The Titans will look for their second straight playoff win this weekend when they visit New England. What must be done in order to beat the reigning Super Bowl champions?
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Titans have already taken some impressive steps forward this season – producing back-to-back winning records, earning their first playoff spot in a decade and posting their first playoff victory since 2003.But they’ll face their greatest challenge Saturday in New England, when they take on the AFC’s top seed with a trip to the conference championship on the line.
Here are five key questions for the Titans as they ready for the Patriots:
Can Titans gouge Pats on ground? – If there’s one match-up that appears to be in the Titans’ favor this week, it’s Tennessee’s ability to run the ball against a New England defense that finished 20th against the run this season.It would hardly be a surprise to see the Titans run heavily to the left side, considering Derrick Henry ran left on 21 of his 23 carries against Kansas City, per Pro Football Focus, gaining 141 yards.
Left guard Quinton Spain earned the Titans’ top Pro Football Focus grade of 83.1 against the Chiefs, and Titans coach Mike Mularkey called Spain’s performance one of the best of his career. Then there’s left tackle Taylor, who has been consistently strong all season.
The work of Lewan and Spain this year is a big reason the Titans averaged a whopping 10.22 yards on their 67 carries around left end, the best figure in the league.
New England, meanwhile, was susceptible to opponents running left. The Pats ranked near the bottom of the league when it came to yardage allowed around both left end and off left guard.
Is Henry’s pass-blocking improving? – One of the biggest reasons DeMarco Murraysaw much more playing time than Henry during the regular season is that the more experienced Murray is a better pass blocker.
In Saturday’s win over Kansas City, it looked as if Henry might have been at fault when Mariota went down hard at the hands of Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones.
“That was miscommunication up front that we had,” Mularkey said. “We corrected it, we had to make a different call to get the protection corrected. We did that immediately after the series.”
Overall, here’s what Mularkey had to say when asked what was most challenging for young running backs like Henry to master in terms of pass-blocking.
“Stepping up, taking guys square on, delivering the blow, hitting them underneath the chin,” Mularkey said. “First of all, recognizing, understanding where they’re coming from before the ball is even snapped is certainly an advantage. I think that has to come with experience as well. Derrick, to me, that’s one area that he’s improved since he’s been here.”
What’s the book on beating Brady? – The NFL has admittedly been trying to figure this out since the turn of the century without a lot of success.The best formula is simple in theory, difficult in execution: Keep Brady off the field as much as possible, and make him uncomfortable when he’s on the field.
Miami executed the plan to perfection last month when the Dolphins defeated the Patriots in a Monday nightcontest.
The Dolphins kept possession of the ball for 36:09 – compared to just 23:51 for the Patriots – thanks to Kenyan Drake’s 114 rushing yards. Defensively, Miami sent extra rushers at Brady on a regular basis, hitting him six times, sacking him twice and making him move from his preferred spot in the pocket.
As a result, Brady was picked off twice and finished the game with a quarterback rating of 59.5. The Pats were zero-for-11 on third-down conversions in the loss.
The giant asterisk attached to that game, though, is that the Pats were without All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. He’s been a beast since he returned the following week, catching 28 passes for 464 yards and three touchdowns in four games.
Still, the Titans have the ingredients to potentially slow Brady.
Tennessee pounded out a season-high 202 yards on the ground last week, which helped the Titans win time of possession by five minutes.
On defense, the Titans hit quarterback Alex Smith five times and sacked him twice. Overall this season, the Titans tied for fifth in the NFL with 43 sacks. Making Brady feel some pressure – and preventing him from having a clean pocket – is a necessity this week.
Can Titans get more from wide receivers? – Mariota has thrown to his top three receivers – Corey Davis, Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews – 24 times over the past two weeks, completing just 11 of those passes for 96 yards.Decker made an impressive go-ahead touchdown catch against the Chiefs last Sunday, but he’s also suffered dropped passes in the last two weeks. Davis continues to show flashes of talent, but the rookie’s inexperience showed against Kansas City when he was partially responsible for Mariota’s interception.
Matthews, the steadiest of the three this season, has been unusually quiet the last two weeks. He’s caught two passes for 22 yards.
The Titans will this week be facing a New England team ranked 30th against the pass, so the receivers should be able to find more room and opportunity for themselves.
“I think they’ve made some plays when we’ve needed some plays made,” Mularkey said. “We just need to be more consistent with winning outside one-on-one match-ups as much as we can, especially the deeper we go in the playoffs. There’s not a lot of room for error for anybody, that’s for every position.”
Can Titans continue third-down success? – Heading into halftime against Kansas City, the Titans were in a serious third-down rut. They’d converted just one of five third-down chances in the first half, meaning they were only seven-for-33 (21.2 percent) over the last 10 quarters.
But everything changed in the second half against the Chiefs, when the Titans converted seven-of-eight third downs – including four situations of third-and-eight or more. It’s no coincidence that Tennessee scored three touchdowns in the final two quarters.
The big keys to converting the third downs were Mariota and the Titans’ tight ends. Mariota twice ran for first downs, once completed a touchdown pass to himself on third down, and completed three middle-of-the-field passes to Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith for first downs.
“Some of (the third-down success) had to do with Marcus’ ability to either run or move in the pocket and find receivers,” Mularkey said. “We just executed them much better and got open on them.”
The Titans are 5-2 this season when converting at least 40 percent of their third-down attempts.
— Reach John Glennon firstname.lastname@example.org follow him @glennonsports