Josh McDaniels didn’t mince words. With all due respect to the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, Cowboys, Chargers and Browns, McDaniels hailed the Titans as the “best team” the Patriots have played to this point.
Judging by the list of teams the Titans have beaten — Bills, Chiefs, Colts, Rams, Saints, Seahawks — the Patriots offensive coordinator wasn’t blowing smoke.
It’s going to be another pass-the-test type of game for Mac Jones and the Patriots offense. While there is some similarity to the Falcons defense, given former Tennessee DC Dean Pees is now in Atlanta, the Titans still present some new challenges.
The defense is ranked fourth in the league in terms of stopping the run. Teams are averaging less than 100 yards per game (97.2) against them. Mike Vrabel will no doubt try and force Jones to throw the football. So it will be interesting to see if McDaniels still leads with bully ball, or lets it ride with his rookie quarterback.
The last time the Patriots were held under 100 yards rushing was Week 4 against the Bucs. In fact, two of the Patriots four losses have seen them rush for under 100 yards.
“They’re a typical Mike (Vrabel) team,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “They’re tough. They’re physical. They make you beat them. They don’t make many mistakes. They know what they’re doing. They’re sound. They’re a good, fundamental team. They tackle well.”
Putting up points against Vrabel’s defense won’t be easy.
Here’s how they can do it:
1. Harness the pass rush
Like the Patriots, the Titans can bring the heat, especially with Harold Landry and Jeffery Simmons up front.
As a unit, the Titans have 27 sacks on the season, one behind the Patriots, who are among the leaders.
Landry enters the game with 10 sacks, a half-sack behind Matthew Judon, and three behind league-leader Myles Garrett.
Simmons, meanwhile, has 7.5 sacks.
Given the Titans success stuffing the run, Jones will likely be asked to throw more in this game.
Much like having to deal with Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney with the Browns, the Patriots need to put the clamps on this duo, too.
The Patriots were able to contain and pretty much eliminate both in their Week 10 matchup with the Browns.
And Jones had one of his best passing days thanks to the offensive line giving him the time.
2. Beware of Byard
Kevin Byard is a ballhawk, much like J.C. Jackson.
He’s registered four of his five interceptions in the last seven games.
The Titans safety is the top-ranked player at his position, according to Pro Football Focus, as Byard has a 90.7 coverage grade. And Vrabel disguises his coverages really well.
So Jones will have to be a little leery of throwing the ball in his direction.
“They’ve got one of the best safeties in the National Football League, clearly, in (Kevin) Byard,” said McDaniels. “If you do the wrong thing, if you don’t see the coverage properly, he’s gonna take the ball away from you. He’s shown that clearly over the last five years.”
Kendrick Bourne says the Pats will try to avoid him altogether.
“Just scheming against him. Trying to go away from him. Not trying to attack him,” Bourne said Wednesday. “We’re good at taking their best players out the game.”
3. Jonnu time
Tight end Jonnu Smith, who has struggled much of the year, will be playing against his former team. No doubt, he’ll know a few secrets on how to attack the defense and get open.
He’s in dire need of a breakout game, and would love it to come against his old team. And the Patriots will want that for him.
Even though his pass-catching role has diminished, McDaniels is bound to have a few things up his sleeve that would take advantage of Smith’s skillset.
While tight ends haven’t had a ton of success against the Titans, they haven’t totally been shut down.
Kansas City’s Travis Kielce, Jacksonville’s Dan Arnold, L.A. Rams Tyler Higbee, and the Saints Adam Trautman have all had decent games against the Titans.
For his part, Smith will take what he can get, and contribute any way the Patriots see fit.
“It is what it is right now. I’m just thankful to be in the position that I am. That’s always been the player I’ve been,” Smith said Tuesday. “I don’t necessarily worry about the role. I’m not going to worry about the role. As players, we don’t sit here and say this what we’re going to do this week. That’s the coaches’ job.
“It’s our job to go out and execute it. So that’s all I can worry about.”