FOXBORO, Mass. — Football’s most basic skill will be the New England Patriots’ No. 1 defensive priority this Saturday night.
As they prepare to face a high-powered Tennessee Titans offense in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs, the Patriots have placed an emphasis on the essential art of tackling.
“I would say tackling is bigger than even (covering deep),” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said Wednesday. “Obviously, they’ve got a lot of guys that can beat you vertical, but if you watch them, it’s a quick slant or a slant post. (Wide receiver) A.J. Brown catches it, now he breaks a tackle and now you’re trying to catch a guy that you’re not going to catch. Or (6-foot-3, 247-pound running back) Derrick Henry gets in the open field. Or (receiver) Corey Davis makes a play.”
Titans tight end Jonnu Smith and Brown rank first and second in the NFL, respectively, in Pro Football Focus’s elusive rating this season, which measures the frequency with which a player forces missed tackles. Smith has forced 19 on 39 touches. Brown has forced 17 on 55 touches. They also rank 1-2 in yards after contact per attempt among players with at least 25 touches (21.0 and 17.3, respectively).
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been effective on deep balls this season, but many of Tennessee’s biggest plays have come on catch-and-runs. Just three of Tannehill’s 22 touchdown passes traveled more than 20 yards in the air, per PFF.
Brown, one of the league’s most impressive rookie wideouts, is averaging 8.9 yards after the catch per reception, second-best behind Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman among all players with at least 25 catches.
“They still have those vertical 9 routes,” McCourty said, mentioning one receiver Tajae Sharpe ran in Week 3 that went for 47 yards. “A.J. Brown ran one against Houston — 60-yarder. But a lot of the plays — even the reverse that (Brown) had against New Orleans — he breaks a tackle, now he’s gone. Jonnu Smith, a guy that people really don’t talk a lot about in that offense, he has a toss play for 60 yards. He has a quick slant for, like, another 50 yards.”
— NFL (@NFL) December 22, 2019
Big plays have powered a Titans offense that’s been one of the NFL’s most best since Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota behind center in late October. Tannehill, the league leader in passer rating and yards per attempt, has completed nine passes of 40-plus yards, with five of them going for touchdowns. Henry also has three 40-plus-yard carries, and Smith and Brown have one apiece.
The Patriots had the NFL’s third-highest tackling grade on PFF during the regular season but have experienced some lapses in that area in recent weeks. They’ve averaged 7.4 missed tackles per game over their last five contests compared to 5.1 per game over their first 11.
“Obviously, you can’t let the ball behind you, can’t let your guy run by you,” McCourty said. “But we’ve got to do a good job when they make catches of everyone getting to the ball and tackling, because they’ve got a lot of big, strong, fast guys on that team — a lot of guys that don’t really look like they fit in the position that they’re in.”