Patriots’ Defense Facing Huge Challenge Vs. Ryan Tannehill-Led Titans


December 30, 2019

Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints.

Those are the only two teams averaging more points per game than the Titans since Ryan Tannehill took over as Tennessee’s starting quarterback.

Though it’s rarely mentioned among the NFL’s elite units, this Titans offense — led by the league’s most efficient quarterback, this year’s rushing champion and one of the most impressive rookie receivers — has the ability to cause real problems for a top-ranked New England Patriots defense that’s shown some cracks of late.

Here’s an introduction to Tennessee’s offensive Big Three ahead of Saturday’s wild-card round playoff matchup at Gillette Stadium:

Much-maligned during his six seasons as a Miami Dolphin, Tannehill has been a revelation since replacing Marcus Mariota as Tennessee?s starter in Week 7.

The 31-year-old guided the Titans to a 7-3 record over the final 11 weeks of the regular season, leading the NFL in both passer rating (117.5) and yards per attempt (9.6; no other QB averaged more than 8.6). He threw 22 touchdown passes with six interceptions, and his passer rating topped 90 in nine of his 10 starts.

Tannehill has been especially lethal over Tennessee?s last seven games. During that span, he:

— Threw 16 touchdown passes with just two picks.
— Posted a passer rating above 130 six times.
— Averaged more than 8 yards per attempt six times, more than 9 yards per attempt five times, more than 10 yards per attempt three times and more than 14 yards per attempt twice.
— Completed a 40-plus-yard pass in each game, including 40-, 41-, 51-, 65- and 91-yard touchdowns.
— Led an offense that averaged 33.4 points per game, second-most in the NFL behind Baltimore.

Henry was the NFL?s rushing leader during the regular season, tallying a league-best 1,540 rushing yards while also tying Aaron Jones for the league lead with 16 rushing touchdowns and ranking fifth in yards per carry (5.1).

During that same seven-game stretch, Henry:

— Racked up 896 rushing yards, just 16 fewer than Sony Michel recorded all season.
— Averaged 6.5 yards per carry.
— Surpassed 100 rushing yards five times and 145 yards four times.
— Scored 10 rushing touchdowns, including 53-, 68- and 74-yarders.
— Missed one game with an injury.

A devastating downhill runner at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Henry bulldozed through the Houston Texans’ defense in Week 17 to the tune of 211 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries (6.6 yards per). He’ll challenge a Patriots D that’s had some issues against top-flight running backs this season.

“He?s a very hard man to tackle, but he?s got excellent quickness, vision and speed for his size,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Henry. “So he?s not just a one-dimensional runner at all. He?s the best back we?ve seen this year. He?s having a great year, and he?s a tough player to handle.”

The additional attention teams pay to Henry has helped Tennessee’s play-action game become borderline unstoppable. Tannehill led the NFL in passer rating (143.3), yards per attempt (13.5) and completion percentage (76.7) off play-action during the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus.

“When you combine their running game with their passing game that looks like the running game, it?s obviously hard to defend,” Belichick said. “Basically every team that they?ve played has had trouble with that.”

Brown turned in a fantastic rookie season for Tennessee. No first-year player tallied more receiving yards or touchdowns than the Ole Miss product (1,051 and eight), and his 20.2 yards-per-catch average ranked second among all qualified pass-catchers behind Mike Williams of the Los Angeles Chargers (20.4).

Drafted 51st overall last spring — 19 picks after the Patriots selected N’Keal Harry — Brown has gone over 110 yards in four of his last six games, catching five touchdown passes during that span. He’s been on the receiving end of Tannehill’s three longest completions this season (60, 65 and 91 yards) and five of his six longest, and he’s the first rookie to catch four 50-plus-yard touchdown passes since Randy Moss in 1998.

Brown also averaged 8.9 yards after the catch per reception, per PFF. Among players with at least 25 receptions, only Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman compiled YAC at a higher clip.

Corey Davis, who did a number on Stephon Gilmore in the Titans’ 34-10 win over the Patriots last season, is Tennessee’s No. 2 receiver. He caught 43 passes for 601 yards and two scores in 15 games. Slot receiver Adam Humphries (37-374-2) has been sidelined since Week 13 with an ankle injury.

Thumbnail photo via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports Images
Patriots wide receiver N'Keal Harry
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