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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Plenty of fight in Vrabel’s Titans

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Bill Belichick has experienced pretty much all the NFL world has to offer a coach in his four-plus decades on the sideline.

But Sunday afternoon in Nashville will mark a first for the future Hall of Famer as he and his Patriots (7-2) face a head coach who is one of his former players in the form of first-year Tennessee (4-4) boss Mike Vrabel.

Vrabel was a respected leader in the New England locker room and key playmaker on the field in Foxborough from 2001-2008, helping Belichick collect a trio of Lombardi Trophies.

Now, after stops at Ohio State and on Bill O’Brien’s staff with the Texans, Vrabel is running his own show for a Titans team that’s played tough, tight games through the first half of his first season. The former linebacker and touchdown-scoring tight end has Tennessee playing especially well on defense, where the Titans lead the NFL in points allowed and red zone defense.

Belichick has spoken about the idea that he was aware that Vrabel might end up a coach someday, and now gets to face off against his former All-Pro linebacker.

“I'm very fortunate to have had a great relationship with Mike through the years when he played and then when he stopped playing and went into coaching, starting at Ohio State and continued on to the Texans and now in Tennessee,” Belichick said this week. “Mike has a lot of great qualities as a person and that translates into being a good coach, but he works hard. He's physically very tough and has a great passion for the game. I think you saw that in his playing, saw it in his coaching and has a lot of experience. He's very astute and picks things up quickly. He works hard, but has a good aptitude for football. I think the game comes fairly easily to him in terms of understanding concepts and situations and things like that. He was a great player here, one that hopefully will be recognized into the Patriots Hall of Fame. I certainly think he deserves to be there. He's got a great coaching career. He's already established it but continues to build on it. Yeah, he's one of the best; the best we've ever had.”

Vrabel’s time in New England came to an end when he was traded to the Chiefs along with Matt Cassel after the 2008 season. Though that created a short-term divide in the relationship, the two reconnected relatively quickly.

“Bill was my coach; he traded me to Kansas City and we didn't talk for a couple of months, maybe a year," Vrabel said this week. "Then we became friends and I used him as a resource when I started my coaching career. I still talk to him a lot now. This week we're competitors. I guess it's unique from that standpoint."

In true Belichickian fashion, the coach put the end to too many questions about he and Vrabel this week and the storyline of him facing a former player as a head coach for the first time.

“It will be the Patriots against the Titans. That’s what it will be,” Belichick concluded.

As you get ready for this unique battle and the Patriots final game prior to the bye week, here are some keys to New England’s trip to Tennessee.

Finish drives – The Titans greatest team strength is the NFL’s No. 1 red zone defense that keys the league’s No. 1 unit in points allowed. Teams score points (field goal or touchdown) on a mere 72.7 percent of their trips inside the 20 against Tennessee. They get a touchdown just 31.8 percent of the time. To put that into perspective, all but six NFL teams allow 50 percent touchdowns or more on red zone trips and Tampa Bay has allowed 27 touchdowns on 30 opponents’ red zone trips. Tennessee’s mix of solid secondary play and a pass rush that’s relatively diverse and effective keep opponents from putting up seven points too often. The Patriots have found themselves in tight games by kicking too many field goals, most notably in Buffalo a couple weeks ago. The Titans play low-scoring, tight games in large part due to their red zone defense. Brady and Co. need to finish drives and not settle for field goals. Doing so would create a game the Titans offense just isn’t capable of keeping up with.

Focus on Dion – The Titans are limited offensively. Mariota (who missed some time to a nerve injury in his thrown arm/hand) has just five touchdown passes in eight games. The Titans are tied for 29th in points scored. Former Patriot Dion Lewis has taken over a key role in the offense, not surprisingly as both a runner and a receiver. Lewis leads the Titans with 339 rushing yards, though he’s averaging just 3.7 yards a carry. He’s also second on the team with 33 catches. New England – both players and coaches – are well aware of Lewis’ physical abilities and versatile skills. Dealing with him requires sound run fits, solid tackling and trying to make sure multiple guys are in on the tackle. Lewis is one of the few weapons Tennessee has to work with, so he’s likely a key focal point of the Patriots defensive game plan. Limiting Lewis’ action in the open field and run-after-catch will greatly limit the Titans offense.

Double up on Butler? – It’s no secret that former Patriots Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler has had a tough first season in Tennessee. Similar to some of the times he struggled while still in New England, Butler has been biting on the front end of too many double-moves. He’s always been competitive and aggressive, but right now that’s his downfall. It wouldn’t be surprising to see New England attack Butler with some double-moves, as the offense would do with any other player with a known weakness. Butler is going to get a lot of attention in this game against his former team thanks to the situation that unfolded with his strange benching on Super Bowl Sunday last February – more than will go to fellow former Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan. Butler will be trying to prove a point against his former team and boss. New England will look to target a perceived weakness. Stay tuned.

Mirror Mariota – New England’s controlled pass rush against athletic quarterbacks has had its ups and downs this season. It struggled against Mitchell Trubisky a couple weeks ago in Chicago but was a major strength last Sunday night against Aaron Rodgers. Belichick said that Mariota is faster than most of the athletic quarterbacks New England has faced. He averages 5.3 yards per attempt this season on 41 rushes and has a pair of touchdowns. At this point in his career the former No. 2 overall pick is more dangerous extending plays and running than he is passing from the pocket. So, Trey Flowers and the Patriots pass rush will look to keep Mariota hemmed in the pocket. His limited success passing and limited weapons make him far less dangerous when he’s not on the move.

Streak into the bye – Is this a trap game? Coming off a big Sunday night win over the Packers and heading into the bye week in a road tilt against a 4-4 squad could be the makings for some teams to let up just a bit. It’s up to Belichick and his veterans to make sure that doesn’t happen. The Titans want to play games that bog down. If that happens early it could make for a grind. Brady has made it clear that 7-2 after a 1-2 start is a nice place to be, but pushing the win streak to seven in a row would really be the best way to head into next week’s bye. No team is a trap-proof, something we’ve seen with Belichick teams falling to lesser opponents in the past. Still, a pre-bye stumble would be surprising.

Familiarity factor – Much has been made about Vrabel’s coaching and the former Patriots (Lewis, Ryan and Butler) that will be lining up on Sunday. But maybe the biggest factor in the familiarity is Tennessee defensive coordinator Dean Pees. The veteran coach was an assistant for Belichick, both with the linebackers and running the New England defense for a couple seasons. He also had success against the Patriots while leading the Ravens defense. Familiarity has been a factor in Patriots upset losses in the past. The combination of players and coaches in this battle is worth noting, at the very least. Tennessee may not be able to execute to get the win, but they have a lot of insider knowledge of what it might take to beat New England.

Prediction: The reports that Sony Michel could return to action in Tennessee are huge. So, too, would be a return for Rob Gronkowski, who continues to be listed as questionable due to back/ankle injuries that forced him to miss the Packers game. Regardless of the details, New England does appear to be slightly healthier heading to Nashville, which is good news. It also sounds like the Patriots will hear plenty of fans in Tennessee, as Patriot Nation is taking over the city this weekend in large numbers. All that’s nice, but the real reason to feel good heading into this game is that the Patriots are a much better team that’s capable of scoring points at a rate that Tennessee may not be able to keep up with. The Patriots have scored 27 or more points in six of nine games, a number the Titans topped for the first time in last Monday night’s win in Dallas. Even in that game, Tennessee was quite fortunate to overcome early turnovers against a struggling Cowboys squad. New England dispatched Tennessee 35-14 in the playoffs last January and this game has a similar feel. Sure the Titans have a solid defense and are stout in the red zone. But are they good enough to hold Brady and Co. in check? Doubtful. It may start slow. It may be a struggle early and even into the second half. But New England has shown the ability to diversify the offense and pull away in such games and will do so again for a 31-13 victory. Too much offense beats not enough offense, especially when the Patriots defense has played much better of late. New England heads into the bye with a seven-game winning streak.

What do you think of our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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