The New England Patriots defense had arguably the best game of the year in Week Nine, limiting Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offense to just 17 points. After facing off against one of the better units in the league, New England has the benefit of facing the underwhelming Tennessee Titans offense. While their defense is one of the best in the league, their offense is anything but. Through eight games, Tennessee is averaging 16.8 points per game, fourth-worst in the league. While the overall offense is terrible, they do have a great weapon in former Patriot Dion Lewis.
Lewis has been the lone bright spot on an offense that has otherwise struggled to move the ball all season long. The first-year Titan leads Tennessee with 339 rushing yards and is second on the team with 259 receiving yards. The Titans offense normally struggles to move the ball, but they have found success with Dion Lewis. If the Patriots want to avoid the upset, they’ll need to make sure to stop Dion Lewis from taking over the game.
New England Patriots Defensive Gameplan: Stop Dion Lewis At All Costs
Lewis As A Runner
Entering the season, many analysts around the league believed Lewis would share the backfield with fellow running back Derrick Henry. While Henry does see action, Lewis is clearly the top option. Thus far on the season, Lewis has recorded double-digit carries in three of his last four games. It’s clear the Titans view him as the workhorse back, and the Patriots need to be ready for what Lewis can do.
When Lewis gets the ball, the Titans like to run him either directly behind the center or behind left tackle. On the season, 43 of Lewis’ 92 rushing attempts have gone in one of those two directions. While he averages a measly 2.5 yards per carry on runs up the middle, he has a more impressive 4.3 yards per carry on runs behind left tackle.
Fortunately for New England, the Patriots defense is best at defending these two types of run. Lawrence Guy’s emergence from serviceable rotational tackle to bonafide star has been one of the best developments for the Patriots defense. Per Pro Football Focus, Guy is the eighth-best interior defensive lineman in the league, and the tape backs that up. His presence alone makes it hard for any running back to pick up yardage on runs up the middle.
Even if the Titans decide to forfeit runs up the middle, they’re still not in good shape on runs behind left tackle. Trey Flowers, who is arguably the Patriots best defensive player, always lines up opposite left tackle. Flowers is so good at what he does that Pro Football Focus actually has him ranked as the best edge defender in football. While he may not be that good, the film shows he’s still one of the best edge defenders in football. Trying to run on him is a fool’s errand, and as long as he’s healthy, the Patriots should be favored in this matchup.
Lewis As A Receiver
The first that jumps off the page when looking at Dion Lewis is just how reliable he is. Lewis has seen 37 targets this season and managed to haul in 33, good for an 89.2% catch rate. This shouldn’t surprise Patriots fans, as Lewis finished his 2017 season with a 91.4% catch rate.
Looking deeper at the numbers, it’s easy to see why his catch rate is so high. Thus far in the season, Tennessee simply refuses to use Lewis downfield. Through eight games, all of his targets have been on passes within 15 yards to the line of scrimmage. He’s basically been taking in dumpoff passes from Marcus Mariota all season long and turning them into decent gains.
Despite not stretching the field, Lewis actually has a solid success rate in the passing game. According to SharpFootballStats.com, Lewis is successful on 51.7% of his receptions, while the league average sits at 51.0%. Considering he exclusively sees short passes, it’s pretty impressive that his success rate is as high as it is.
The Patriots typically employ their linebackers in some form of a zone coverage to limit those checkdown plays. However, Dion Lewis is way too good to be covered by a linebacker, especially when the Patriots don’t have a true sideline-to-sideline linebacker. Since the Titans don’t have a pass-catching tight end to worry about, New England could consider having Patrick Chung or Devin McCourty drop down to cover Lewis out of the backfield.
Last Word on Stopping Dion Lewis
Dion Lewis is the engine that makes the Tennessee Titans offense run. He’s the team leader in rushing yards and attempts and is second in receptions and receiving yards. If New England can take him out of the game, Tennessee will have no consistent way to move the football.
The Titans love to run Lewis directly up the middle and behind their left tackle. Fortunately for New England, that’s where their best run defenders play. While there are some weak spots along the Patriots defensive line, Lawrence Guy and Trey Flowers are both borderline elite players. Guy can eat up the middle, while Flowers beat just about any teams’ left tackle.
Stopping Lewis in the passing game will be a bit harder. While he won’t see any downfield shots, he’s still a dangerous weapon with the ball in his hands. The Patriots linebackers probably aren’t quick enough to stop a guy like Lewis in space. If the Patriots truly see Lewis as the best player on the Titans offense, they could have Patrick Chung or Devin McCourty spend the majority of their day on Lewis.
As it is, the Titans offense isn’t much to worry about. Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty should be able to lock down the Titans receivers, and Marcus Mariota hasn’t shown the ability to win with his fourth or fifth options. If the Patriots can shut down Lewis, New England should enter the bye week with an 8-2 record.
Embed from Getty Images