Patriots vs. Titans: 5 Keys to the Game for Tennessee
So let's be frank: No one is picking the Titans to win this game. The Patriots are coming off of an AFC Championship season and had two picks in the first round in the 2012 draft, while the Titans are bringing in a new quarterback who's had some issues with consistency.
That said, victory is far from impossible. The Titans had a 9-7 record last year, and the defense looks like it could be top 10 with a much improved pass rush and a deep group of defensive tackles.
However, the odds are clearly against the Titans at the moment. If they want to beat the Patriots on Sunday, here's what they're going to need to do.
1. Stop the Tight Ends
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This is one reason that Zach Brown has to start against the Patriots. Last season, the Titans got burned against teams with good tight ends. For perspective, Tennessee gave up the most fantasy points to tight ends last season.
Luckily, Tennessee has just acquired a new weakside linebacker with a ton of speed and already great pass coverage abilities in Zach Brown. If the Patriots run the two tight end offense like last season, Brown can at least help contain one of them.
The problem with the Patriots is, of course, that they have two very talented tight ends in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. However, if the Titans can find a solution for one of them, they'll severely limit the Patriots offense.
If they can't, then the Patriots offense will run over them.
2. Force the Deep Pass
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I don't know if anyone's noticed, but Tom Brady isn't as young as he used to be. In fact, he's just over a year younger than Peyton Manning, and only two years younger than Brett Favre was when he first started talking retirement.
I think that part of the reason that the Patriots moved to the two tight end offense was because Brady can't make deep passes like he used to. In fact, the deep pass seems to have gotten rarer and rarer in New England in the last couple of seasons.
So, if the Titans want to win, they need to force Brady to do just that. If they can stop the run, get to the quarterback, and limit the tight ends, then the Titans can force Brady to throw a lot more long passes than he's comfortable with to create incompletions and turnovers.
The Pats offense is intimidating, and if the Titans are going to outscore them, they need to slow them down however they can. Getting Brady out of his comfort zone is one way.
3. Get to the Quarterback
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Last season, the Titans pass rush was one of the league's worst. However, it's shown some promise in the preseason, and if Sen'Derrick Marks ends up playing, then the Titans will at least sport a dangerous interior pass rush.
With the Patriots' offensive line in transition, the Titans have an opportunity to really make things difficult for Tom Brady.
Of course, the real question is how much the Titans pass rush has improved. Kamerion Wimbley is now on the team, but he won't make the difference by himself. The Titans need Akeem Ayers and Derrick Morgan to step up and contribute as well for a decent edge rush.
But collapsing the pocket from the interior might actually be better. First of all, the Titans are much stronger on the interior line than outside. Jurrell Casey looks to be just as good as last year, if not better, and Sen'Derrick Marks has dramatically improved from last season.
Then there's always Karl Klug, who led the team in sacks last season, and Mike Martin, a third-round pick from Michigan. It's a very good group.
Second, Brady likes to step up into the pocket when he throws the ball. If the pocket collapses, then he can't do that, and getting Brady out of his comfort zone on throws is exactly what the Titans have to do if they want to win.
4. Control the Clock
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I've heard over and over that time of possession is one of the most overrated stats in professional football. I agree, but there are times when it's not as overrated as you may think.
When you control the clock, you keep your defense fresh and you keep the other team's offense off the field. This will be critical for Tennessee, and of course it means that they have to be able to run the ball effectively.
The Pats offense, as everyone knows, is one of the league's best. With Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez, they have a lot of ways they can score.
The Titans defense is going to have to go 100 percent at all times it's on the field. If the offense can stay on the field for a while and give the defense a chance to stay rested, they just might keep the Pats off the scoreboard for a little longer.
Most importantly of all, the offense needs to be able to stay on the field just in case they are preserving a narrow lead. You don't want to leave Tom Brady any more time than you absolutely have to.
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While I think the Titans defense is good enough to at least slow the Patriots down, I don't think any defense is good enough to shut them down. And no matter how well the defense plays, the Patriots are going to put up points.
In order to beat them, the Titans will have to be able to score a few touchdowns themselves. Just getting field goals won't get it done.
It'll be Locker's first game (that matters) as a starter, and it's a tough opponent, but at least Locker has had practice throwing against one McCourty. Maybe throwing against the other one won't be so difficult.
Chris Johnson will also have to step up. He's looked sluggish in the preseason, and he can't do that against Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, or he'll get stuffed. Running off the edges might be more effective anyway.
If Johnson has a big game and Locker doesn't fizzle, then the Titans could actually win this game, but they'll certainly be fighting an uphill battle.