Mike Vrabel may not be an official member of the Bill Belichick coaching tree, but there is at least one clear overlap in the coaching methods of the two.
A calling card of Belichick teams is a slow start. It happened virtually every year with Tom Brady, and it happened this season with Mac Jones. Vrabel’s Titans likewise got off to a slow start -- at least defensively, and Vrabel’s recovery has been Belichick-esque.
Aside from a 25-16 win over the Colts in Week 3, Tennessee’s start to the season was rather forgettable, as they were blown out by the Cardinals and narrowly defeated the Seahawks despite giving up 30 points. This rough stretch was underscored by a particularly bad half of tape against the offensive powerhouse that Zach Wilson and the Jets put on the field in Week 4’s decisive win over an admittedly banged up Titans roster.
But since Week 4, and aside from letting up 31 to the Colts in Week 8, the Titans defense has been a top five unit in the league. And the competition card can’t be played here, as the offensive minds they’ve had success against include Sean McVay, Andy Reid, and Sean Payton.
Pressure was never necessarily the issue as Tennessee has cultivated quite the pass rushing group on defense, but their defensive backfield was handing out catches like they were going out of style at the beginning of the season.
Since Week 5, Kevin Byard has returned to his all-pro form. Cornerback Greg Mabin is fifth among all defensive backs in the NFL in yards per catch among those seeing at least 20% of their team’s defensive snaps. Mabin, combined with Jackrabbit Jenkins (the act formerly known as “Janoris”) and Elijah Molden may be the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL right now. Tennessee’s second-round pick in 2020, Kristian Fulton, hasn’t seen as many snaps as Jenkins, Mabin, and Molden, mostly due to a stint on injured reserve, but when he is on the field opposing quarterbacks don’t even try to throw his way -- Fulton is the sixth-least targeted cornerback in the NFL (not taking into account the weeks he was on injured reserve).
Vrabel has taken what was his defense’s weakness at the beginning of the season and coached it into a strength. Sound familiar?
Here are three more aspects of the Tennessee Titans to keep an eye on this Sunday…
Alas, poor Henry! I knew him…
For much of the season, the NFL’s rushing leaders were Derrick Henry in first and Derrick Henry after contact in second. Henry’s lead was so big that it took three weeks of Henry not stepping on the field for Jonathan Taylor to even surpass him as the league’s rushing leader.
So how have the Titans replaced this production?
How have they tried to replace Henry’s production, is the more appropriate question.
A combination of Adrian Peterson, Jeremy McNichols, D’Onta Foreman, and Dontrell Hilliard have handled the backfield duties for the Titans. The quadri have brought Henry’s 4.50 yards per attempt down to 3.50 as a unit, with the Foreman-McNichols-Peterson trio contributing a heavy 3.23 yards per attempt onto that total.
Hilliard, a former Cleveland Brown who saw success last season in limited snaps, only played during the Titans’ loss to the Texans but was particularly impressive in the passing game and contributed 35 yards in only seven carries on the ground. He could be the hot hand for the Patriots to look out for.
A.J & Julio Down By The Schoolyard
A.J. Brown, famously drafted AFTER N’Keal Harry, has had his fair share of injury troubles in his career and has already missed one game after not finishing another this season, and is banged up yet again.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport seems to think Brown will play against the Patriots, although nothing is confirmed as of this writing...
With Julio Jones on injured reserve and Derrick Henry out for the season, the Titans may not have much to throw at the Patriots offensively. The last time Jones and Brown both missed a game was the Titans’ Week 4 loss to the Jets
I mentioned that pressure wasn’t the issue for the Titans early in the season, and the pass rush numbers of Jeffrey Simmons, Denico Autry, and Harold Landry are indicative: they are fifth, sixth, and ninth in total pressures among all defensive linemen and edge rushers in the NFL. Simmons has played even better as of late, as he has the second-most pressures in the last month alone.
This unit is going to be a handful for the Patriots’ offensive line and Mac Jones to deal with, but given their success against similar Cleveland and Carolina units it shouldn’t come as a shock if the Patriots are able to move the ball successfully.