Scouting The Titans: Why Rob Gronkowski Should Feast In Divisional Round

After upsetting the Kansas City Chiefs in a wild-card weekend thriller, the Tennessee Titans will invade Gillette Stadium this Saturday for a divisional-round date with the New England Patriots.

What can the Patriots expect from the Titans, whom they have not faced since 2015? Here’s a scouting report:

OFFENSE
— Third-year pro Marcus Mariota showed major signs of regression as a passer this season, throwing more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13) and ranking 27th in the NFL with a 79.3 passer rating, lower than the likes of Blake Bortles and Jacoby Brissett. He has yet to prove he can be a reliable pro quarterback.

Still, it was hard to watch the second half of the Chiefs game and not be impressed by the 24-year-old.

Facing an 18-point deficit on the road, Mariota guided the Titans into the end zone on each of their first three second-half drives. He threw one touchdown pass to himself and another to wide receiver Eric Decker, then delivered a key block on the Derrick Henry rush that put the game away. The kid is a gamer, that much is clear.

He’s also a talented runner, carrying the ball 18 times for 106 yards over the past two games — both de facto playoff games for Tennessee. The Patriots struggled earlier this season to contain Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson, so Mariota’s skill set could present some problems.

— Henry, who split carries with DeMarco Murray throughout the regular season, looked great against the Chiefs, rampaging for 156 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Few players possess the Heisman Trophy winner’s remarkable blend of size (6-foot-3, 247 pounds) and speed (4.54-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, faster than any Patriots back).

Kansas City is terrible against the run, though, and Henry managed just 51 yards on 28 carries the previous week, albeit against a much more formidable Jacksonville Jaguars defense.

It’s unclear at this point whether Murray, who has missed the past two games with a knee injury, will be healthy enough to play Saturday.

— Tight end Delanie Walker has been Mariota’s favorite target this season, leading the team in catches (74) and receiving yards (807). Rishard Matthews and Eric Decker, the former New York Jet, are Tennessee’s top wideouts. Top draft pick Corey Davis (fifth overall) hasn’t flashed much as a rookie, save for his six-catch, 91-yard showing in Week 16.

DEFENSE
— The Patriots know what they’re getting scheme-wise from Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, whom Patriots coach Bill Belichick praised at length during his weekly conference call. The 80-year-old LeBeau is a coaching legend, but he’s always been flummoxed by Tom Brady.

In eight career games against LeBeau’s Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers defenses, Brady has completed 68 percent of his passes, averaged 312 passing yards per game and thrown 19 touchdown passes with just three interceptions. New England’s record in those contests: 6-2, with an average of 32.8 points scored per game.

— Tennessee’s defense doesn’t rank particularly high in most basic statistics (17th in points allowed, 13th in total defense, 25th in passing defense), but it’s done an excellent job of limiting big plays this season. The Titans have allowed the fewest running plays of 20-plus yards (three) and the third-fewest passing plays of 20-plus (37).

The Titans did play a weak schedule full of relatively punchless offenses, but they faced a host of offensive stars, including Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette (twice) and Russell Wilson.

They also rank eighth in third-down defense, 10th in red-zone defense and tied for fifth in sacks. They’re a better group than their scoring average would indicate.

— That being said, this could be a huge game for Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots’ trio of pass-catching backs (Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White). Tennessee ranked 24th in DVOA against tight ends and dead last in DVOA against running backs during the regular season, meaning they had difficulty covering both positions in the passing game.

Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce had four catches on four targets for 66 yards before leaving last week’s game with a concussion, and Kansas City’s offense wasn’t the same without him. And as talented as Kelce is, Gronkowski is better.

Lewis, Burkhead and White all caught 30-plus passes this season, and it appears likely all three will be healthy for Saturday.

— Tennessee’s defensive standouts include Pro Bowl defensive end Jurrell Casey (six sacks) and All-Pro safety Kevin Byard (NFL-high eight interceptions). Linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who leads the team in tackles with 124 and tackles for loss with 10, is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career at age 31, fellow veteran ‘backers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan have combined for 14 1/2 sacks.

At cornerback, the Titans have one familiar face in ex-Patriot Logan Ryan and a new one in rookie Adoree’ Jackson, who also is Tennesee’s top return man.

ETC.
— The Titans are seeking their first AFC Championship Game appearance since the 2002 postseason. They’re winless in their last six games against the Patriots — including a loss in the 2003 divisional round and a 59-0 beatdown in 2009 — and haven’t won in Foxboro since 1993 when they still were known as the Houston Oilers.

Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images

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