Curran’s Hard Truths: Patriots defense has chance for stifling performance vs. Titans

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Since scoring 30 points combined against the Jaguars and Lions, the Patriots have scored 38, 38, 43, 38, 25 and 31. Even shaving off the 21 points they’ve scored on defense and special teams, that kind of 180 is eye-opening.

Myriad tweaks and personnel deployments led to it – from the running game-focus and emergence of Sony Michel to the return of Julian Edelman to the addition of Josh Gordon to the inability of defenses to focus on Rob Gronkowski to lights-out performances by the offensive line and James White.

We could go on, but you watch the games. You also know what the answer is from Tom Brady when he’s asked whether the offense is close to its potential.

“Certainly not,” he said Friday. “I think we need some more time together. We need to be kind of battle-tested in these games. We’ve had a long run of practices but, again, there’s been a lot of people that have been in and out. So when everyone’s together, it’s fun to kind of watch us go and watch us practice and see the different mismatches that we can get and different guys making plays. I think it’s really fun. I think great offensive football is about different guys making plays in the roles that they have.

“So you’ve got explosive plays in the run game that have really helped us out this year at different times with Sony [Michel], James [White] has made a couple. Different guys making explosive pass plays – Hoges [Chris Hogan], Gronk [Rob Gronkowski], Josh [Gordon], Phillip [Dorsett] – but the more of those that we have, the harder it is to defend.

“They can’t focus on any one person. If everyone’s making plays, they’ve got to play honest defense and if they do that, then we’ve got to take advantage of that. So that’s part of where we’re at, is just trying to build week-to-week on what we’re doing. Like I said, I don’t think we’re a finished product. We’ll still keep working at it and I think part of it is just going out every day and pedal to the metal and trying to do the best we can do.

On offense, the Patriots are always about matchups. They are as far from a “we do what we do” group as any team could possibly be. Find where the defense is light. Hit it.

That’s what they’ll be looking to do Sunday in Tennessee against a Titans defense that’s proven pretty capable.

“They’ve got a lot of hybrid guys, similar to last week in a way,” Brady said of the Titans. “They kind of countered us with some different matchups and this week, I’m sure it’ll be the same. I think there’s some things that we always go into the game that just are a little bit unpredictable and I think with Dean [Pees] and Mike [Vrabel], they’re going to be sure to have some different looks for us and we’ve got some different looks for them. That’s part of the chess match that goes into these games. It’s a good defense. Whatever we’ve got to do to move the ball down the field and score points, I’m cool with. Whether we bring everyone together, spread them out, we’ll just see how the game plays out.”

The Patriots’ first-half scoring this season shows how adept they’ve been at unearthing matchups in the week leading up to the game and then hitting them in their first few drives.

The second quarters have been particularly explosive as they’ve scored 82 second-quarter points in their past six games.

Sometimes, the matchup gets unearthed quickly. Last week, the Patriots went turbo up-tempo and peppered the ball to James White and the Packers were befuddled.

Doing that on the road against a defense coordinated by former Patriots coach Dean Pees – who will not stand for guys not getting lined up quickly – is going to be tougher.

Which is why the return of Sony Michel (who’s questionable, but made the trip to Nashville) would be a boon for the Patriots. Even though the Titans have become very hard to run on (just over 3 YPC over last four), being able to alternate tempo and personnel and having a bona-fide between-the-tackles threat like Michel means Tennessee will have to account for that.
  
With a not-so-potent offense, the defense Mike Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson built is very much in the mold of what the Patriots have sworn by.

Fundamentally sound. Strong tackling. Great situationally. Stopping points is more important than stopping yards and you don’t gamble if the odds aren’t in your favor.

“They’re good in the red area, they’re good on third down, they don’t give up big plays, they don’t give up points,” said Bill Belichick. “They’re very good fundamentally, as Mike [Vrabel] was as a player and Dean [Pees] I know is a strong fundamental coach. They have good run force, they have good tackling. Their corners tackle well. Malcolm [Butler], Logan [Ryan], [Adoree’] Jackson – those guys all tackle as good if not better than most corners in the league as a group. They limit the yards after catch. They’re just sound and disciplined and consistent.”

Brady and the Patriots won’t be looking at themselves when they line up Sunday. But they’ll be looking at a version of themselves. It may take a little while to make the mirror-image flinch, but it will happen.
 
The pick: Patriots 23, Titans 10

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