|Mariota's athleticism poses a unique threat to defenses. Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots opponent, going over their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in all three phases of the game. This week, the Pats will close out their regular season home schedule by hosting the 3-10 Titans. As their record suggests, the Titans aren't a good team, but rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota's blazing speed will present a unique challenge for a Patriots defense that has looked championship caliber. Here's a closer look at this week's matchups.
Let's not mince words: this is a bad offense. The Titans are currently ranked 27th in the league in scoring, averaging 19.5 points per game. Only two teams have committed more than their 25 turnovers. The entire Titans offense has narrowly outgained Tom Brady's passing output this season by a measly 80 yards. It's conceivable that Brady could pass them yardage-wise this game if the defense does it's job.
However, discipline will still be key this week against Mariota. The rookie has had a bit of an up-and-down rookie season (understandable given the roster he's surrounded by), but the offense has been tailored more to his strengths since Mike Murlarkey became the interim head coach. Specifically, the playcalling has begun to take advantage of the threat Mariota's pure speed presents to the defense, including more usage of the read option concepts that were a staple of Mariota's Heisman winning season at Oregon. In 5 games under Ken Whisenhunt, Mariota ran just 10 times. He's run 24 times in the six games under Murlarkey, including a breakthrough 9 carry, 112 yard performance that featured a game winning 87 yard touchdown run. For the season, his yards per carry average of 7.4 comfortably leads all quarterbacks.
The well-coached Patriots defense is normally up to the task against read option concepts, but discipline will be key, as that 87 yard run serves as evidence of what Mariota can do when given an open lane. This Titans offense doesn't have the kind of playmakers to string together long drives against the Patriots excellent defense. They will need big plays to have any sort of remote chance. Taking away Mariota's rushing lanes will make things extremely difficult for the Titans offense.
While the Titans would likely prefer to be a run-first offense, they simply haven't been able to churn out yards on the ground with any consistency. There's plenty of blame to go around for that, as the offensive line has failed to open up holes for a group of average running backs. They've been a backfield by committee all season long, although 2014 undrafted rookie Antonio Andrews has gotten the most opportunities. At 5'10" and 225 pounds, Andrews is a physical downhill runner who will get what his blocking gets him, but he lacks explosion and breakaway speed. Fifth round pick David Cobb has cut into his workload a little bit since getting activated from the IR-designated for return list back in Week 10, including a career high 13 carries two weeks ago against Jacksonville. Cobb (5'11", 229) is another big physical back. Those two appear to have a comfortable lead on the depth chart over last year's second round pick, Bishop Sankey, who's seen just two carries since Week 6.
|Walker has emerged as one of the league's best tight ends|
The Patriots under Belichick have always emphasized taking away the opponent's major strengths, and Walker certainly qualifies given just how much Mariota has leaned on him. Patrick Chung has done a great job this year matching up one-on-one with tight ends, and he'll likely get this assignment, but it will be interesting to see if the Pats scheme up some help over the top to make it extra risky for Mariota to force throws to his number one target.
Such a strategy could pay off, as the Titans outside receivers have done little to scare opposing defenses this year. With former first round pick Kendall Wright already ruled out with a rib injury, the bulk of the receiver snaps will likely go to veteran Harry Douglas and rookie Dorial Green-Beckham. A long-time member of the Falcons, Douglas has a slot receiver's skillset but will likely play on the outside out of necessity. His quickness and route running ability make him a natural matchup for Malcolm Butler, who has shut down far superior receivers this season.
On the other side, Logan Ryan is likely to get the assignment against the massive (6'5", 225) Green-Beckham. This rookie season was shaping up as a disappointment for the high second round pick, but injuries have forced him onto the field more recently, where he's flashed his superstar potential at times. After seeing five or more targets just twice in his first nine games, he's done so in each of the past four, a span which included a breakthrough 5 catch, 119 yard, 1 TD performance in Week 13. He's certainly been inconsistent with both his hands (he's only reeled in 48% of his targets) and route-running, but few receivers have his ability to go up and win jump balls against smaller defensive backs. He also has the speed to get vertical in a hurry, and thus should be on the safeties mind.
Speaking of the safeties, this could be a game where we see plenty of three safety packages instead of a traditional nickel corner. With the Titans essentially down to those aforementioned two at receiver (former high draft pick Justin Hunter is also on the IR), the Titans will run mostly two receiver sets with multiple tight ends. Veteran Anthony Fasano is typically the number two tight end, with fellow veteran Craig Stevens also in the mix for snaps. Fasano is a hard-nosed presence as a blocker who can also be a solid if unspectacular possession target when called upon, while Stevens is more of a run blocking specialist.
When the Texans do go three wide, undrafted rookie Andrew Turzilli is expected to get the bulk of those snaps. A Rutgers product, Turzilli is a raw prospect with an intriguing combination of size (6'3") and speed. He made two catches in his debut last week. Seventh round rookie Tre McBride could also see some playing time out of the slot, although he has yet to see a target during his rookie season.
This game became a bit easier for the Patriots coverage linebackers when the Titans placed top passing down back Dexter McCluster on season ending IR with a fractured wrist. The diminutive McCluster has never quite lived up to his draft status as a high second round pick, but his explosive speed and quickness has always made him a big play threat. His season ends with him being third on the team in total yards from scrimmage with 507, trailing just Andrews and Walker in that category. His injury opens up another opportunity for Bishop Sankey, last year's second round pick. Sankey was lauded for his all-around skillset coming out of Washington, but he dropped dramatically down the depth chart after an ineffective start to the season. He may be a stronger runner between the tackles, but he certainly lacks the explosiveness that made McCluster a difficult matchup for linebackers.
With this relative lack of playmakers, it's easy to see how making sure Mariota can't breakdown the defense with his legs would become a major defensive priority. Once again, discipline will be important not just with regards to defending the read option, but also in the pass rush. Interior rushers like Akiem Hicks and (at times) Jabaal Sheard were able to destroy the Texans line last week with their upfield push against the immobile Brian Hoyer. This week, the interior lineman will be asked to clog up their lanes and take away any escape routes for Mariota, with the edge rushers attempting to compress the pocket.
|Lewan has become an elite left tackle in his second season|
The interior of the Titans line is a mess. Chance Warmack was drafted with the 10th overall pick in 2013 to be a road grading leader of the line, but he's continued to disappoint with yet another uninspiring season this year. The other guard spot is manned by Quinton Spain, who's barely been an upgrade over the benched Joe Looney. Meanwhile, things are even worse at center, where rookie Andy Gallik has been forced into action thanks to a season ending injury to starter Brian Schwenke. The Boston College product has simply been overwhelmed by the level of competition, and is currently ranked 38th (out of 41 qualifying centers) by PFF. While rush discipline will be important, the Patriots strong core of interior defenders should have a field day against this motley crew. Only the 49ers (who have started Jordan Devey 9 times this season) have given up more sacks than the Titans 44.
The Titans are far from dominant on defense, but they've been surprisingly competitive despite suffering some key injuries. Despite allowing 25.1 points per game (22nd in the league), they've been in the league's top half with regards to yards surrendered (4,472, 13th), thanks largely to a talented front seven that has enough individual talent to challenge a struggling Patriots offensive line.
It all starts with that front seven, which is bolstered by Pro Bowl level players like Brian Orakpo and Jurrell Casey. They've been competitive against the run, allowing an even 4 yards per carry on the season, but their real strength has been their pass rush, as their 35 sacks have them tied with the Packers for seventh in the league. The Patriots offensive line showed improvement last week against the Texans, and their ability to hold up against this group will likely determine whether the offense can consistently move the ball this week.
|Casey is a nightmare to block on the interior D-line|
Casey is merely the headliner of a strong rotation of interior defenders. Last year's fourth round pick, DaQuan Jones, has emerged as a quality starter at the other 3-4 end spot, where his run defense has stood out. Veteran Al Woods has been steady as the starting nose tackle in their base defense, with Sammie Lee Hill another viable run stopper on early downs. Meanwhile, the fantastically named Karl Klug comes on in passing situations to add some pass rushing juice, where he's chipped in with 3.5 sacks in his supporting role. Rookie Angelo Blackson has also flashed in his limited snaps, with 2 sacks in just 95 pass rushing snaps.
On the edge, Orakpo will pose another challenge for Sebastian Vollmer, who is trying to rediscover his early season form since making the necessary switch to left tackle. The former Redskins standout has seven sacks and a forced fumble on the year in what's been a quietly effective season for him in his first season with the Titans. Simply put, Vollmer has to improve if this team is going to make a run to the Super Bowl, and a good performance against Orakpo could be a nice confidence builder for him.
The other edge rushing spot was previously occupied by veteran Derrick Morgan, but a torn labrum landed him on the injured reserve. He's been replaced by David Bass, a former Raiders seventh round pick who hasn't brought much to the table as a pass rusher. Marcus Cannon should be able to shut him down, but I've seen Cannon make replacement level players look good before.
|Woodyard is having a career year at linebacker|
We'll see if the Patriots maintain their commitment to the running game with just James White and Brandon Bolden healthy and on the active roster (for now). They could also decide to go with a pass-heavy approach against a secondary that's been decimated by injuries. They are already down their top corner (Devin McCourty's twin brother Jason) and could be without their top safety this week, as former Bills standout Da'Norris Searcy has yet to practice this week with a hamstring injury.
Free agent acquisition Perish Cox is the de-facto number one corner with McCourty out, but he's been miscast in that role. Despite that, opposing quarterbacks have feasted by picking on the other corners on this roster, nearly all of whom are replacement level players. B.W. Webb is a journeyman who's played for three teams in his three season career, but he's recently emerged as the stater opposite Cox. He hasn't been good (the Jets had plenty of success picking on him last week), but he's been better than Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who has been an absolute bust since getting drafted early in the third round back in 2013. The slot is manned by Coty Sensabaugh, a 2012 fourth round pick who teams have also been able to pick on at will.
Bill Belichick has spent plenty of time this week praising Dick Lebeau, who is the assistant head coach in Tennessee. While Lebeau's famed zone blitz schemes have always helped his teams generate pressure, Tom Brady has a history of carving up the soft zones that his defenses typically play. These Titans corners typically give a sizable cushion to receivers, which could make it easy for receivers like Danny Amendola and Keshawn Martin to get open in the short zones where Brady typically destroys teams. As long as the protection holds up, the Pats should be able to throw at will against this secondary.
That's even without mentioning Gronk, the best tight end on the planet. His matchup gets even juicier if Searcy can't go, as he's been the Titans best safety in coverage. Former first round pick Michael Griffin will continue to start at strong safety, where he's been ok in the box against the run but but mismatched in coverage. Searcy's spot would likely go to Daimion Stafford, a converted cornerback who was a seventh round pick in 2013. Look for Gronk to do Gronk things (aka score touchdowns) against that underwhelming duo.
The Patriots normally excellent special teams have hit an unusual blip, with costly miscues in their past three games. They'll get a chance to reverse that tide against a struggling Titans unit that just lost their primary return man, Dexter McCluster for the season.
McCluster had been particularly effective as a punt returner, averaging 9 yards per return. The only two players on the roster to return a punt this season are Harry Douglas and Perish Cox, and neither have been particularly effective. It wouldn't be surprising to see speedy rookie Tre McBride get a chance there this week. McCluster was less effective on kick returns, but the Titans have been poor in that department all season, averaging just 21.2 yards per return all season. McBride and Bishop Sankey are the other two Titans to return kicks this year, and McBride is more likely to be active than the struggling Sankey.
They've still been better at returning kicks than defending them. The Titans have allowed a miserable 14.7 yards per punt return, including a touchdown this year. They've been slightly better covering kickoffs, allowing a mediocre 24.5 yards per return. As a result, Titans opponents have started their average drive at the 29 yard line; only four teams have been worse in that department. If the Pats can field the punts cleanly, their should be opportunities to decidedly win the field position battle.
In the kicking game, the Titans are solid but unspectacular. Veteran Ryan Succop has been automatic from within 50 yards, but he's made just one of his three attempts from beyond 50. Meanwhile, punter Brett Kern has been just ok, averaging 46.7 yards per punt.
For the Patriots, this is a week to take care of business. This is a team that they should be able to beat handily, even while not at full strength. There's no reason to overthink things here: go out and execute and they should be able to coast to a victory. If they do get an early read, they could have an opportunity to give some valuable rest some of the guys who have been playing through injuries (Danny Amendola, Chandler Jones, Gronk and Patrick Chung all come to mind). It could also be an opportunity to build confidence in certain players, such as the struggling Brandon LaFell, whose run after the catch ability could give him opportunities against that shaky secondary.
However, that's all built on the presumption that the Pats go out and dominate, which is no sure thing. The Titans season may be over as far as the playoffs are concerned, but there's no question playing the defending Super Bowl champs will be a major motivational factor for those players. The Pats are sure to get the Titans best shot. The Titans also have a defensive front seven that poses a legitimate test for a Pats offensive line that still has a lot to prove as they enter the stretch run.
Even if that defensive line gives them some trouble, the Pats have too many advantages in other areas to lose this one, especially at home. Expect them to defend the Gillette Stadium turf as they usually do: with a win.