We knew coming into this game that the Titans would not be an easy matchup for the Patriots. They had the running game to neutralize what the Patriots do best on defense. They had the scheme and personnel to provide creative looks that can take away what they do best on offense. The Titans ultimately escaped Foxborough with the victory, stunning New England and possibly ending the Tom Brady era in New England. However, it did not look like this game would go the Titans’ way in the early going.
The Patriots scored on 3 of their first 4 drives, largely on the strength of misdirection-based plays to keep the Titans off balance. They set up their first score with the below 29-yard screen, which included play-action and a fake WR screen to the right, before Brady came back to the left to hit James White.
This would lead to a field goal and a 3-0 Patriots lead.
On their second drive, New England again attacked with misdirection. This time, it was on a counter-lead run. Look how the initial action in the backfield held Tennessee linebackers and safety Kenny Vaccaro (#24). This enabled left tackle Isaiah Wynn (#76), “fullback” Elandon Roberts (#52), and wide receiver N’Keal Harry (#15) to pin them inside. Sony Michel did the rest.
A few plays later, the Patriots faced a 3rd-and-2. Julian Edelman motioned towards the formation (bottom of the screen). It looked like he was getting ready to run a crossing route through traffic to beat man coverage, something we’ve seen hundreds of times over the years. It turns out he was blocking, though. Between Edelman and right guard Shaq Mason (who was pulling), the Patriots sealed off the edge, and James White ran 14 yards for a first down.
A few plays later, Tom Brady used his acting skills to get the Patriots into the end zone on a Julian Edelman jet sweep. The Patriots led 10-7.
Two drives later, still leading by 3, it seemed the Patriots were about to take control of the game. The Titans started doing things that indicated all of the misdirection, tendency breakers, and trickery utilized by Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels were getting to them. They played soft zone on 3rd-and-6, allowing an easy 7-yard completion to a passing game that pretty much only attacks underneath. Then they allowed consecutive 12-yard gains on a run and an RB screen respectively, getting them down to the Titans’ 1-yard line. A 17-7 lead would have been commanding.
Then, the Titans Defense showed up and changed the game.
1st-and-goal from the 1. Keep your eyes on #54 Rashaan Evans. Watch him diagnose this play and close quickly for a 1-yard loss.
That’s a tremendous play.
On the next snap, a 2nd-and-goal from the 2, the Patriots were again running to the left. The Titans’ defensive line shifted late with New England’s motion. This made it difficult for right guard Shaq Mason to reach defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (#90), who would end up making the tackle. Also keep an eye on Jeffery Simmons (#98).
Simmons drove left guard Joe Thuney into the backfield. This forced Rex Burkhead to take his path just a little bit more to the outside instead of getting downhill sooner. Titans tacklers were left with just a half second more to pursue Burkhead and stop him short of the goal line.
3rd-and-goal from the 1. Focus on Jeffery Simmons again. He penetrated into the backfield. Sony Michel couldn’t get downhill, as a result, and was forced outside. Rashaan Evans was able to close again for the tackle.
The Patriots had to settle for a field goal to make it a 13-7 game.
This stand seemed to settle the Titans Defense down. They didn’t allow any points the rest of the way. This was due to a couple of different factors. First, the Titans’ game-planned to take away the middle of the field in the passing game, similar to what we wrote about entering this matchup.
For instance, the 3rd-down 38-yard pass to Benjamin Watson that was called back due to an ineligible man downfield penalty only happened because the Titans rushed 3, dropped 8, took away the middle, and forced Brady to scramble. There were several other plays where the Titans double-teamed Julian Edelman, forcing Brady to attack the perimeter. This is not where Brady or his receivers are at their best.
The below 3rd-down in the 4th quarter was one of our favorite looks given by the Titans all evening. Tennessee showed double-A-gap pressure pre-snap.
Post-snap, though, safety Kenny Vaccaro dropped out and helped double-team Edelman.
The Titans ended up rushing 3 and dropping 8 again on this play, and Brady had to keep the ball to the outside. The pressure kept him from being able to completely step into his throw. The result here was an incompletion and a punt.
Tom Brady and the Patriots were likely very aware that Julian Edelman was going to be double-teamed on 3rd down. This had been the approach of most defenses during the second half of the season. The key for any defense, therefore, is to keep Brady from getting an idea of where the help will come from to double Edelman. The Titans did a great job of that on this play.
Mike Vrabel and Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees had a great approach for the Patriots, but New England didn’t help its own cause. They had opportunities but missed on several of them. Julian Edelman dropped a key 2nd-down pass in the 4th quarter. But Brady missed a fair amount of throws himself after that 2nd-quarter goal-line stand.
He fired what should have been a pick-6 to Benjamin Watson with an off-target pass before the end of the first half.
Given the coverage, that ball needed to be put on Watson’s body, settling him down. Brady led him into the defender when Watson was about to sit underneath the coverage. The Patriots got away with one there.
Brady was not sharp on a few other throws. He missed a far-hash deep comeback to Julian Edelman in the 3rd quarter. He made a couple of throws on completions that limited opportunities for yards after the catch, including a 1st-and-10 completion to Phillip Dorsett during New England’s 2nd-to-last drive.
After Edelman’s aforementioned drop on the next play, the Patriots faced a 3rd-and-4. The Titans once again double-teamed Edelman (#3 receiver inside to the right) with the help coming from the other side of the formation. This left 1-on-1’s elsewhere. Brady had Dorsett open again for what would have been a first down, but he missed the throw.
And here’s a better look at the throw.
Brady’s reaction after the play showed that he knew he missed this throw. After punting, the Patriots didn’t get the ball back until there were just 15 seconds left.
Now that the Patriots are officially eliminated, we can actually say they are no longer a threat to make it to the Super Bowl. Sounds simple, but we’ve been around too long to doubt New England prior to them being officially bounced from the playoffs.
There were a couple of moments throughout this game where you could argue that Bill Belichick should have gone for it on 4th down. They faced a 4th-and-1 from their own 47 in the 2nd quarter. They faced a 4th-and-3 from Tennessee’s 47 in the 4th quarter. Each time, Belichick chose to punt. Perhaps he should have been more aggressive.
However, this matchup had the makings of a low-scoring game from the get-go. Playing the field-position battle, especially in the 4th quarter where a field goal would have made the difference, actually makes sense. The Titans weren’t doing much in the 2nd half and Belichick figured he could pin them deep, make a stop, and get the ball back around midfield without needing to cover much ground to get into field goal range. Unfortunately for New England, this didn’t happen.
Maybe this is the dawn of a new day in the NFL. We obviously could see some major changes in New England this offseason. Maybe it’s just a small speed bump on the way to the Patriots winning a few more Super Bowls with a 45 or 50-year old Tom Brady. Either way, with the elimination of the Patriots, the AFC playoffs just became completely wide-open.
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