Patriots Report Card: Secondary, Special Teams Thrive Vs. Titans

Perry's Report Card: Patriots DBs, special teams step up vs. Titans originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

If the AFC was a freeway, it would be covered in oil. Treacherous.

Some of its best teams -- sports cars with oversized spoilers and souped-up SUVs alike -- would be spinning out on a weekly basis, unwilling or unable to identify the problem and react accordingly. The Patriots, meanwhile, would be the sedan rolling along safely in the breakdown lane, avoiding trouble, getting to where they want to go.

Bill Belichick and his club completed another leg of their journey Sunday by leaving the Titans behind, 36-13. And they did it, in large part, by not slipping up. 

The Patriots did not turn it over. Tennessee turned it over four times. The Patriots made all of their kicks within 50 yards, eight of nine in all. The Titans missed a 44-yarder and an extra point, and four of their five penalties came in the kicking game.

Patriots vs. Titans takeaways: Turnovers propel Pats to AFC East lead

The Patriots bumped the Titans from the No. 1 seed in the conference, and got within a Ravens loss of claiming the top spot for themselves. It was far from perfect. But Belichick has said for years his team must first learn how not to lose games before it can win them. It did a fine job of not losing on Sunday.

Slow and steady.

"Proud of the way our guys stepped up," Belichick said. "We missed some opportunities in the game but again, we're going up against a good team. It's going to happen. But in the end we were able to not turn the ball over and take the ball away."

Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who spent eight years learning under Belichick as one of his best players in the early aughts, knew exactly what did his team in.

"We did some, obviously, things that are going to get you beat," he said. "That is somewhat frustrating. Can't go on the road, especially against a good team, and do those types of things and have penalties and start drives on the 10-yard line. Penalties on special teams, turnovers. So you don't have to look too hard on why we lost."


It was a three-point game at halftime, though. Despite being down three of their best players -- Derrick Henry, Julio Jones and A.J. Brown -- the Titans kept it close until the end of the third quarter.

The Patriots... (are) the sedan rolling along safely in the breakdown lane, avoiding trouble, getting to where they want to go.

Phil Perry

How? Let's get to the grades and sort out the details.

Quarterback: B-

The stat line would suggest this was one of Mac Jones' best games. He completed over 70 percent of his throws against a top-10 passing defense. He averaged 9.7 yards per attempt. He had a quarterback rating of 123.2.

But one of his best games? He just seemed to be lacking some sharpness.

He overthrew Hunter Henry twice -- one that deflected off Henry's hand and hung in the air waiting to be picked; another that sailed over Henry for a walk-in touchdown. He saw secondary blitzes on three occasions (similar pressures to the ones he saw against the Falcons in Week 11), and completed one of two attempts for three yards and a sack.

Highlights: How Mac Jones fared in Pats' win over Titans

To start the second half, he had one pass attempt slip out of his hands, then nearly threw a pick, then  scrambled and slid awkwardly to expose himself to a hard (legal) shot from Tennessee.

Jones' first touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne was a perfectly-placed floater to the back corner. His third-and-short dart over the middle to Henry early in the fourth quarter was on time and accurate. And he didn't turn it over. Hands on 10 and 2.

But with only four third-down conversions on 10 attempts, with only two touchdowns on five red-zone trips, Jones has had better days.

Running back: B

Patriots backs picked up 86 yards on 20 carries, and they added another 66 on five receptions. Their best plays early on -- two for Bolden and one for Harris -- came in the screen game. Forty-seven of Jones' passing yards came on screens, the most important of which was a third-and-10 conversion on New England's opening drive that resulted in a touchdown.

"I'd be curious to see – you know, there's some screen yardage in there," Vrabel said after the game. "They do a nice job with screens. That was something that we knew coming in."

The Patriots came into the game using screens at the ninth-highest rate in the NFL. It's been a staple of their offense for weeks now. And while the running game wasn't as productive as it had been in recent weeks -- the Patriots broke a streak of seven straight games with 120 yards rushing or more -- they ran seven times for 59 yards (8.4 per carry) in the fourth quarter when the Titans knew they'd be running to melt clock.

Rhamondre Stevenson ended up with the highlight run of the day, a 19-yard scamper when the seventh Titans tackler with a shot to end the play finally brought the rookie down. Harris' 14-yard run through contact for a score wasn't a bad way to finish the game for this group.

Wide receiver: A-

Where to start? Kendrick Bourne's toe-tapping touchdown in the back corner of the end zone was a thing of beauty. Later, Jakobi Meyers brought in what Jones called "one of the better catches I've seen." Meyers made a great adjustment on that one to reel in a 38-yard heave from Jones.

Then there was the 41-touchdown catch-and-run by Bourne, who used a well-timed stiff-arm and then some excellent body control to tight-rope-walk down the sideline and into the end zone. Meyers was involved on that play, too.

"I definitely thought I was going to get hit," Bourne said. "Shoutout to Jakobi with the great block. That was what made the whole play. He’s been doing that his whole career, blocking really well, and he caught a really good block right there."

Tight end: B

The Patriots were able to get Jonnu Smith going a bit in this one, including on one well-designed fake crack toss -- a go-to call for the Patriots rushing offense -- that allowed Smith to leak out for a 20-yard gain. He finished with 49 yards on three grabs.

Henry, meanwhile, had just two grabs for 16 yards on five targets. Those numbers would've seen a nice boost had Jones hit Henry down the field in the second quarter when Henry had nothing but green turf out in front of him.

Offensive line: B-

The Patriots averaged about two yards per carry through three quarters when handing off to their running backs. On eight first-half gives to running backs, the Patriots picked up just 14 yards. This group had no answer for what the Titans presented them in the running game early on.

On top of that, Trent Brown allowed Jones to get his arm hit on a third-down red-zone snap that forced a field goal. Isaiah Wynn also picked up his eighth penalty of the season (a hold) in the second quarter.

There were a few Tennessee blitzes that also threw a wrench into Patriots drives. That could have come down to how quickly they were identified and handled in real time by Jones. But center David Andrews made it clear they wanted to clean up how they handled those looks.

"It was a good blitz scheme, obviously," he said. "Lot of little moving parts. I think the one really unimpeded was [Kevin] Byard there coming from outside edge. Look at it tomorrow, really figure it out, correct it, see what we have to do better."

For Jeffery Simmons and Harold Landry to be kept off Jones all afternoon -- no quarterback hits or sacks between them -- was a feat in and of itself for this unit.

Special teams: A-

This unit has quietly been one of the best in football in 2021.

Coming into Week 12, the Patriots led the NFL in special teams expected points added per play. They also led the league in average starting field position. They continued to roll Sunday.

The Titans didn't start a single drive beyond their own 30-yard line. Eight of their 10 drives began at their own 25 or behind. The Patriots averaged 28.0 yards per kick return and 11.5 yards per punt return. They only punted once and pinned Tennessee at its own 11-yard line.

Pats enjoying a massive field goal edge in home games, stat shows

Nick Folk hit five field goals, including a 52-yarder that tied him for the franchise record for 50-plus yarders made in a season (five by Stephen Gostkowski in 2013). Folk made eight of his nine attempts on the day, missing only a 53-yarder late in the first half.

The word that comes to mind for Devin McCourty when thinking about how nice the Patriots have had it with Folk stepping in?

"Spoiled," McCourty said. "Nick lines up, we think he made it."

Defensive line: C-

The Patriots allowed a whopping 270 yards rushing on 39 carries Sunday, good enough for a 6.9 yards-per-carry average. On the 68-yard touchdown run allowed late in the second quarter, rookie defensive lineman Christian Barmore penetrated up the field -- on third down, the Patriots were thinking pass -- that allowed an initial rushing lane for Dontrell Hilliard.

Davon Godchaux had a quarterback hit and a forced fumble. Lawrence Guy had a tackle for a loss. Deatrich Wise batted down a pass and had a quarterback hit of his own.

Those plays, particularly Godchaux's strip, bump this grade up a bit. But they know they'll need to do more to defend opposing running games moving forward.

"I know I don’t want over 100 rushing yards (allowed)," he said, "but any time we can hold them to under 13 points and we can score 36 that is a good day to me."

Linebacker: C+

The rushing yardage allowed wasn't on the defensive line alone. Patriots linebackers had plenty to do with that total, too. On Hilliard's long touchdown, it was Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower -- two of the team's best players lately -- who couldn't squeeze off Hilliard's running lane.

Matthew Judon picked up a pair of penalties (though his roughing the passer flag looked like it was of the ticky-tack variety), and Van Noy had a neutral zone infraction.

That said, there was plenty of good from this group. Judon notched yet another sack on a three-man rush three plays into the game. Ja'Whaun Bentley had a strip sack that was recovered by Tennessee. Van Noy forced a fumble late, and he batted down three passes. Hightower got his hands on one for a batted pass of his own and a turnover on downs.

Secondary: A-

Devin McCourty called it a "gritty" win. You might not think of the secondary right away when you hear that particular word, but it was one of the primary reasons for Sunday's outcome.

McCourty's deflection on fourth down at the goal line was critical. J.C. Jackson turned it into a turnover -- and gave the Patriots 18 yards of field position -- for his second big play of the day.

His first? A forced fumble that came at the end of a 30-yard carry by D'Onta Foreman early in the third quarter when it looked like the Patriots were starting to get overwhelmed on the ground. Massive performance for the player who calls himself "Mr. INT" on Instagram.

Kyle Dugger recovered a fumble and Jalen Mills had a pair of breakups. Ryan Tannehill, with a depleted receiving corps, went 11-for-21 for just 93 yards (a 4.4 yards per attempt figure) and a 60.2 rating.

Other than this group not being able to get Hilliard down on the ground on his long touchdown run, it was a very clean day.

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