New England Patriots Week 10 Preview: Defensive Strategy vs Tennessee Titans

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(cred. Patriots.com)

The New England Patriots defeated the Green Bay Packers last week 31-17 on Sunday Night Football. The Patriots outscored the Packers 14-0 in the fourth quarter to turn a close game into a rout. After a 1-2 start including losses to Jacksonville and Detroit, the Patriots have won six straight games to streak to the lead in the AFC East.

The Patriots went back and forth with the Packers never leading by more than a touchdown during the first three quarters. Twice the Packers came back to tie the game and their defense seemingly figured out the Patriots’ offense in the third quarter holding them scoreless and forcing a turnover on downs and a punt.

In what was billed a duel between two future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, the biggest pass of the game was thrown by wide receiver Julian Edelman who connected with James White on a 37 yard catch-and-run to set-up White’s go-ahead one-yard touchdown run. That drive was set-up by Lawrence Guy forcing a fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter.

New England put away the Packers in the fourth quarter with a combination of strong defense (a huge sack on third down by Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers to force a punt) and following that with with a 55-yard touchdown to a wide open Josh Gordon to make it 31-14.

Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon (cred: USA Today Images)

After playing four primetime games in five weeks, the Patriots return to a Sunday afternoon game time as they head into their bye week in week eleven. Tennessee is 4-4 on the season having defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football last week.

This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and WPRI Channel 12 in the greater Providence area. Ian Eagle will handle play-by-play duties with Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts as the color analyst. Evan Washburn will work from the sidelines.

Sunday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Sports USA One. Larry Kahn will call the game with Doug Plank providing analysis

Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and talk radio star Scott Zolak adding color analysis.

 

Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on DEfense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.

 

The win over Green Bay was the sixth consecutive victory for the Patriots and a second straight strong performance for the defense after a tough three week stretch in which they allowed 95 points (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).

At one point the defense was ninth in points allowed and 16th in yards allowed. The unit has dropped back down to 11th in points allowed and 24th in yards allowed. New England is currently ranked 27th in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 43.2% of the time (51 of 118).

The last game before a bye week is often considered to be a trap game as the players are naturally looking ahead to a week off after a long, grueling first half of the season.

 

How do the Patriots keep their defensive momentum against an offense that busted-out in prime-time scoring four touchdowns for the first time this season in their 28-14 win over the Cowboys?

 

ALL EYES ON DION LEWIS:

Tennessee is considered “Patriots South” with head coach Mike Vrabel having three Super Bowl rings from his eight years in Foxboro, general manager Jon Robinson having spent 12 years inthe Patriots personnel unit, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees having spent six years total as a defensive coach in New England and four as defensive coordinator a decade ago.

Of course, those former Patriots want to surround themselves with familiar players and have added running back Dion Lewis, cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, and guard Josh Kline. These teams met in the AFC Divisional round at Gillette Stadium in January, but this rematch at Nissan Stadium features teams with significant turnover in just a season.

The Tennessee offense revolves around running back Dion Lewis. Lewis had all but washed out of the NFL before landing in New England in 2015. Despite injuries, Lewis established himself as a viable lead back last season rushing for 896 yards and catching 32 passes in his last season with the Patriots.

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Titans’ running back Dion Lewis (cred: USA TODAY Images)

This season, he has pushed Derrick Henry out of the lead back role and leads Tennessee with 339 yards rushing and already has caught 33 passes out of the backfield. Henry has just 25 attempts for 81 yards in the past three games while has rushed 37 times for 162 yards over those three games.

The Patriots catch a break with Tennessee’s All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin already being ruled out for Tennessee with a concussion and Dennis Kelly will be starting in his place. The Titans have struggled to run the ball already in 2018 and are averaging just 3.9 yards per rush, 28th in the NFL.

New England has struggled at times to stop the run. Defensive tackles Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown were expected to be a duo of power in the middle of the defense and have been pushed around this season. New England has allowed 961 yards on the ground in nine games and 4.4 yards per rush.

The Patriots have allowed less than 100 yards rushing four times in 2018: they are 4-0 in those games and 3-2 in games they allowed more than 100 yards on the ground. Last week they dared the Packers to run the ball and take the game out of the hands of quarterback Aaron Rodgers–they will not duplicate that strategy against Tennessee.

The Patriots will do the opposite against the Titans. With quarterback Marcus Mariota having thrown only five touchdown passes in seven games, the Patriots will load up to stop the run–particularly Dion Lewis–and force Mariota to throw the ball 40 times to beat them.

Expect to see less nickel defense and more of New England in the 4-3 base look with Shelton, Brown and Lawrence Guy rotating inside and Trey Flowers and Keionta Davis or John Simon setting the edge on the outside. Linebacker Elandon Roberts will likely have a larger role joining Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower in the linebacking group.

Kyle Van Noy (cred. WEEI.com)

With Tennessee’s likely offensive plan to try and slow the game down and run the ball to maintain the time of possession, look for the Patriots to focus on forcing the Titans into second-and-third-and long situations and force Mariota to make throws into tight windows.

Tennessee has been hesitant to have Mariota shoulder the load and his tendency to tuck and run the ball exposes him to injury. The Titans–even with new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur–still prefer to run the ball. With 228 rushing attempts and just 226 passing attempts, the Titans are one of the few offenses to run more than they pass.

 

There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do against Tennessee this week on the road:

 

FORCE TURNOVERS:

By forcing the Titans to throw the ball, it leads the New England defense to be in position to create turnovers. Much like other defensive units of the past, the Patriots feast on turnovers. They have 17 turnovers created through just nine games after creating just 18 turnovers all of last season.

Part of the turnovers have been from the defense being able to generate more consistent pressure with veteran Adrian Clayborn opposite Trey Flowers. Although they only have five combined sacks, the duo have created pressure consistently.

With more pressure, there are more rushed throws and 11 interceptions through nine games. Last year, the Patriots had just 12 interceptions for the season.

Last week against Green Bay the entire game swung in the Patriots’ favor on Guy’s forced fumble. The week prior, Buffalo had pulled within three points before Kyle Van Noy’s sack of Derek Anderson and forced fumble gave New England some breathing room and then Devin McCourty’s pick-six sealed the game.

(cred: MassLive)

After four straight games scoring 38 or more points, injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel have slowed the offensive production and put more pressure on the defense to make plays.

The defense has stepped up the past two weeks despite not playing a complete game like they did just once this season (against Miami in week four). With Tennessee’s top ranked defense, the Patriots will have to once again make game-changing plays on defense (which Dallas could not do last week in the second half of the game) to turn the tide and help the offense.

 

-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01

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