Patriots

4 Titans players to watch in their Week 12 showdown against the Patriots

Kevin Byard is maybe one of the most underrated players in the game.

Mark Zaleski
Kevin Byard has five interceptions this season. Mark Zaleski/AP Photo


The Patriots are getting the Titans at the right time.

Tennessee, which leads the AFC with an 8-3 record, has some health issues heading into Sunday’s game against New England. The Titans are without all-world running back Derrick Henry (who was still second in the league in rushing despite the fact that he hasn’t played this month) because of a foot injury. In addition, wide receiver A.J. Brown (chest) didn’t practice Wednesday, and wouldn’t have practiced Thursday if Tennessee had a workout.

Simply put? With the Patriots on the horizon, the Titans have struggled the last two weeks, with an ugly loss last Sunday against the woeful Texans (22-13) and a narrow win over the Saints (23-21) and backup quarterback Trevor Siemian. There’s still time to get things straightened out between now and the playoffs, but right now, Tennessee doesn’t look nearly as formidable as it did when Henry and a fierce rushing attack were punishing opposing defenses to the tune of 100-plus yards per game.

Advertisement:

S Kevin Byard

Maybe one of the most underrated players in the game, the 28-year-old safety is a takeaway machine, with five interceptions this season, (third-best in the NFL), as well as a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Byard, who has also found the end zone twice this season, is a two-time All-Pro who is as good as any safety the Patriots will face this season.

“He’s very productive,” Bill Belichick said of the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month of October. “He’s got a good nose for the ball. He’s around the ball. He’s good on disguises, and he’s got good vision, good anticipation. He’s a really productive player.”

Advertisement:

OLB Harold Landry III

Heading into Thursday’s action, the former Boston College star is tied for fifth in the league with a career-high 10 sacks. (Tennessee has 27 sacks, ninth in the league) In his fourth season in the NFL, Landry is the sort of defender who has to be accounted for on every snap, and will certainly be a test for a New England offensive line that has occasionally had issues when it comes to pass protection.

The 6-foot-2, 252-pounder is not just a high-motor pass rusher; he also holds up well against the run. Earlier this month, he was one of three defenders (a group that included Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt) with double-digit sacks, tackles for loss, and quarterback hits. It’s important to note that he didn’t practice earlier this week because of a hamstring issue, so his availability for Sunday remains in doubt.

Advertisement:

But when healthy, he’s a dynamic element of Tennessee’s from seven.

“They don’t try to out-gadget you,” Bill Belichick said of Landry and the rest of the Tennessee defense. “They keep you honest with a little pressure here and there, mix in some blitz zones with their zones, but they’re really just a good, solid, sound, fundamental team. You’ve got to stop [Kevin] Byard. Landry is a dynamic player. [Jeffery] Simmons pushes the pocket in the middle, which really helps Landry on the edge, [Denico] Autry on the edge. They’re all hard to block. They do a good job.”

Advertisement:

QB Ryan Tannehill

Tannehill has ridden a bit of a roller coaster this year — he’s completed 67 percent of his pass attempts and thrown for 2,681 yards and 13 touchdowns while guiding the Titans to an AFC-best 8-3 start. But he’s also tossed a league-high 12 interceptions. (He threw four in last weekend’s ugly loss to the Texans.) And he’s been sacked 31 times, tied for the most in the league.

It’s fair to say that some of Tannehill’s struggles can be led to the fact that the Titans are missing Derrick Henry. But you toss in Tannehill’s inconsistencies, it’s no surprise the Tennessee offense has stalled the last two games.

Advertisement:

One stat worth keeping an eye on? Fifteen of his 31 sacks have come in Tennessee’s three losses. (Thanks in large part to the fact that the Patriots faced him frequently when he was with Miami, Tannehill’s 37 career sacks at the hands of the New England defense is the most of any opponent he’s faced in his career.) The Patriots’ defensive game plan always has some elements of pressure, but Tannehill’s history suggests New England will put an extra emphasis on getting to the quarterback this week.

WR A.J. Brown

With Henry out, the 6-foot-1, 226-pound Brown is the best and most consistent offensive performer on the roster. He’s Tennessee’s leading receiver with 46 catches on 78 targets for 615 yards and three touchdowns — almost twice as many catches as his nearest competition.

Advertisement:

He’s capable of connecting with Tannehill on the deep ball, but he can also catch-and-run with the best of them — he tied for the highest yards after catch per reception among wide receivers in the last decade as a rookie.

“He’s an outstanding player,” Belichick said of the Ole Miss product. “He’s really hard to tackle. Big guy. Huge target. Aggressively gets the ball. Good route runner. Vertical routes. Stuff over the middle. Catch-and-run plays. Hard to tackle. Strong kid. There’s a lot to like about him.”

At the same time, the receiver was banged up in the loss to the Texans. He didn’t practice throughout the early stages of the week, which means his availability for Sunday’s game is questionable at best. With no Henry, and a limited (or missing) Brown, that removes a sizable portion of the Titans’ offensive attack. But if Brown is good to go, expect him to be the focus of the New England defensive game plan.

Jump To Comments

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com