Key matchups against the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round for Tennessee Titans fans to look out for throughout the game.
After a thrilling victory in the Wild Card round against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Tennessee Titans proved that after being questioned at every turn by analysts across the board, this team can hang in and compete against any team when their offense starts clicking. A dismayed Titans team was stunned and distracted by reports that Mularkey could be fired following the game. After falling behind 21-3 at halftime, the lead seemed insurmountable for a Titans team that had not won from behind consistently during the 2017 season.
Where everyone else saw a blowout Wild Card loss developing, this Titans team saw an opportunity to make a statement by refusing to back down and continuing to fight for their coach and for each other. The Titans defense prevented the Chiefs from scoring for the entire second half and QB Marcus Mariota and RB Derrick Henry lit up the Chiefs in the second half for three unanswered touchdowns.
The half was filled with highlights that I’m sure fans have watched over and over again since last Saturday: Mariota’s touchdown reception, Derrick Henry’s explosive touchdown run off of an intelligent audible from Mariota, Eric Decker’s clutch touchdown catch, and Mariota’s key block to ice the game. After months of waiting, the Titans offense finally played the way that many expected them to play, and they must continue this high level of play today in order to compete with New England. That said, the Titans could use more production out of the wide receiving corps to beat the Patriots after a lackluster Wild Card performance from the group outside of Decker.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have coasted to another outstanding season, first round playoff bye, and No. 1 seed in the AFC. After a shaky start on defense, the Patriots have survived the losses of star LB Dont’a Hightower and CB Logan Ryan to become a solid, albeit unspectacular, defense that is more than enough to support an offense that yet again operates on an elite level even without WR Julian Edelman. The success of the Patriots over the last decade and a half must be attributed to Belichick’s scheme transcending individual players. Outside of superstars like Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Rob Gronkowski, Belichick repeatedly refills any hole in the roster with new players to continue his winning ways.
Against a team like the Patriots, individual matchups usually do not play as large of a role because they can beat you in a variety of ways. However, there are several players that must succeed for the Titans to give them a chance to win today against the heavily-favored Patriots. Let’s examine three important matchups in today’s game that Tennessee must win to compete against the defending Super Bowl Champions.
Matchup 1: RB Derrick Henry vs. S Devin McCourty
After an entire season splitting carries with a banged-up DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry has finally fulfilled his role as a workhorse back following Murray’s injury. Over the last two weeks, Henry has gained 308 yards from scrimmage, along with two touchdowns in the last two games. Against a Patriots team that has struggled some against the run this season after losing LB Dont’a Hightower to injury and dealing LB Jamie Collins last season, Tennessee could use another stellar game from Henry.
The best defense against Tom Brady has always been to keep the ball out of his hands. If Tennessee can control the pace of the game by running the ball effectively, they can limit the ability of New England to run away with the game. Unlike the Chiefs, New England won’t surrender a big lead late in the game, so the Titans must stay in this game from the start.
The Patriots’ leading tackler this season has been S Devin McCourty, who quietly provides some of the best safety play in the league every year. With a front seven that has lost talent over the past two seasons, McCourty must step up and slow down Henry today. Typically, secondary players fail to tackle a large powerful runner like Derrick Henry, which bodes well for Henry against a defense led by McCourty and fellow safety Patrick Chung. Against a poor front seven, Henry must be able to reach the next level and run over the team’s two leading tacklers on the back end if Tennessee is to exploit New England’s biggest weakness and win in Foxborough.
Matchup 2: Titans Defense vs. Rob Gronkowski
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It might seem like a bit of an overstatement to match up Gronk against the entire defense, but Gronkowski might be the biggest physical mismatch in the game and has been one of the most prolific tight ends in league history. Titan Sized writers have lamented the team’s poor results against tight ends this season and the importance of limiting Gronkowski’s impact in today’s game all week. Check out what they had to say about the matchup here, here, and here.
During last week’s game, Chiefs TE Travis Kelce gained 66 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game in the first half. The Titans seemed to have no answer for Kelce when he was on the field and Gronk presents a similar receiving threat with superior blocking ability. The Titans must present Gronkowski with a number of different coverages to prevent him from recognizing a coverage and changing his approach to beat it. The Titans need all of their linebackers and safeties to work together to limit Gronk’s impact on today’s game. As Gronk has proved throughout his career, he can completely take over a game, and if he is allowed to routinely beat the Titans defense, the Titans’ odds of winning become substantially lower.
Matchup 3: LT Nate Solder vs. ROLB Brian Orakpo
Against a quarterback who has experienced as much success in the playoffs as Tom Brady, the Titans can not allow him to pick apart their secondary as he has done so many times before in his career against every team in the league. The Titans must pressure him and force bad throws to have a chance.
Veteran OLB Brian Orakpo has had a down year statistically with only 7.0 sacks, but 2.5 of those sacks have come in the last two games. Even with lower sack totals than years past, Orakpo has still been a consistent presence off of the edge that has gotten into the backfield consistently with quarterback hits and hurries to take the place of the lack of sacks.
Against a solid but unspectacular left tackle in Nate Solder, Orakpo must constantly pressure Brady, even if he doesn’t get sacks, in order to take pressure off of the Titans secondary. By forcing Brady to throw more quickly, the Titans secondary will not have to cover opposing receivers for an extensive amount of time, which will inevitably result in a completion. Orakpo and the Titans’ other pass rushers must make Brady uncomfortable in the pocket and force incompletions. The Titans might not be able to completely stop Brady, but they must limit his success.