Mike Vrabel made it sound so simple.
“You’ve got to make Tom blink,” the Tennessee Titans head coach said on Sunday when asked about the key to neutralizing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, as he and his squad did in a 34-10 thumping of New England on Sunday.
“If you make him blink and go to a second read, you've got a chance,” Vrabel expanded. “If you let him rip it to the first guy he looks at, it's going to be a long day.”
Obviously, Vrabel knew what he was talking about. The Titans’ first-year head coach learned quite a bit about Brady during eight seasons (and three Super Bowl-winning campaigns) in New England from 2001-08.
Vrabel knows that making Brady blink is easier said than done. The quarterback has seen it all during a 19-season career chocked full of passing records and accolades. He has outsmarted some of the best defensive coaches and players of his era, and his coach Bill Belichick is a master of preparation. It’s a rare occasion that an opponent can consistently surprise the Patriots.
Vrabel and Co., however, found a way.
Working side-by-side with defensive coordinator Dean Pees (who held the same position in New England from 2006-09 after two seasons as Bill Belichick’s linebackers coach), Vrabel cooked up a recipe for success.
It included an array of exotic blitzes, delays, stunts and counters to catch Brady and his linemen off guard. And in the secondary, the Titans disguised their coverages and switched assignments at the last second to avoid tipping him off to their intentions.
The frequent shifts caused Brady to hold onto the ball a beat or two longer, and that enabled the pass rushers to harass the quarterback. The Titans sacked him three times and hit him another six times. Brady completed a season-low 51 percent of his passes while throwing for just 245 yards and no touchdowns with a 70.6 passer rating. The 10 points mustered by the Patriots tied a season low. And the Patriots’ three-for-20 showing on third downs fell well below their average success rate of 42.3 percent.
“We didn't do much of anything well today, so everything was a problem,” Belichick said at his postgame news conference. “They were better than we were in that area (third downs), along with a lot of other ones. … The Titans were clearly the better team and deserved to win. They did, soundly.”
It wasn’t entirely surprising to see the Patriots struggle early against the Titans. Tennessee does boast the top defense in the league, limiting opponents to just more than 17 points a game. But the extent of New England’s struggles did raise eyebrows. Typically, teams attack New England and make the Patriots wobble. But Belichick, Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels normally do such a good job of adjusting to what foes throw at them, that original game plans are rendered useless.
The Titans managed to remain a step ahead all game long, however.
On defense, Vrabel and Pees followed a similar blue print to success that former Patriots defensive coordinator-turned-Lions coach Matt Patricia utilized earlier this season while handing the Patriots their second loss of the season. Outside of the two Belichick disciples, only Jacksonville’s Doug Marone has managed to beat the Patriots this season. His defense also pressured Brady often.
But few offenses have used the amount of creativity as did Titans play-caller Matt LaFleur, who executed an offensive game plan that featured a variety of looks and wrinkles. Tennessee threw everything at the Patriots from jet sweeps to read-option plays and wild cat formations.
In Tennessee's diverse attack, outside of wide receiver Corey Davis and his seven catches for 125 yards and a touchdown, no Titans player put up gaudy numbers. Two backs rushed for just less than 60 yards apiece, and none of the other six pass catchers recorded more than 45 receiving yards.
Vrabel downplayed the significance of beating his former team. When asked about it, he said, “Look, I'm happy to get above .500. It's a good football team that we played today and we beat.” He said he had learned a lot during his time in New England, but that he feels honored and privileged to be a part of the Titans organization.
This game did indeed carry extra incentive for members of the Titans organization. Whether Vrabel, Pees and general manager Jon Robinson entered the game with a chip on their shoulders in facing their former team, several other former Patriots players who joined the Titans — cornerback Malcolm Butler, running back Dion Lewis, cornerback Logan Ryan and offensive guard Josh Kline — did.
Belichick was content to let those players depart via free agency rather than meet their contract demands. As is often the case, he opts for the more affordable route, believing that he and his coaches can promote and plug nearly any one into their systems without missing a beat.
Because of those decisions, Lewis told reporters he wanted to make sure he made his former employers pay.
“Hell yeah it’s personal,” he told reporters after the game. “That’s what happens when you go cheap. You get your (expletive) kicked.”
With the game nearly in hand, Vrabel and his coaches did have a little fun with the Patriots.
Looking for a spark in the fourth quarter, McDaniels called for a double-reverse wide receiver pass to Brady. The quarterback made the catch but stumbled and fell short of the first down. A short time later, when needing a first down of their own, the Titans called the same play. Quarterback Marcus Mariota caught Darius Jennings’ pass and picked up 21 yards.
Asked about the ultimate troll move, Vrabel managed to keep a straight face. He explained that every team has gadget plays in their back pocket. But then he added, “I wanted to see if it looked any better than theirs.”
As just like just about everything the Titans did compared to the Patriots, it certainly did.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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