There are no two ways about it. James White is a running back that plays wide receiver. Cordarrelle Patterson is a wide receiver that plays running back now. Up is down, left is right, and the New England Patriots show no signs of slowing down on their way to another year of postseason relevance as they head into a week nine matchup with the Tennessee Titans.
Keeping Our Eyes on Cordarrelle Patterson and Josh Gordon
Titans Defensive Outlook
Believe it or not, the Titans have the best scoring defense in the NFL this season, allowing only 17.6 points per game. Since their week five loss to the Bills, the Titans have allowed an average of 18.3 points per game to the Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers and Dallas Cowboys. Those three offenses have been scoring 23.7, 27.5 and 19.3 points per game, respectively.
Fortunately, the scoring outlook is not terrible for the Patriots. In their last two games, the Titans refused to give up any scores on the ground but allowed a pair of receiving scores to both the Cowboys and the Chargers. They allowed a single receiving score to the Ravens in week six.
Dane Cruikshank was the only Titans defensive back to appear on the injury report to start the week. Cruikshank did not participate in Thursday’s practice, but his presence in this matchup will not be a game-changer one way or the other.
Bill Belichick has been characteristically quiet about facing Malcolm Butler, whom he benched in the Super Bowl LII loss in February for still unexplained reasons. Butler has allowed the most catches of any cornerback in the league according to a scouting service.
Question: Malcolm Butler has struggled, allowing a great volume of catches. One scouting service says most by a CB in the NFL.
Bill Belichick: “That means a lot to me.”
Q: Is he doing anything differently?
BB: “Look, they lead the league in defense. So that’s our challenge…”
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) November 7, 2018
The Patriots may look Butler’s way more than once over the course of Sunday’s game in attempts to avoid the other talented members of the Titans secondary, including former Patriot Logan Ryan, 2017 interceptions leader Kevin Byard, and the young Adoree’ Jackson, who has already pulled down two picks this season.
Cordarrelle, Cordarrelle, Cordarrelle
It may seem unjustified to cover Patterson in a wide receiver column since defenses will be covering him as a running back. But he is still listed as a wide receiver on the depth chart.
Patterson was the best pure rusher on the team last week with 55 yards on 11 attempts and a score. Moving forward, it wouldn’t be outlandish to expect Patterson to retain his role as the big back. At 6’2″ and 220 pounds, Patterson is the same height and only a little bit lighter than Jeremy Hill, who was intended to be the Patriots big back this season.
That being said, Patterson can still be expected to continue his trend of a single receiving target per game. He is too valuable of a playmaker to relegate solely to the backfield.
That juke though.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) August 17, 2018
Patterson is clearly a valuable asset in the running game with Sony Michel week-to-week with a knee injury.
But he is also in his third straight year of posting a catch percentage about 70 percent. As Patterson progresses as a running back, it would be disheartening to see his role as a receiver vanish completely.
Patterson was on the field for 16 offensive snaps against the Green Bay Packers, the most he had seen since week four. If his snap count begins to grow, he has the potential to provide the same versatility to this offense as James White, given his proven ability to catch the ball and make plays.
Keep an eye on Patterson’s snap count as the Patriots travel to Tennessee unless he becomes downgraded to out with the neck injury that kept him limited in practice on Thursday.
Gordon Is The Clear No. 1
I have voiced my hesitation about proclaiming Josh Gordon the leader of the Patriots receiving attack. But after his 130-yard game against the Packers, I take it all back. He still has some work to do work to do in terms of catching the football — his catch rate was 55.5 percent in week nine — but his work after the catch is nothing short of magical.
The NFL’s NextGen Stats calculate the expected yards after the catch per reception for qualified players and compare it to their actual yards after the catch per reception. Gordon is solidly in the top 15 in the league among qualified receivers for yards after the catch per reception. But when comparing his expected YAC/R to his actual YAC/R, Gordon jumps into the top five as one of the best after-the-catch receivers in the NFL.
Gordon and Julian Edelman are going to continue dueling for the most targets, but whoever wins on any given week will be determined by game situation and not by a particular lack of talent by either of these receivers.
The Crown Jules
The Titans are allowing a 60 percent completion rate on third-down passes. Edelman has been the team’s most reliable receiver on third down, catching six of his eleven third-down targets. James White, who has been the Patriots best all-around weapon on offense this season, is the team’s actual most reliable option on third down. At this point in the season, Edelman and White are playing essentially the same role, with White edging out the slot receiver in terms of performance and volume.
As with many of the teams the Patriots have played recently, Tennessee is in the bottom half of the league at defending against passes of 15 yards or less, according to Football Outsiders. Expect Josh McDaniels to continue exploiting this weakness with Edelman this week, as Tennessee has a third-worst DVOA against short passes to the left side of the field.
The Titans are better than average at taking away the middle of the field from opposing passers, which is fine because Tom Brady has dropped below the league average when passing over the middle. According to NFL NextGen Stats, Brady has been at his best this season when passing to the left side, between 10 and 20 yards out.
Remember the high/low crossing routes that Edelman executed to perfection in 2016? I’m willing to bet McDaniels sure does.
Hogan the Hero?
The last time that Chris Hogan played the Titans in the regular season, he was moderately successful. He caught three of three for 52 yards and a score and even completed a four-yard pass for the Buffalo Bills.
His track record against the Titans with the Patriots is a little less successful. In the playoffs last year, Hogan went one for four, but that lone reception was for a score.
During interviews this week, Hogan expressed a need for more focus when executing in the red zone.
Without Edelman on the field in 2017, Hogan was targeted 12 times in the red zone, and he produced four scores and a single non-touchdown first down. This season, Hogan has been targeted only twice in the red zone. The first step to fixing your own problems is acknowledging them, right? If Hogan understands that the offense needs better focus in the red zone, then he, as part of that offense, must in some way be acknowledging that he has to be better about doing his part when the Patriots are in scoring position.
Edelman was listed on the injury report as limited in practice with an ankle injury. A slowdown for Edelman in the red zone should afford more opportunities for Hogan. Expect Hogan to see an uptick in red zone looks this week.
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