With a second-year quarterback making his first start and a missing top receiving target it might be easy to see only Chris Johnson when scouting the Titans offense. Especially after Bill Belichick lays the praise on him like he did today:
“His production speaks for itself. He’s really an outstanding player with the ball in his hands. In the passing game, in the running game, inside runs, outside runs, draws, screens. Everybody is at the point of attack because he has the speed to start one way and go the other, to get back to the cut back, backside of the defense or bounce out in either direction. Really everybody is at the point of the attack when he has the ball.
The Patriots might be tempted to write off the Titans aerial attack and focus on Johnson, but our research over at FootballOutsiders.com tells us they should be prepared to have the ball thrown on them early and often.
Over the past three seasons the Titans have gone from 27th (2009) to 6th (2011) in offensive formations featuring three-plus wide receivers. Even with Kenny Britt out for this weekend, it would be foolish to ignore this statistic, especially considering the amount of yardage the Patriots gave up through the air in 2011.
The first game of the season always presents a great deal of unknowns. Teams have shown little in the preseason of their actual schematic plans for the regular season. The Patriots defense showed a fairly straight-forward defense that featured more of a nickel front with two large space eaters inside at the tackle positions. That will change. Expect Vince Wilfork to align somewhere over the middle of the Titans offensive line, a spot where Tennessee struggled last year and re-built in the off-season by bringing in a still solid Steve Hutchinson.
Johnson will get plenty of touches, but expect the Titans to move him around as they really started to do in 2011 when they had him split out wide 41 times compared to just 3 times in 2010.
Jake Locker lacks experience, but there have been plenty of green quarterbacks who have moved the ball against New England in recent seasons. Look for the Titans to use a lot of three-receiver sets featuring Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Kendall Wright, and try to exploit the Pats traditional bend-don’t-break style with a lot of quick passes.
A big part of their game plan should be to get the ball to Chris Johnson in space rather than sending him up the middle into the teeth of the Pats defense where Wilfork and Brandon Spikes will be waiting. A huge key to the game will be the pass coverage on Johnson, most likely by Jerod Mayo, who now seems like the only linebacker on the Pats roster with the speed to have a chance covering backs.
The way to beat the Patriots has never been ground and pound (hello Jets?), and with a full off-season to prepare it’s doubtful that the Titans will suddenly return to their Jeff Fisher-esque ways of running the ball nearly 50% of the time. The trajectory for what the Munchak Titans want to do is clear, and the Pats pass rushers and secondary better be prepared.