In a move surprising to no one, New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick made sure he and the media were on the same page during his weekly press conference Tuesday morning.
“Yeah, we’re on to Tennessee,” Belichick said when asked about ESPN’s Seth Wickersham’s hit piece on the inner workings of the Patriots. “We’ve dealt with some non-Tennessee subjects here over the last few days. At this point, I’m all in on Tennessee.”
With his sights set on the 10-7 Titans for the last few days, Belichick has had ample time to dissect his opponent.
The Titans are coming off a miraculous comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs last Saturday night, a game in which they were down 21-3 at halftime. Behind young quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Titans scored 19 unanswered points to advance to the next round.
Although it has been eight years since the Patriots have been upset in the Divisional Round, Belichick made it clear that he is not overlooking a hot Tennessee team this weekend.
“It’s an impressive football team, they do a lot of things well,” Belichick said. “They’re a very well-balanced team. They’re strong in all three phases of the game.”
Belichick was quick to gush over Tennessee’s special teams, namely punter Brett Kern, who he claimed is one of the best in the game. Belichick then listed off all the dangerous weapons he is preparing to tackle, from tight end Delanie Walker to linebacker Kevin Byard.
“They’re tough, they’re resilient,” Belichick said. “I have a lot of respect for their program, the way they play, the way they coach, the way they compete and [they’re] a tough, hard-nosed team.”
Following in the footsteps of his coach, quarterback Tom Brady similarly played up the quality of his upcoming opponent.
“I think there has been a lot of hype surrounding our team all season,” Brady said. “I think there is a reality of playing in these games — you need to go out and you need to earn it.”
LeBeau, a familiar foe
Hall of Fame linebacker and legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will be calling the shots from the Tennessee sideline Saturday night, a matchup Belichick is looking forward to.
“Coach LeBeau is as good as there is, as good a defensive coach as there is,” Belichick said. “He has an outstanding scheme, does a good job of in-game adjustments.”
LeBeau has been a constant nemesis of the Patriots, as he was the defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2004-2014. Despite the countless meetings between the two, Belichick played down his experience against LeBeau and credited the coordinator’s impressive adaptability.
“Like any good coach he modifies [his defense] based on his personnel and the team that he’s facing and the challenges that he’s got to meet,” Belichick said. “That’s what I would expect him to do. That’s what he’s done.”
When asked how strong of a relationship he had with the 80-year-old Hall of Famer, Belichick confirmed his respect for LeBeau but stated the two weren’t very close.
“Yeah, it’s just a couple of opportunistic meetings,” Belichick said. “Mutual friends, things like that.”
Before his stint in Pittsburgh, LeBeau was an assistant head coach for the Buffalo Bills. While he was only there for a year, LeBeau is credited for forcing Brady into the worst performance of his career. Brady threw four picks and had a career-worst 22.5 passer rating in a 31-0 loss to LeBeau’s Bills in 2003.
Since then, Brady has turned the tables on LeBeau, averaging 300 yards per game with a 23-3 TD-INT ratio and a 7-2 record against LeBeau-led defenses.
Titans cornerback Logan Ryan is set to make his return to Foxboro Saturday night, marking the first time Ryan will suit up against the Patriots since signing a deal with Tennessee last March.
“Logan’s a tough kid, a really competitive kid, a smart player, does a really good job with communication, adjustments,” Belichick said. “He’s played well for them. I have a lot of respect for Logan.”
Ryan showed no resentment towards the Patriots when asked about playing his former team last Saturday.
“They went their way, I went mine, and there is no bad blood there,” Ryan said. “I probably talk to Devin [McCourty] and Duron [Harmon] every day…when you sacrifice with those guys like we did, they’re your brothers for life.”
Ryan was listed on the Titans’ injury report Tuesday, as he missed practice with an ankle injury. The move was mainly precautionary, and Ryan is still expected to play, according to Jim Wyatt of Titans Online.
Mitchell’s status up in the air
A surprise standout in the 2016 season, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell has been sidelined by a lingering knee injury that has kept him off the field for the entire 2017 regular season.
Mitchell made his return to the practice field two weeks ago and has since appeared in five the team practices.
While he was removed from the injury report Tuesday morning, Mitchell missed practice yet again, leaving his status for Saturday’s game in question.
“We see him out there trying to get back into practice and do the things he’s asked to do,” Belichick said, pessimistically.
When a reporter suggested Mitchell still had a lot of ground to make up, Belichick agreed.
“Exactly. That’s the way I’d characterize it.”
Injury report shrinking
New England had only seven players on their injury report on Tuesday, which was down from the 12 who appeared on it leading up to the Week 17 matchup with the Jets.
Three of the team’s running backs – Mike Gillislee, James White, and Rex Burkhead – were all featured on the report. Only Gillislee missed practice, per Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe.
While Chris Hogan, Alan Branch, and Kyle Van Noy all made an appearance on the list, they have all been practicing for the past week and are expected to play Saturday.