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TONY’S TAKE – FOUR THINGS TO KNOW FOR PATRIOTS-TITANS

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FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 29: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on during the game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Dolphins defeat the Patriots 27-24. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Welcome to the 2019 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The second wild card game of the 2019 NFL playoffs will take place at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough as the New England Patriots will host the Tennessee Titans. Here’s what you should know:

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 29: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots looks to pass against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Dolphins defeat the Patriots 27-24. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

PATRIOTS TO ATTACK THE TITANS IN A MYRIAD OF WAYS

Tom Brady has played in a bunch of different types of offenses in his career. From a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, to an offense revolving around tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.

The Patriots’ passing game is built around formations and motioning to dictate favorable matchups for their inside weapons – check out Chris B. Brown’s excellent piece about it here (http://grantland.com/features/how-terminology-erhardt-perkins-system-helped-maintain-dominance-tom-brady-patriots/). Their premier pass-catchers are slot receiver extraordinaire Julian Edelman, who is still as quick and shifty as ever and running back James White, who excels in the screen game.

Beyond Edelman, White and 16-year veteran tight end Ben Watson, however, there is a dropoff in reliability. Although Philip Dorsett is solid in the deep and intermediate parts of the passing game, he has been inconsistent, and both shifty trade deadline pickup Mohamed Sanu and rookie N’Keal Harry (who has plenty of raw ability) have struggled to adapt to the Patriots’ complex system.

New England’s offensive line has been in a state of flux since Week One. Left tackle Isaiah Winn has recently returned from an injury and has been up and down, while center David Andrews is out for the season – leaving Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon from last year’s underappreciated unit. Running behind them is Sony Michel who operates well with a power-blocking scheme that is reminiscent of the Pats’ ground game utilized earlier this century (yet Michel averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in 2019 – a sophomore slump due to the different faces blocking for him and needing the scheme to work for him because he’s not very quick).

One such old-school running play that the Pats have had success with over the last year or so is Power-O – a man-blocking play which features double-teams at the point of attack with a guard pulling towards the side of the play. The Pats also succeed with play-action off the same scheme. Pulling guards in play-action can influence linebackers’ coverage responsibilities, and New England could certainly apply it this week (side note – when Michel runs, it’s normally when Brady is under center. Michel rarely lines up next to Brady in the shotgun).

In fact, no team has used more 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) over the last four years than New England – forcing defenses to play more predictable coverages. Without the now-retired Gronkowski and injured fullback James Develin – who has emerged as an elite blocker and a serviceable receiver – offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels certainly has his hands full in adapting to what he has at his disposal.

With all of these changes within the last calendar year, it’s not surprising to see that Brady hasn’t played well in his last several outings. Along with the previously mentioned shuffling on the offensive line and at wide receiver – making it hard to build continuity and trust with Brady – maybe, just maybe, age could also be catching up to Brady at 42.

Lately defenses have been able to put a clamp on New England’s passing game by utilizing double coverage on Edelman, lining up a cornerback or safety on White and taking their chances elsewhere. Could we see this trend continue on Saturday? Time will tell.

FOXBOROUGH, MA – DECEMBER 29: Stephon Gilmore #24 of the New England Patriots looks on during the second quarter of a game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

NEW ENGLAND’S LEAGUE-LEADING DEFENSE IS CONSTANTLY EVOLVING

Early in Bill Belichick’s tenure in New England his defenses were versatile and unpredictable, with intelligent veterans carrying out his voluminous schemes. But it has done a complete about-face over the past decade.

According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “(Belichick’s) Patriots were known for being a certain defense one week and a totally different defense the next. They could run any coverage, play out of any structure – be it 4-3, 3-4 or a blend – and disguise pressures and post-snap rotations like none other.

“Belichick’s defense is, and has been for roughly 10 years, a simple bend-but-don’t-break unit….. They play a lot of straight man coverage, often with one safety deep and the other robbing over the middle. They blitz rarely….. even presnap disguises can be few and far between. When the Patriots do get aggressive is usually when the offense approaches scoring range. That’s the ‘don’t break’ part.”

Recently the Patriots have gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks by rushing six players with stunts and twists when opposing offenses show a five-man protection scheme – often with man-coverage across the board and no deep safeties (also known as Cover Zero). It’s a highly aggressive scheme, but one that New England can pull off thanks to the talent in their secondary.

Leading that secondary is cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore, the former Buffalo Bill and the perceived favorite to be named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, was once a talented but inconsistent defensive back while playing in Western New York. Once prone to giving up big plays and constantly shuttling between defensive systems, Gilmore is now surrounded by improved stability and better coaching than he had during his time in Buffalo and his play has taken off because of it.

Heady veterans Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Devin and Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson (who is particularly good at covering tight ends) also hold down the fort on the back end, while the versatile Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, Elandon Roberts and athletic veteran Jamie Collins are their starting linebackers. John Simon, Danny Shelton and Lawrence Guy make up their defensive line.

HOUSTON, TX – DECEMBER 29: Head coach Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans reacts in the second half against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

THERE IS A DECIDEDLY PATRIOT FLAVOR IN “SMASHVILLE”

Second-year Titans coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees go back to their time in New England, where Vrabel played for Bill Belichick’s former defensive shot-caller as a starting linebacker. The difference between Pees and Belichick, however, is that the former likes to blitz a bit more than the latter.

With stalwarts like Jurrell Casey, Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, Harold Landry, Wesley Woodyard and rookie Jeffery Simmons at his disposal, Pees can afford to turn his pass rushers loose while knowing he has the defensive backs to hold up in man and zone coverage long enough for his front-seven to get to quarterbacks. Former Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson are good and safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are versatile, especially Byard. Byard can patrol centerfield as a single-high safety, drop down into the box to stop the run, cover tight ends and blitz.

The Titans are missing veterans Malcolm Butler and Cameron Wake, who are both on injured reserve due to various ailments.

HOUSTON, TEXAS – DECEMBER 29: Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans is brought down by Zach Cunningham #41 of the Houston Texans during the first half at NRG Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

THE MCVAY/SHANAHAN OFFENSE STILL RESIDES IN TENNESSEE

Vrabel’s offensive coordinator is Arthur Smith, who last season served as tight ends coach while Matt LaFleur- now the head coach in Green Bay – was the Titans’ play-caller. Prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran Sean McVay’s offense for the Los Angeles Rams. McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.

Tennessee’s offensive system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. Countless tailbacks have had success in it, and most of the runs are executed out of “11” personnel (one tight end, one back). The idea behind this is to spread defenses out and create more room to run against nickel and dime defenses.

Passing-wise, the Titans are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams from sideline to sideline rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.

Marcus Mariota, their beleaguered fifth-year quarterback, had a rough start to the season. Having taken a lot of sacks early on, Mariota had been inconsistent and operated with sloppy mechanics (which had been the case for most of his career). Eventually he was benched for backup and former Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill, who promptly responded with career-highs in completion percentage (70.3 percent), yards-per-attempt (9.6), touchdown to interception ratio (22 to 6) and quarterback rating (117.5).

Tannehill has some good weapons to work with. Even though he lacks speed and quickness, running back Derrick Henry has been productive on the ground because of an abundance of power and strength in his game. Scatback Dion Lewis is a threat in the passing game, and rookie standout A.J. Brown, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Adam Humphries (who is out for Saturday’s game) and talented but enigmatic Corey Davis are the top three receivers in Tennessee. 14-year veteran tight end Delanie Walker is out for the season due to an ankle injury and has been replaced in the lineup by Jonnu Smith.

Tennessee’s offensive line is made up of three-time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan, former Ram Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and former first-round pick Jack Conklin.

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