were four 3rd or 4th downs where they played man-free but rushed only three defenders, dropping the extra man out into the underneath middle of the field. This left 2 help defenders and lots of clutter inside. On this particular play, Brady again kept it to the outside.

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Brady fired incompletions on 3 of the 4 snaps against this look.

Play-action is another area of the Patriots’ passing game that teams always seem to have trouble defending. The Titans did give up a few chunk plays off of play-action to the Patriots last year. However, they also showed that they were willing and able to disrupt the timing of New England’s play-action passing game by jamming receivers inside on multiple occasions. This prevented them from getting behind those second-level defenders.

On the below play, you can see how safety Kevin Byard took Edelman away, forcing Brady to again take his shot on the outside.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

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Things can obviously go very differently this coming Saturday. Maybe the Titans come out and just challenge Patriots receivers by playing man coverage down after down like other teams have against New England this season. Perhaps they choose to double Julian Edelman on 3rd down, a tactic they didn’t really utilize against New England last year, but one that has been used effectively across the league in 2019.

One thing is clear from their 2018 matchup, though. Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees have an acute understanding of what makes the Patriots’ passing game dangerous. More importantly for the Titans, they showed that they understand how to stop it. The question on Saturday will be about execution and the adjustments we all know Belichick and Brady will make.

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