AFC South Preview: Off-season Recap and Predictions

AFC South Preview

A division with a lot of unknowns, the AFC South could be close this season. Young quarterbacks, elite running backs, and young defensive linemen are showcased in this division. Who will come out on top? I break down the offseason moves and predict each AFC South team’s season in this preview.

AFC South Preview

4. Houston Texans

Key losses – DT Vincent Taylor, S Justin Reid, LB Tae Davis, OT Geron Christian, QB Tyrod Taylor, OLB Jake Martin, TE Jordan Akins, OT Marcus Cannon, QB Deshaun Watson

Key additions – HC Lovie Smith, CB Steven Nelson, OG A.J. Cann, DE Mario Addison, OLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, TE O.J. Howard, OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, QB Kyle Allen, CB M.J. Stweart, FB Andy Janovich, DE Jerry Hughes, CB Derek Stingley Jr., OG Kenyon Green, S Jalen Pitre, WR John Metchie III, LB Christian Harris, RB Dameon Pierce

Re-signed – OLB Kamu Grugier-Hill (1-year), ILB Neville Hewitt (1-year)

Extensions – WR Brandin Cooks (2-years, $39 million)

Houston went 3-14 last season and was one of the worst all-around teams in the league. They added some talent, as well as a new head coach in Lovie Smith. Now, Smith comes in to try and help this team move on from quarterback Deshaun Watson. After finally trading him, Davis Mills looks to become the franchise guy.

The worst offense in the league last season, the Texans badly need something to change. Davis Mills didn’t look that bad last season, and still has some weapons. While Brandin Cooks is a solid wideout, he will need to lead the way next to Nico Collins, who’s trying to prove he can make it in this league. At tight end, they have Pharaoh Brown and Brevin Jordan, who will need to step up if either wants to become a permanent NFL starter.

The offensive line still needs some work, but has a solid tackles in Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard. However, that’ll help out QB Davis Mills more than it will the rushing attack. Rookie Dameon Pierce is generating buzz as he looks to have a huge season running the ball. This offense will still be one of the worst in the league, but I expect a jump from dead last.

The defensive side of the ball wasn’t much better, as they ranked 31st in the NFL. With a bottom five defensive line still, I don’t expect that to change. Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes are veterans who can bring some pressure, but are in the twilight of their careers. The worst part for the Texans is their linebacker corps is even worse. Christian Kirksey isn’t a quality starter, and they will be looking at rookie Christian Harris to bring some energy.

The Texans added to the secondary early in the draft by selecting cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. Stingley can become the long-term CB1 in Houston, but past him there isn’t much. Rookie Jalen Pitre will be the slot corner, although we don’t know what to expect there. They have arguably the worst secondary in the league unless the rookies show up and show out.

Prediction

The Texans are still rebuilding, so I don’t expect a playoff berth. But I do expect them to improve upon last year. I have them going 5-12 and 2-4 against the AFC South. Davis Mills will be the player to watch as he looks to earn the franchise’s trust.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars

Key losses – LB Damien Wilson, DT Taven Bryan, WR D.J. Chark, OG A.J. Cann, ILB Myles Jack, OG Andrew Norwell, WR Laviska Shenault Jr.

Key additions – HC Doug Pederson, WR Christian Kirk, OG Brandon Scherff, LB Foyesade Oluokun, CB Darious Williams, DE Foley Fatukasi, WR Zay Jones, TE Evan Engram, DE Arden Key, DE Travon Walker, LB Devin Lloyd, OL Luke Fortner, LB Chad Muma

Re-signed – DE Adam Gotsis (1-year)

Extensions – OT Cam Robinson (3-years, $54 million)

The Urban Meyer experiment failed miserably in Jacksonville, as they fired the former head coach after starting the season 2-11. They would finish the year 3-14 and earn the #1 pick in the NFL Draft. Top pick Travon Walker will look to become a focal point on this team during their rebuild.

The 27th ranked offense last season should improve this year. New head coach Doug Pederson will look to turn quarterback Trevor Lawrence into the star he is projected to be. Wideouts Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Marvin Jones Jr. create a solid trio for Lawrence to find, and should open up the field. It will be tough though, as the Jaguars offensive line ranks towards the bottom of the league.

The running back room should be fun to watch, as Travis Etienne Jr. will finally make his NFL debut this season. The pass-catching back should create a nice duo with James Robinson, who burst onto the scene after breaking the record for most scrimmage yards from an undrafted free agent his rookie year. The offense should improve this season, and has the potential to become top 20.

The defense did a little better than the offense in 2021, as they finished 20th in the NFL in total defense. They have an interesting defensive line that includes three first-round picks. Josh Allen, K’Lavon Chaisson, and Travon Walker will all look to bring the pressure and remind people why they were first-round selections.

At linebacker, the Jaguars have Foyesade Oloukon, Devin Lloyd, and Chad Muma to take over after losing Myles Jack in free agency. The young core will look to prove they can compete in this league under Doug Pederson.

Lastly, the secondary added two cornerbacks, rookie Tyson Campbell and Darious Williams, to create an interesting trio at corner next to Shaquill Griffin. The secondary could hold them back, as they have one of the worst safety duos in the league.

Prediction

The Jaguars are looking to bring back Sacksonville, but it might not be this year. I predict that Jacksonville will finish 6-11 and go 3-3 against the AFC South. Trevor Lawrence will look to make a jump without Urban Meyer there.

2. Tennessee Titans

Key losses – OG Rodger Saffold, OT David Quessenberry, WR AJ Brown, ILB Jayon Brown, WR Julio Jones, P Brett Kern

Key additions – WR Robert Woods, TE Austin Hooper, OT Jamarco Jones, S A.J. Moore, CB Ugo Amadi, WR Treylon Burks, CB Roger McCreary, OL Nicholas Petit-Frere, QB Malik Willis, RB Hassan Haskins

Re-signed – K Reggie Bullock (2-years), RB Dontrell Hilliard (1-year), C Ben Jones (2-years)

Extensions – HC Mike Vrabel (1-year)

The Titans earned the #1 seed in the AFC last season, but lost their first playoff game after the bye. They finished 12-5, and decided it was time to part ways with superstar wide receiver A.J. Brown. They shipped him to the Eagles and will try to make it back to the playoffs without him.

The 17th ranked offense last season was heavily reliant again on running back Derrick Henry. He is the focal point of this team, but will run behind a lackluster offensive line. It’s one of the worst groups in the league and without Henry, it would show. With their best lineman, tackle Taylor Lewan, coming back worse from an ACL tear, there is legitimate concern they can get the job done.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is looking to improve on the team’s 24th ranked passing game, but it will be tougher without A.J. Brown. The new weapons in rookie Treylon Burks and former Ram Robert Woods could be a solid duo to throw to, but Woods is still recovering from a torn ACL. The tight end spot is shaky with Geoff Swaim, so I don’t expect much from the passing attack this season.

The defense was 12th last season after dominating against the run. They should dominate again with a top ten defensive line. Jeffrey Simmons is the star, followed by Denico Autry, Bud Dupree, and Harold Landry III to help bring pressure. It makes a mid-tier linebacker group’s job easier, as Zach Cunningham leads the way as a great run stopper.

The secondary will be key. They struggled a year ago, but get Caleb Farley back, who missed his entire rookie season with an injury. They have a young trio of cornerbacks who could make a splash this season. The safety tandem is headlined by Kevin Byard, who is one of the best in the game. Armani Hooker and Byard are trying to lead the young corners to a better finish this season.

Prediction

Mike Vrabel is a fantastic coach, but Ryan Tannehill will hold this team back. I have them finishing 9-8, missing the playoffs after going 4-2 in the AFC South. This could be Tannehill’s last year, so he has to make the most of it.

1. Indianapolis Colts

Key losses – QB Carson Wentz, DE Al-Quadin Muhammad, RB Marlon Mack, OG Chris Reed, OG Mark Glowinski, S George Odum, DE Kemoko Turay, WR T.Y. Hilton, CB Rock Ya-Sin

Key additions – QB Matt Ryan, CB Stephon Gilmore, QB Nick Foles, CB Brandon Facyson, FS Rodney McLeod, OT Dennis Kelly, DE Yannick Ngakoue, P Matt Haack, WR Alec Pierce, TE Jelani Woods, OL Bernhard Raimann, S Nick Cross

Re-signed – TE Mo Alie-Cox (3-years)

The Colts finished last season 9-8, missing the playoffs after an 11-5 season the year before. They brough in quarterback Matt Ryan as an upgrade over Carson Wentz with hopes of a playoff return. With talent added on both sides of the ball, the Colts may be a real threat in the AFC.

The Carson Wentz-led Colts finished 16th in the NFL in total offense a season ago, but now Matt Ryan is at the helm. He is a decent improvement, and will look to help wideout Michael Pittman Jr. grow into a star. However, the receiving corps behind Pittman is below average. They will need tight end Mo Alie-Cox to play a big role in the passing game to become a top 15 passing team.

This offense is centered around running back Jonathan Taylor. The young back showed he is a superstar last season, and has the highest expectations of all running backs going into this year. With a top ten offensive line, including the best offensive lineman in the game Quenton Nelson, Taylor should have no problem leading this offense to a playoff berth.

The defense last season ranked identical to the offense, 16th in the NFL. They added Stephon Gilmore to the secondary, which gives them a big boost. The secondary is still in the bottom half of the league, but if Julian Blackmon can come back and breakout, they could move up in the rankings.

They have one of the best linebacker corps in the league, with superstar Darius Leonard next to Bobby Okereke. If Okereke can play like he did in 2019, they should be the best in the NFL. With the defensive line gaining Yannick Ngakoue to help create a force with superstar defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, they should be much improved this season, and eyeing a top ten finish.

Prediction

The addition of Matt Ryan should boost this team towards winning the AFC South. I have the Colts finishing 10-7 after going 3-3 against the rest of the AFC South. Expect a close finish between Indianapolis and Tennessee.

Does running the ball set up the pass?

Running the ball to set up the pass is an age old adage where your father and grandfather told you how to play football, but does running the ball really set up the pass?

Running the ball to set up the pass is an age-old adage where your father and grandfather told you how to play football, but does running the ball really set up the pass?

Traditionally, when an offense executes a successful run for a significant chunk of yardage, an opposing defense will attempt to compensate by bringing additional defenders into the “run box.” The more bodies in the way of the run, the more likely it is for the run to be held short. 

However, if more defenders are in the box, that means there are fewer players to defend passes away from the box, so the passing game has greater opportunity to get the ball further down the field. 

The NFL evolves every decade moving onward towards something unique but building on basic concepts. We’ve witnessed the fall of the I-form power football in the ‘70’s, to rise of the West Coast offense in the ‘80’s, Run ‘N Shoot and K-Gun in the ‘90’s, Spread and Shotgun offenses in the early 2000’s to the RPO revolution in the 2020’s.

Ultimately, this has come as a result of the NFL’s purposeful rule changes and schematic breakthroughs that have led to its desired impact: more touchdowns. In turn this led to running the ball much less.

EPA on running the ball to set up the pass

A study done by Sean Clements, who is now a data analyst for the Baltimore Ravens, found that establishing the run early in NFL games does not open the passing game later in games.

Through a boxplot Clements made, it’s found that there is little correlation between running the ball early and at a high volume increases the yardage obtained on passing plays.

The next emphasis is through EPA, expected points added. Basically, it measures the expected points of a play. 

In a graph made by Ben Baldwin, the number of expected points decreases as the number of rushing attempts increases. Contrary to the belief running the ball will help to set up the pass and score.

If that were the case, then we would expect to see higher EPA as the number of rushing attempts increases.

How the modern era has discontinued running the ball to set up the pass

From 2015-2020 passing on first down has averaged a 7.6 YPA, yards per attempt, while running the ball gained 4.3 YPA.

Per sharp football stats, 30.4% of pass attempts on first down have ended up moving the chains. However, only 12.8% of running plays have picked up another first down. In 2020, NFL teams ran the ball on 50.3% of their first-down plays in 2020 and passed the ball on only 49.7%.

In 2021, NFL offenses averaged 7.4 YPA passing on first down compared to 4.2 YPA rushing.

Even the most run-heavy teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans had higher YPA’s on first down compared to running the ball. San Francisco had an 8.9 YPA passing and 4.4 YPA rushing. Tennessee had 7.2 YPA passing and 4.2 YPA rushing.

Yet, 20 of 32 NFL teams, run the ball on first down gaining minimal yards compared to easily moving the chains to score. So what gives?

How two-high coverages has stopped running the ball to set up the pass

As a result of the modern NFL, many offenses are trigger-happy and defenses have had to respond with swift actions.

Defenses have adapted as time has passed. This time to coverages that include a large base of two-high safety shells.  Two-high coverage means both the strong safety and free safety defend the deep end of the field, with each responsible for a section that runs to each boundary.

Thus leaving the middle of the field open, the main purpose of two-high is to prevent explosive plays in the deep third of the field and not allow big plays.

Some NFL offenses and high-profile quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes have struggled against two-high coverage early on because they struggled to take what the defense gives them.

In 2018, the highest amount of two-high looks faced by any quarterback in the league was 42%. Eight weeks into the 2021 NFL season, only five teams faced two-high safeties less than 40%.

The key to beating two-high coverage? Running the ball. Two-high is not the perfect scheme to use a majority of the time as yards can be gained in the intermediate passing game and the running game.

Due to the nature of defensive backs lined up well outside the box, offenses often have a light defensive body count in the box to go against. This opens up numerous lanes for running backs.

How passing the ball has set up the run

Running the ball does keep the defense honest and it can be noted on second and third down. YPA on rush attempts increases to 4.4 on second down and 4.5 on third down.

The success rate of it gaining five or more yards is 50% on second down and jumps to 53% on third down. 

Passing on second down yields a 6.9 YPA with a 47% success rate, on third down passing results in 7.2 YPA with a 37% success rate.

First down has become the most successful passing down to move the chains and get drives started for offenses with a 54% success rate.

The most successful offenses in the NFL have potent passing attacks and have the most success by passing the ball on first down and converting it five-plus yards or past the sticks.

1st down situational Pass:Run Ratios

Buffalo, San Francisco, Green Bay, Cincinnati, and the Los Angeles Rams all have 8 or more yards per attempt passing coupled with being over a 54% success rate.

Respectively, each team’s YPA on running the ball increases on 2nd and 3rd downs.

Second and Third down Pass:Run ratios

As the NFL continues its passing revolution, gone are the days of running the ball to set up the pass. With the league running two-high shells almost 50% of the time, the NFL offense has adjusted to throwing the ball more on early downs to gain more yards. Thus, able to run the ball effectively when needed to be.

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Handing Out the Tennessee Titans 2022 Draft Grade

Top Image: Former Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks in uniform with the football
Photo Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Handing out the Tennessee Titans 2022 NFL draft grade – or any team’s, really – is a futile prospect this soon in the game. Careers have yet to be played, and we don’t even know how these prospects are going to fit into their current systems. As always, then, handing out draft grades this early in the game is a vanity project.

But, there’s a certain charm in grading a team’s gets immediately after a draft. While careers are unknown, it’s easy to form educated guesses about which direction they’ll take. Those guesses won’t always be right, but they will be good enough to form early judgments.

The Titans had one of the more interesting drafts. While commentators thought they’d draft Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green in the first, they did something far more bold — and foolish.

Titans select Treylon Burks with the 18th pick

Did the Titans select a younger, cheaper version of A.J. Brown? Probably not. But, they weren’t going to pay A.J. Brown the money he thought he could get from another team. So, they traded him to Philadelphia, who immediately gave him $100 million over the next four years.

Compare that with the Titans, who were only going to commit $16 million a year for Brown’s services. Christian Kirk may well have caused the biggest player realignment in living memory, and the Brown trade is fallout from that.

Enter Treylon Burks, who was selected with the 18th overall pick. Burks is a big receiver, weighing in at 225 pounds. The speed he shows in the open field is decent, and he was able to get separation against college defensive backs. What really stands out, however, is his hand strength, which allows him to go up and grab whatever ball he wants.

Those skills propelled him to 11th on my own big board. He’ll be a top NFL receiver, but won’t have quite the same speed or explosiveness that Brown has.

As well as the 18th pick, the Titans also got a third round pick at 101st overall, which was then flipped to the Jets.

Grade: D+

There’s no sugarcoating this; the Titans got worse in the first round of the draft. Burks is a wonderful prospect, but arrives in Nashville as an unproven WR2.

Then, the Titans ship out their 26th pick to the Jets

This was actually prudent. After getting their guy in the first round, the Titans were able to move back to 35th overall in the second round. As well as the 35th pick, they got the 69th pick, and the 163rd pick. The Jets got the 26th pick and the 101st pick.

Grade: B

Not spectacular, but good enough for them to get a position of need.

In the second round, the Titans selected Roger McCreary

Jackrabbit Jenkins became a cap casualty, and was cut after just one year with the team. Kristian Fulton was solid last year at corner, while 2021 first rounder Caleb Farley hopes to find the field this year. With only one proven corner, the Titans needed depth.

They got said depth with Roger McCreary. Although McCreary is a 5-foot-11 corner who played mostly in a cover-three scheme at Auburn, he’s got some good tools. His ability to keep strong against bigger opponents will be a plus in the NFL. When he did have the chance to play man-up on someone, he never let receivers get much separation from him.

Grade: C

It’s a perfectly fine selection, and gives you another guy you can spot start if need be. Yet, McCreary is unlikely to be a standout or steal, even if some mocks did have him as a first rounder coming into the draft.

He’s no little brother: Petit-Frere goes 69th overall

The Titans must know they drafted a lemon in 2021.

Coming into 2021, Dillon Radunz was drafted out of corn-fed power North Dakota State, and the Titans hoped he would be a starter. But, 2021 didn’t play out that way for Radunz. The tackle only appeared on offense in six out of 17 contests, and didn’t impress very much when he did get offensive snaps.

With Nicholas Petit-Frere, the Titans hope they’ve solved their right tackle issues.

Petit-Frere is a prototypical tackle at first glance. At 6-foot-5, and weighing 316 pounds, he moves very well. He has great lateral quickness and agility, and can reach block effectively. That skill especially will serve him well with the Titans’ stretch zone run they like to run, which requires a tackle to execute that block consistently.

There are holes in his game, namely how deep he sets up in pass protection. But, he would have been a 2023 first rounder had he stayed, and the Titans can afford to see out his development.

Grade: A-

Tennessee gets a tackle who can start right away for them, but also gets the benefit of a high-upside developmental prospect.

The next episode: Malik Willis is a Titan

In the biggest move for the franchise’s direction in this draft, the Titans traded up to get Malik Willis.

Ryan Tannehill will be 34 at the start of the 2022 season. With his age and a relatively streaky 2021 season playing against him, the Titans needed new blood. Tannehill will still be the starter for this season, but Willis will sit behind him and develop as his heir apparent at quarterback.

Willis was projected as a first round pick before the draft. His precipitous drop into the third round speaks more to reality, but he’s still an impressive quarterback prospect. The zip he puts on the ball is unlike anyone else in this class. Most notable though, is his running ability, which is absurd. He is unbelievable in the open field with the football, and is stout enough to take hits.

So what did NFL teams see, then, to cause his drop? His processing under pressure is not always the greatest. He can make basic passing reads, but Liberty’s simplistic offense under Hugh Freeze hurt his ability to learn more advanced passing concepts.

Grade: A

What’s not to like? The Titans are in a win-win situation with Malik Willis. Either he develops well and they got a bargain, or he isn’t the guy, and the Titans only invested a third round pick in him.

Michigan back Hassan Haskins gets drafted at 131st overall

Derrick Henry going down for the Titans last year showed the weakness of the Titans’ offense. With the team acting as an 11-man battering ram, the hope is that Henry’s size and volume will wear down the defensive front seven. The Halloween injury to Henry made the Titans use dollar store versions of Derrick Henry, though. That only got them so far, and they nearly blew the top overall seed because of a sterile, impotent offense.

Hassan Haskins is not Derrick Henry. But, what he showed at Michigan proves he could be a good backup for him. The former Wolverine is massive, coming in at 6-foot-2 and weighing 228 pounds. While not the quickest guy, he has a little open field ability that should be tested out this off-season.

Grade: C+

It isn’t an impressive pick, or even really at a position of need. But, it’s an insurance pick, and that’s perfectly suitable for a day three guy.

Maryland tight end Chig Okonkwo gets drafted at 141st overall

A staple of the Titans franchise is a good pass-catching, do-it-all tight end. In an offense where two tight ends are needed, the Titans didn’t have many options after Jonnu Smith left.

Chig Okonkwo, though, is an underrated prospect. He’ll be on the field early and often for the Titans, thanks to his good combination of size and athletic ability. This former Terrapin may blossom in a Titans offense that needs downfield options for Tannehill at tight end.

Grade: B

With their third fifth-round pick, the Titans grabbed receiver Kyle Philips out of UCLA

Receiver depth is looking dire for the Titans in 2022, and Kyle Philips will have a chance to compete for the fourth wide receiver slot right away. While Philips isn’t ever going to be a starter or even a WR3, it’s a fine pick.

Grade: C

Nashville native Theo Jackson heads to Titans in the sixth round

The former Tennessee Volunteer played the nickel corner position in college, and was awarded All-SEC honors for his play. At 6-foot-1 and nearly 200 pounds, Jackson could end up with the same role with the Titans. He could also end up as a fine gunner on special teams.

Grade: C+

With their last pick, the Titans selected Ole Miss linebacker Chance Campbell 219th overall

Chance Campbell is worth taking a flyer on, given his production at Ole Miss. But, given his lack of athleticism and pass coverage ability, it will be an uphill battle for him to make the 53-man roster.

Grade: C-

The Titans 2022 draft grade is?

There are four potential starters in this class, and two of them will surely start on opening day. Tennessee’s picks were for good value, and that’s boosted their grade as well.

On the downside, Tennessee didn’t get a great return for A.J. Brown, which hurts the Treylon Burks pick significantly. Burks will always carry that trade on his shoulder for as long as he’s a Titan.

Overall, though, the Titans had a solid draft. They’ll get good production from this group in the future.

Titans overall draft grade: B

Patriots vs Titans Observations

The Patriots dismantled the Titans on Sunday to extend their league best win streak to 6 games. Observations from the game by @Colbyfau.

patriots vs titans
Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Good teams win games they are supposed to win. The Patriots did exactly that vs a depleted Titans roster on Sunday. The expectation was a feisty Titans team that wasn’t going to simply roll over for the Patriots.

The Patriots won vs the Titans in a game that somehow felt closer than it was and yet never like it was that close. They have stretched their win streak to six games. They continue to play Patriots brand football with all three phases able to pick up the team at any moment. Football season usually doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving in the Northeast and this year’s rendition of the team is trying to make that true again.

Observations

Defensive

  • A week after Kyle Van Noy put his fingerprints all over a game, it was J.C. Jackson’s turn to take the spotlight. Jackson’s forced fumble early in the third quarter was a huge momentum shifter for the teams. After that play the Titans would drift away from their dominant ground game. It was a pure hustle play by Jackson and one that could not have been timelier.
  • Jackson added an interception later in the game on a goal line stand to effectively end any chance of a Titans comeback. The interception was Jackson’s 7th of the season and 24th of his career. For how impressive the career total is only four years into his career takes a historical perspective. Jackson is now tied with Richard Sherman and Kenny Easley for the third most interceptions through a player’s first four seasons. Jackson has five more games to add to that total. His 24 career picks is a team record through four seasons, beating Hall of Fame corners Mike Haynes (22) and Ty Law (18).
  • The Pats again got a hand in the hidden yardage department on JC Jackson’s goal line pick. Had the ball been incomplete, the Patriots would’ve taken over possession at their own two. In a game that the running game was struggling, the added 18 yards from the touchback on the interception was extremely understated.
  • The Patriots continued their blistering pace during this win streak winning by 23 points. Over the six-game win streak the Pats have outscored their opponents 211-63 with an average margin of victory of 25.2 points. They have allowed opponents 26 combined points over the last four games.
  • Matt Judon added another sack on Sunday bringing his season total to 11.5. The Patriots sacked Tannehill twice and hit him five times.
  • A big key to the winning streak has been the turnover battle. The Patriots have 17 takeaways, including four more Sunday against the Titans, over the last six games against only 4 turnovers. They won the turnover battle just once during their 2-4 start.

Offensive

  • Mac Jones threw for a career high 310 yards while adding 2 touchdowns and no turnovers. He continues to be accurate, completing 71.9% of his passes. One area that Jones can improve is his identification of second level threats. A week after struggling against blitzes from the defensive secondary against the Falcons, the Titans utilized similar concepts with success against the rookies. The Pats have faced eight or more defenders in the box on 46.7% of their runs.
  • Titans safety Kevin Byard had some words for Mac Jones leading up to Patriots vs Titans: “(Mac Jones) can dink and dunk it as much as he wants. If they don’t get in the red zone, we’ll be good. We’ll try to take away some of those options and some of those deep balls from him so he can keep checking down to running backs and stuff like that.” Jones responded on the field Sunday with completions of 41, 38, 22, 21, and 20 yards. He went right at Byard for the first touchdown of the game.
  • Kendrick Bourne had himself a game catching 5 passes for 61 yards and 2 touchdowns. When Bourne caught the ball on his 41-yard touchdown the play had a 0.3% of resulting in a touchdown according to Next Gen Stats. Bourne added 29 yards after the catch than expected.
  • Jonnu Smith enjoyed his best day as a Patriot totaling 58 yards on 4 touches. The Patriots’ attack is balanced and multifaceted before Smith gets involved. They could become a “pick your poison” offense to defend if Smith’s role continues to grow.
  • As for offensive efficiency on Sunday? 10 drives, 1 punt. While the bye is right around the corner, Jake Bailey has enjoyed a couple light weeks recently.
  • Mac Jones joins Russell Wilson as the only rookie QB’s to win three straight games by 20 or more points. Seems Mac finds new good company to keep every week.

Overall Notes

  • Incredibly the Patriots are 4-0 when the opponent rushes for more than 250 yards. The games are the Patriots 36-13 victory vs the Titans on Sunday (270), the 24-point comeback in 2013 against the Broncos [Pats won 34-31] (280), a 2011 41-23 beatdown of the Tebow-led Broncos (252), and a 2002 27-24 victory against Miami (256).
  • The Patriots came into the game having rushed for 120-yards in seven straight games and holding opponents to under 100 yards rushing in three straight and five of their last seven. Both streaks would come to an end against the Titans. The Patriots would rush for 105 yards while the Titans racked up 270.
  • Looking ahead at the Patriots remaining schedule: at BUF, at IND, vs. BUF, vs. JAX, at MIA. The next four weeks will settle much of the debate surrounding current AFC playoff seeding.
  • A note from the “Patriots always get advantages from the league office” department. The Patriots head into their bye after a Monday night game against the Bills, already cutting the usual 14-day bye to 13 days. The NFL then flexed the following game against the Colts to a Saturday night prime time affair, trimming the Patriots bye week to twelve days. The Patriots already had the latest bye possible and now are losing valuable rest days. For comparison’s sake, the Bills are getting a scheduled ten days off between their Thursday night game against the Saints and their Monday night showdown with the Patriots. This on top of their full 14-day bye week earlier in the season. Nothing to be done about it but just an astute observation.

Patriots vs Titans Preview

A pivotal AFC match-up that is now overshadowed by injuries presents a golden opportunity for the Patriots to move up the standings.

Patriots vs Titans
Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Patriots welcome the Titans to town to start a pivotal 5-week stretch. The Patriots are riding high on a five-game win streak, punctuated by a 25-0 shutout of the Atlanta Falcons last Thursday. The extra time comes at a great for the Pats, as they have yet to have their bye week this year.

The Patriots have been the hottest teams in football for the last month. They rank first on offense and defense in expected points added since week 7. While the rest of the NFL continues to be unpredictable with weekly upsets, the Pats have provided a steadying force.

The Titans enter this Week 12 matchup on a bit of a different note. The Titans were on a 6-game winning streak, beating the likes of Buffalo, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and the Los Angeles Rams. Bookending their win streak are unsightly losses to the New York Jets and Houston Texans.

Injuries have taken their toll on a talented Tennessee roster. Rushing champion Derrick Henry is on IR, the Titans are without top backup Jeremy McNichols and placed top receiving threat A.J. Brown on IR on Saturday. Once pegged as a marquee match-up, the Titans will enter the game severely hindered by injuries and facing a freshly rested Patriots team.

Let’s get to the breakdown of Patriots vs Titans.

Patriots Pass the Ball

The Pats have been a middle-of-the-pack passing attack. Mac Jones has been safe and smart with the ball for the most part. They continue on their schedule-based attack by playing smart and staying ahead of the chains. But this might be the week the Pats should open it up. The Titans have allowed the 9th most completions of 20 or more yards this season.

A similar game plan as what the Patriots instituted against the Browns may behoove the Patriots on Sunday. The Patriots threw early and often against the Browns, forcing them to play catchup in the second half. Against a beleaguered skill group in Tennessee, a similar game plan may allow the Pats to play aggressively early on offense and allow Tannehill to make mistakes down the stretch.

The Patriots have been extremely efficient in protecting Mac in recent weeks. This will need to continue to allow the rookie time to be smart with the ball and keep the offense efficient. The Titans feature a premier defensive tackle in Jeffery Simmons. Simmons has the ability to single-handedly wreck a game plan with interior penetration.

It will be an absolute dog fight up front between him, David Andrews, Ted Karras, and Shaq Mason. Who wins that match-up will dictate who wins the passing game here.

Advantage: Patriots

Patriots Run the Ball

The Titans ruled out talented linebacker Rashaan Evans on Saturday as well. His absence will be felt trying to slow down this Patriots rushing attack. During the 5-game win streak, the rushing attack has been the motor that has driven the Patriots’ offense.

The Titans have held their last six opponents to 84 yards rushing per game. They offer a stiff test for a Patriots team that is hoping to ride their talented running back duo into January. The return of Trent Brown has opened the right side of the running attack. Look for the Pats to continue to punish opponents behind the behemoth right tackle and road grader Shaq Mason.

As the weather turns colder, the violent running styles of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson are sure to start wearing defenses down. Look for the Pats to let the passing attack get them ahead early before salting this one away behind their backs.

Advantage: Patriots

Titans Pass the Ball

Remember last year when Patriots’ nation complained about the level of talent the receiving corps possessed? The group the Titans are going to dress on Sunday could make last year’s Patriots group look like Pro-Bowlers. Tannehill has been efficient in Tennessee when Henry has been healthy.

Without Henry, the Titans’ passing attack has also suffered. The Titians’ offense has gone from eighth in expected points added to 16th after just three games without Henry. Since Henry’s injury, Tannehill’s yards per attempt off play-action has fallen from 10.2 yards per attempt to 8.2. That’s bad news going against a Patriots defense that allows the second-fewest yards per attempt off play-action.

The loss of Henry is perhaps the most significant, but the Titans have also struggled with injuries along the offensive line and at wide receiver. That’s not a good combo going against a Patriots team that leads the league in interceptions and has been getting pressure at an unprecedented clip over the last five games.

Matt Judon should find plenty of success against David Quessenberry. Coupled with interior pressure from Christian Barmore and company, the Patriots’ pass defense should find plenty of success on all levels.

Advantage: Patriots

Titans Run the Ball

The Pats have a leg up in prep as the Titans’ offense is very similar to both the Browns’ and Falcons’. Falcons head coach Arthur Smith got his education under Mike Vrabel in Tennessee, serving as the Titans’ offensive coordinator before joining the Flacons. The Titans want to set up their offensive attack off the running game, build play-action off their running game, and only go obvious pass in obvious passing situations.

The problem is the Titans haven’t been as good running the ball without Henry. The Titans were surprisingly averaging negative expected points added per rushing play with Henry (-0.021) but have fallen even further without him (-0.122).

The Titans utilize a zone run-blocking scheme on 40% of their runs this season. The Patriots’ defense has improved dramatically over the course of the season in defending these plays. The Falcons had extremely limited success utilizing zone-blocking schemes against the Patriots last week, often running into a wall and losing yards.

The big boys upfront will need to continue to win their one-on-one matchups and gain early penetration. Winning upfront allows the Pats linebackers to play cleanly to the ball and make a play. Against a backup running back and a few backups on the offensive line, the Patriots should be able to force the Titans away from the ground.

Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams

The Patriots’ special teams’ units have found their form. They have been winning the field position battle and are always a likely candidate to make a game-changing play. Nick Folk has been as steady as they come while Jake Bailey is returning to All-Pro form.

If Folk has been consistent, then Titans’ kicker Randy Bullock has been right up there with him. Bullock is 18 of 20 on-field goal attempts this season. Brett Kern is back punting for Tennessee and has been solid as well. Both these teams feature well-coached units in the third phase and will be a sneaky fun story line for this one.

Advantage: Push

Coaching

The Patriots are hot as possible and taking shape as a Belichick-coached team. However, Mike Vrabel is one of very few coaches to be able to claim success against Belichick. Vrabel has a 2-0 record against the hoodie. The Titans will not play scared despite their injuries.

They will be ready to go after a disappointing loss and will be feisty early. The Patriots need to play smart and get a lead to force the Titans to play a game they don’t want to. I think Belichick and his crew get it done this time and get one in the win column against Vrabel and co.

Advantage: Patriots

Prediction

The Patriots will be approaching this game as another chance to legitimize their team this season. Multiple players have mentioned maintaining the 2-4 mindset despite their recent success. While the Titans may be limping into this one, the Patriots will not be taking them lightly.

With a win on Sunday against the Titans, the Patriots can realistically put the number 1 seed into play. This game will be chippy and close early before the Patriots pull away due to the lack of talent on the opposing sideline. Patriots win 31-17 amid a flurry of Tannehill turnovers.

Bonus coverage: after a game full of penalties the Pats get a ref crew that is a little less flag happy. Enjoy a relatively laundry-free Sunday!