FOXBOROUGH — With a week between the end of the regular season and learning the identity of their first playoff opponent, the Patriots flipped the mirror on themselves for some self-scouting.
One thing they found the Titans are sure to key in on Sunday: The Patriots have struggled defending mobile quarterbacks.
The Patriots have faced Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson, Tyrod Taylor (twice), and Alex Smith, all of whom ranked in the top 10 this season in rushing yards per game by a quarterback. They lost two of those games — though Smith was too busy passing for nearly 400 yards in Week 1 to do much on the ground — and got all they could handle in a third, against Watson and the Texans.
“I think the main thing is, we know how teams are going to try to attack us,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said. “They’ll look at the success that other mobile quarterbacks might have had against us, so we’ll have to be ready to fix the mistakes that we might have had against those mobile quarterbacks. You know when you give up something on tape, teams are always going to try to test you there and see if you got the problem fixed.”
Newton, who was the most productive quarterback on the ground in 2017 with 47.1 rushing yards per game, ran for 44 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots in Week 4. Watson scrambled for 41 in Week 3. Taylor only played about two-thirds of the offensive snaps because of a knee injury in the Bills’ first meeting with the Patriots in Week 13, but he ran for 32 yards. The Patriots did hold him in check — 16 yards on three carries — in the second matchup in Week 16.
Marcus Mariota is the next task. The Titans quarterback averaged 20.8 rushing yards per game in 2017 and will be coming off a comeback win against the Chiefs last Saturday in which he ran for 46 yards and made critical plays with his legs. The Titans are huge underdogs, but there is a blueprint they can follow for beating the Patriots: extend some plays, work the underneath areas, and bleed the clock.
“The good thing is it’s not our first time during the whole season,” said Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe. “We saw Cam, Watson, Taylor twice, so I mean, it’s not our first time. But, I mean obviously, it just [stinks] because it’s another thing to add onto your plate. You can have great coverage, but now we’ve got to worry about him extending plays, especially on third down.”
In the third quarter against the Chiefs, when the Titans scored two touchdowns to begin their comeback, Tennessee possessed the ball for 11:46, mostly thanks to a 15-play drive during which Mariota scrambled for two first downs, one on third and 9. That the quarterback caught his own touchdown pass was lucky, but sometimes you have to be good to be lucky.
“That’s what killed them,” Rowe said.
Whether it’s a scramble or an extended play that allows receivers to get open, those big conversions that come after a defense thinks it’s done its job can be demoralizing. Gaps have to be filled, the edge has to be set, and tackling must be sound. The Patriots’ edge rushers and safeties don’t have to take over, but they’ll be punished for mistakes.
“It’s not like if he stays in the pocket he can’t make throws, but when he escapes outside the pocket and he has the ability to run and throw, you honestly really don’t have a shot to stop him, I think,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said.
Mariota’s scrambling opens up the middle of the field and makes him especially effective on play-action passes. Mariota’s quarterback rating on play-action was 122.8 during the regular season, ranking first among all quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. He was also tops with 11.2 yards per attempt on play-action passes, and threw 9 of 13 touchdown passes that way.
It’s not just a matter of containment. Coverage has to be solid right up to the whistle, because the combination of the Titans’ solid offensive line, run game, and Mariota’s athleticism helps extend plays.
“A lot of times it’s max protection when you’re doing play-action, so if it’s not [open at first] downfield he’s able to scramble a little bit and maybe get some guys open just while he’s scrambling, or run for the first down,” Harmon said.
McCourty gave the example of a throw Mariota completed to tight end Delanie Walker down the sideline against the Colts with four defenders in the area to illustrate that the 24-year-old quarterback can make big throws into tight windows.
“That was a tough throw, and that was in the pocket,” McCourty said. “But I think we’ll have a better chance that way than him being able to escape, throw it deep or run for 30 or 40 yards. So, it’s going to be all 11 guys kind of playing their job with trying to contain him.”