PATRIOTS // TITANS OVERVIEW
It’s scary that three of the top four teams in the league (Patriots, Chiefs, Rams) have not yet had their bye week, as this will give these teams an opportunity to rest up, regroup, and improve late in the season before the final push for the playoffs. After this game at the Titans, the 7-2 Patriots will go on bye before closing out the year with a home game against the Vikings, a road game at the Steelers, and four games against weak AFC East opponents. The 4-4 Titans, on the other hand, have a winnable schedule down the stretch (out-of-division games against the Jets, Giants, and Redskins, mixed in with four games against the Colts, Jags, and Texans) — and given their ability to “win ugly,” it won’t be all that surprising if they find a way to sneak to the top of the AFC South when it’s all said and done. Obviously, “sneaking to the top of the AFC South” does not put the Titans in the same class as the Patriots, and Tennessee already has losses this year against the Dolphins and the Bills. But they also have wins over the Jags and Eagles, and they lost to the Chargers by one point. The Titans rank 30th in yards per game on offense and 29th in points per game, but they have made up for this by quietly allowing the fewest points per game in the National Football League, on the strength of the eighth fewest yards allowed per game and the best red zone touchdown defense in the NFL.
While everything above is factual, it is also a fact that the Titans have not yet played an offense like the Patriots. Five of the eight teams the Titans have faced so far rank outside the top 20 in the NFL in points per game, with only the Ravens (16th), the Texans (14th), and the Chargers (11th) approaching the conversation of “above-average offenses” (and you could argue that at least the Ravens, and possibly even the Texans, do not belong in the same tier as any of the teams ranked above them). Tennessee has five games already against teams that rank bottom 10 in red zone touchdown rate.
Vegas had hedged a bit in this spot, installing the Patriots as 6.5 point favorites, at Vegas-implied totals of 26.5 to 20.0. The Pats have topped 26.5 points in five of their last six games. The Titans have held their opponent below 26.5 in seven straight, but they have topped 20 points themselves on only two occasions.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
As a pass defense unit, the Titans have been entirely non-threatening, allowing a league-average aDOT and a league-average catch rate — holding opponents to a low YAC per reception rate in order to remain middle-of-the-pack in yards allowed per pass attempt. But the bigger issue — from a box score standpoint — is that the Titans play back against the pass between the 20s, inviting teams to attack them on the ground. Halfway through the season, the Titans are facing the 10th lowest opponent pass play rate. The Titans also play at a slow pace on offense (31st) and run the ball as much as any team in football (31st in pass play rate), which effectively shortens the game and has led to Tennessee not only running the fifth fewest plays per game themselves, but also allowing the fifth fewest opponent plays per game. Add it all together, and the Dolphins are the only team in the league whose games are featuring fewer total plays.
This has led to only five teams facing fewer pass attempts per game, which is a concern for “upside” from a passing attack that relies on volume over explosiveness, with Tom Brady sitting on an average intended air yards of only 7.5, and with the Patriots ranking a middling 15th in pass plays of 20+ yards. (The Titans have allowed the eighth fewest pass plays of 20+ yards.)
With Rob Gronkowski dipping in and out of the lineup lately, target counts on the Patriots have looked like this:
Rob Gronkowski — 7 // 4 // DNP // 8 // DNP
Julian Edelman — 9 // 7 // 8 // 10 // 10
Josh Gordon — 4 // 9 // 7 // 6 // 10
Phillip Dorsett — 3 // 0 // 1 // 0 // 3
Chris Hogan — 4 // 4 // 7 // 2 // 1
James White — 14 // 7 // 10 // 13 // 7
No team in the NFL has allowed fewer yards to the tight end position than the Titans, but to put that in context: the Titans have faced the Dolphins, Texans, Jags, Bills, Chargers, and Cowboys — none of whom feature the tight end position. Zach Ertz pasted this team for a 10-112-0 line on 14 targets in Week 4, and Gronk should have no trouble in this spot if the targets are there. The targets, of course, will be a question mark — and given the routes Gronk runs, he’s also the easiest team for an opponent to “scheme out of the game” if the Titans choose to dedicate extra attention to one guy. Gronk has proven this year that his floor is lower than it was in the past, but the ceiling is still there in this spot.
Edelman pulls the toughest matchup against Logan Ryan in the slot — but after practicing against Ryan for years on the Patriots, Edelman and Brady should have an idea of how to beat him. Edelman should see at least seven or eight targets in this spot — with upside for a couple additional looks if Brady has to unleash a few more passes than expected.
Gordon will run most of his routes at Malcolm Butler, who has been an absolute bust for the Titans thus far, ranking 143rd in the NFL (out of 168 listed corners) in receptions allowed per coverage snap, while giving up a 72.2% completion rate with seven touchdowns allowed to only one interception. PFF has charted Butler as allowing a QB rating of 141.8. Gordon’s floor is insecure, but his upside is big in this spot.
The Pats’ passing attack wraps up with White, who has been an elite force this year, with recent reception counts of 8 // 10 // 5 // 8 // 10 // 6, and with 10 total touchdowns on the year. Sony Michel is expected to return this week, but White will retain a big role regardless. When these backs shared the field in Week 6 against the Chiefs, the Patriots chose to attack heavily on the ground, but White still saw six carries of his own (39 yards) and went 5-53-0 through the air. The week before against the Colts, White went 10-77-0 through the air with Michel taking on 18 carries. With White’s price rising, it would be preferable if Michel missed, but White will have a shot at posting a strong score even if Michel is on the field.
As for Michel himself: he has only four receptions all season, but his last three games yielded carry counts of 25 // 18 // 24, and he has seven carries inside the five-yard-line already (fifth in the NFL) in spite of having played only about four and a half games. Tennessee has allowed a middling 4.03 yards per carry to running backs, but the Bears are the only team in the NFL that has allowed fewer rushing touchdowns to enemy backs — a scary stat for a yardage-and-touchdown guy like Michel.
TITANS PASS OFFENSE
The starting point for the Titans’ passing attack is the same stat we used last week:
If we take away the outlier 300-yard passing game this Titans team had against the Eagles, Taywan Taylor has not topped 32 yards in a game, and Corey Davis has not topped 62 yards in a game. Tajae Sharpe went for 101 yards out of nowhere in the Titans’ Week 7 tilt, but he had previously not topped 33 yards in a game.
All of these stats remain in place, on a Titans team that has produced only one game all year north of 240 passing yards. Tennessee ranks 30th in passing yards per game and 30th in passing touchdowns. The Patriots have faced the second most pass attempts in the NFL, but they have allowed the third lowest catch rate in the league (behind only the Jags and Ravens), and they rank sixth in fewest yards allowed per pass attempt. As noted the last couple weeks: Stephon Gilmore should be viewed right now in the same class as Tre’Davious White, as White and Richard Sherman remain the only corners in the league with at least 100 coverage snaps who have allowed fewer receptions per coverage snap. Gilmore has been targeted 48 times and has allowed only 20 catches, with a QB rating allowed of 69.2 (better than Sherman, and just a couple ticks below White and Patrick Peterson). Gilmore should shadow Davis, which will leave Marcus Mariota throwing to poor route runner Taylor or non-explosive Sharpe. Tennessee relies heavily on two tight end sets and — as noted earlier — is one of the run-heaviest teams in football.
If you feel compelled to put your faith in Mariota in this spot, your best bet is likely the big-play upside of Taylor — though Taylor played only 18 snaps last week before injuring his foot in the third quarter, and is no guarantee for more than one or two targets. If Taylor fails to return to the field this week, Cameron Batson (30 snaps last week, three targets) will be a last-gasp option.
TITANS RUN OFFENSE
The best way for the Titans to move the ball this year has been with Dion Lewis, who has seemingly taken control of the Titans’ backfield at this point — playing 59 snaps in Week 9 to only 14 snaps for Derrick Henry, after playing 45 snaps (to 24 for Henry) in Week 7 before the Titans’ bye. Lewis has touch counts of 19 and 23 in his last two games, with 10 total catches across these contests. The Patriots are tied with the Vikings, Titans, and Eagles for second fewest rushing touchdowns allowed to running backs, but New England has allowed the fourth most receptions and the second most receiving yards to the position. When pricing came out before the Titans’ Week 9 game on Monday night, Lewis was already priced too low for his role in this offense (9.67% of the cap on FanDuel // 9.2% on DraftKings // 10.3% on FantasyDraft), but with his role atop this backfield further solidified after Monday Night Football, he really pops off the page. I have to imagine the masses will be on this play, but outside of the low touchdown ceiling on this offense as a whole, there is nothing to dislike about this play. The only reasonable way for Lewis to fail is for the Titans to jump out to a big lead — and even then, they will likely discover that it is better to run the ball with Lewis than with Henry. If game flow goes as expected (with the Patriots taking a lead), Lewis will be guaranteed plenty of time on the field, and he will have a solid role in the pass game.
Lewis pops off the page in this spot and will certainly vault to the top of my early-week list. That’s all I can see on the Titans, as the rest of this offense has been an absolute mess — and even with opponents constantly playing from behind against New England, they have been one of the tougher teams to pass on, on a per-play basis. The Titans’ passing attack has been unusable almost all season, and it’s tough to see that changing with their main weapon locked up in sticky coverage from an elite corner.
On the Patriots, there is a “many mouths and not a ton of volume” problem, but I see a solid floor for Edelman and a solid ceiling for Gordon. Neither guy jumps off the page, but each guy belongs in consideration — with Gordon in particular carrying enough upside to become a viable tourney piece. Gronk is obviously in play as well — and he may even become chalk this week on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, where his price has dropped all the way down to 11.2% and 10.6% of the salary cap, respectively. (Even on FanDuel, he’s only 11.5% — though it’s easier to get up to Kelce on there.) The matchup is not much of a concern if Gronk is healthy…but that will be the question. Even if he plays, it will be difficult to be certain he is truly healthy. If he were priced a bit higher, he would likely be an industry-wide fade (making him a “game theory tourney play” with a lower floor than we would love)…but with the price drop, everyone will have to at least consider him this week, and this could lead to him blooming into cash game chalk (with heavy tourney ownership) if he is indeed set to play. This will be a fascinating situation to watch this week, and it will be interesting throughout the rest of this week’s NFL Edge to see if there are any cheap tight ends who have a higher floor/ceiling at this impossibly thin position.
The Patriots’ side of the ball wraps up with the backfield, where Michel is a modest-floor, solid-ceiling play as a running back on a high-scoring offense who needs touchdowns in order to truly matter. I’ll hope to find a more multi-use back to roster on my Main Build(s), but Michel will at least gain an early-week place on my tourney list for his upside in this offense. White rounds out this backfield as a monster floor/ceiling play if Michel misses, and as a solid-floor, solid-ceiling play if Michel takes the field. If Michel does happen to miss, Cordarrelle Patterson will become a “yardage and touchdown” play as well — with only one catch the last two weeks, but with 21 carries. Unless he scores multiple touchdowns, however, his likeliest role on this slate will be to take away points from others, rather than to pile up big points himself.