After a week of preparation for the Titans, I can confidently say that although there are a lot of Patriot connections on this Tennessee team, they are not the Patriots.
So how much does it really help Mike Vrabel and his staff to have the "inside" information on how Bill Belichick prepares his team? I think it's also very important to wonder if Vrabel will follow the first rule in Belichick's defensive philosophy: Take away what the opposing team does best and ruthlessly exploit weaknesses.
After watching numerous Titans games from this season and having hometown knowledge of the Patriots, I'm confident in saying both are "gameplan" teams. Both teams basically scrap the previous week's gameplan and start from scratch with each new opponent. This doesn't mean that they actually create new plays. Rather, they have a catalog or menu of schemes and adjustments that they consider and ultimately choose from. In the case of the Patriots, this catalog has been built throughout the duration of Tom Brady's career.
To me, the interesting storylines with this game and what I will be looking for are the following:
- How are the Patriots going to try and go after Malcolm Butler, and how is Vrabel going to protect him?
- How are the Titans going to try and take James White out of the game?
- If White is taken away from Brady, who will step up for the Patriots?
- How are the Titans going to try and utilize Dion Lewis in the passing game?
- How are the Titans going to use Marcus Mariota in the run game?
- As I evaluate the Titans, I see a team that plays hard, has an identity and has younger talent that is very promising for the future.
Offensively, the Titans are fairly similar to the Patriots from a personnel standpoint. They utilize tight ends and are primarily in and out of 11 and 12 personnel with occasional sets in 13 personnel. They use their second tight as an H-back/fullback type player. They are a mix between shotgun and under center sets with their quarterback.
From a run-game standpoint, their bread and butter is the inside and outside zone. They will utilize Mariota in the run game. His background from his days at Oregon would make me assume that he is very comfortable with the read zone. They will also run some draw, power, and counter.
Their pass game has varied quite a bit. They will get into empty sets and work some isolation routes, they will run traditional five-step and three-step drop, and they will take shots with max protection. They will also move the pocket with the naked boot play off of outside zone play-action. They have made a major effort to get the ball to Lewis in the pass game.
[caption id="attachment_387663" align="alignnone" width="1173"] Mariota is gearing up for the Patriots again. (Getty Imgaes)[/caption]
At quarterback, Mariota is their guy. I don't believe he has lived up to expectations, but I do think he's dangerous. His inconsistency is clearly what has held him back from becoming an upper-echelon quarterback in the NFL. He seems to have the tools required to be a very good player and at times he is just that. He is mobile and has good arm strength. But from what I see on film, he lacks confidence and seems to lack the "it" factor. Unlike Aaron Rodgers, Mariota never really creates on his own. When plays develop how they are drawn up, he is good. When they break down or the picture is different than what he expects, he really struggles.
The Patriots will no doubt work take away Corey Davis at the wide receiver position. He has all the tools necessary to become a great NFL receiver. I would expect Stephon Gilmore to be locked up with him as much as possible. Taywan Taylor is the primary slot receiver for the Titans. (He's currently questionable for this Sunday with a foot injury.) He does flash at times and is someone that can hurt you if you are not aware of him.
Jonnu Smith is their in-line tight end. He is decent in the run game. The Patriots have certainly faced much better receiving tight ends in previous weeks. I would expect the Patriots to be able to handle them with either one of their safeties or linebackers. Luke Stocker is the Titan's move H-back/fullback. He seems to be out of position in that role, and is not overly physical in the run game.
[caption id="attachment_451302" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Lewis will get his chance against his old team this weekend. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)[/caption]
Lewis is the feature running back, although Derrick Henry will carry the ball almost as much as Lewis does. I think Lewis is at his best as a change-of-pace, third-down type back. The Titans have seemed to try and set his role that way, however, Henry has struggled some and they've had to use Lewis more than they probably like. The Titans do a nice job with the screen game, and Lewis has become Mariota's security blanket as a check down in the pass game. Lewis also does a very good job in pass protection and has been needed in that role.
The Titans offensive line is a work in progress. This is the area that needs the most improvement in order for them to get to the next level. The best two players in this group are their center Ben Jones and right guard Josh Kline. I like how these two guys play. They are very similar to the Patriots interior guys. (No coincidence that Kline spent time in New England.) Taylor Lewan at left tackle is the next best lineman in this group. He does a good job with his hands, and is at his best when he can create separation and control defenders. He does struggle with movement and can get beat around the edge.
Left guard Quinton Spain has really struggled this season. He plays off balance and out of control. He's a big guy and can absorb defenders but falls off blocks and gets his weight shifted easily. At right tackle, the regular starter Jack Conklin will most likely be out this week with a concussion. In his place, Dennis Kelly will be stepping in. I actually think Kelly is better than Conklin. Kelly has prototypical right tackle size, but he really struggles with pad level and moving his feet. Defenders often get underneath him and are also able to go around him.
Defensively, the Titans are a four-down, even front. Much like the rest of the NFL, they use outside linebackers as defensive ends. They will match personnel and get bigger, meaning use four defensive linemen, when teams get into 22 or 13 personnel. From a coverage standpoint, their primary coverage is man free. They will play some cover 3, cover 2 and some variations of 4. They are not a big blitz defense and seem to have the bend but don't break philosophy, similar to the Patriots.
Their secondary is certainly the weakness of their defense. In film, I specifically focused a lot on Butler. What I noticed right away and found consistent is the technique he is using in man coverage. In my opinion, one of the hardest things you can do is play press man coverage, but not jam. This is exactly what Butler has been trying to do. He consistently ends up in a trail position on receivers and is unable to react to routes. Thus double moves and sharp breaks have created a lot of problems for him. Logan Ryan and Adoree' Jackson have been the other corners that have been playing. Ryan has been the nickel corner. I think they are both average at best and have struggled with the same technique related issues as Butler.
[caption id="attachment_387371" align="alignnone" width="1600"] Logan Ryan is another ex-Pats will will square off against his old team Sunday. (Getty Images)[/caption]
At safety, I like Kevin Byard. He is the true free safety. He has range and is physical in the run game as he often shows up in the box quickly. Kenny Vaccaro is the strong safety. He's a physical player that often is a robber alignment. He is solid against the run and shows up on film.
The linebacker position is a position of strength for the Titans. The two guys playing inside that really show up for me are Jayon Brown and Wesley Woodyard. Both are downhill linebackers that can run. I enjoy watching them play. However, purely based on the realities of leverage issues in man-free coverage, I do not think they will be able to handle White in the pass game.
From a pass-rush standpoint,