NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been known to heap praise on opponents during game week, and leading up to Sunday's contest against the Tennessee Titans, he did it again this week.
Belichick also sang the praises of the Nashville area, where he shares a home with his long-time girlfriend. Belichick was born in Nashville in 1952, when his father was an assistant coach at Vanderbilt. He once ran in the half-marathon in town, and is a frequent visitor during the offseason.
"I actually do get back there," Belichick said. "I get down to Tootsies. … It's a great town, a great atmosphere. Linda (Holliday) and I have a place in Franklin. She's from Brentwood, so we know the area pretty well. We're getting to know it even better. We just love the people and love the atmosphere down there. I've gone over to Puckett's, it's a great area. We love the people down there.
"I can't pull for them this week, but every other week I'm always – between Mike (Vrabel), Jon (Robinson), and Dean (Pees), and the people that are down there at the Titans – it's great ownership there between the front office and coaching. I have a lot of respect for that organization. Like I said, Vanderbilt is where my dad coached, Nashville where I was born, has a bit of – certainly a lot of good vibes and sentiments from Nashville and the Tennessee area."
Belichick made his comments during a conference call with Tennessee media this week.
On Sunday at Nissan Stadium, his Patriots will face a Titans team loaded with coaches, players and team officials he's worked with – or coached -- in the past, from Titans coach Mike Vrabel to defensive coordinator Dean Pees to general manager Jon Robinson. Vrabel played linebacker for the Patriots under Belichick, and Robinson worked in scouting in New England before working his way into the GM position with the Titans.
The Titans also have four former Patriots on their roster – running back Dion Lewis, guard Josh Kline, and cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler.
"Mike (Vrabel) was a tremendous player," Belichick said. "He had great work ethic, and very, very smart. He's like that as a coach on the field. He can handle a lot of responsibility. He is very instinctive of the game, it came easy to him. He's a really hard working – great condition, he can go all day. He took a lot of reps in practice and in the game. He never really needed to come out of the game or practice. He had great stamina.
"Mike (Vrabel) is very passionate for football. He has natural leadership. He was one of our captains here. He was one of the guys that you could count on and depend on, on and off the field, Sunday through Saturday, all week long. He was always ready to go. He always worked hard. He was always there to help the team, whether it be on offense, defense, or special teams. He was very versatile, and a very talented player that worked extremely hard and got the most out of his talent."
Belichick also praised Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, a player he's faced twice, including January's playoff game in New England.
"Well, (against the Cowboys) he had a great game. He ran for a touchdown and threw the ball well. He had a lot of big third-down conversions. He beat Dallas with his feet and with his arms," Belichick said of Mariota. "He always does a great job at the line of scrimmage, controlling the plays and options that he has on different plays – to keep the ball, or to run, or hand it off, or to throw it, things like that. He's very good and adept to those. He makes good decisions. They give him a lot of responsibility and he handles it well."
Belichick said he admires Pees, who served as defensive coordinator in New England from 2006-09 after coaching linebackers under Belichick. Pees is in his first season with the Titans, and his defense is No.1 in the NFL (points allowed).
"Dean is a great coach. He's had a great career. He's had success everywhere he's ever been," Belichick said. "He's a very good fundamental and technique coach. A lot of the fundamentals that they use are the ones that we believe in, and I know that Mike (Vrabel) uses – in Houston as well. I think there is a lot of carryover there.
"The scheme of the defense is probably the most similar to what we saw from Houston, but it's a little bit different. It's kind of Dean's version of it. The players that the Titans have, guys like (Jurrell) Casey, are just impossible to block. He's one of the best defensive tackles in the league. They have really good edge players. They're just solid on defense all the way through. They're hard to move the ball against, they're hard to run, hard to block them, and hard to throw it. They play a lot of tight coverage. They're good because they're fundamentally good. They run well, they tackle well, they're sound. They're very well-coached, Dean and Mike do a great job with that. It's going to be hard for us."
Belichick downplayed the crossover between the Titans and Patriots when asked how it makes the game unique.
"The team we're getting ready for is the Titans and what they do is what they do. There is no other team like them. Every team is unique. They all have different players," Belichick said. "Even if the plays are the same, the players doing them are different from team to team. Every team in the league runs cover-3, every team in the league runs cover-1, but they're not all the same. Each week is different because of the players that do it, and possibly the way the scheme and techniques are coached. We have to get ready for everybody. We know Kline, and Dion, and Malcolm, and Logan. They have a lot of guys on their defense besides them. They all know us, that's the way it is every week in this league.
"There are always players that we had or they had. It's the National Football League. We just have to a great job of preparing for the Titans players and the schemes that they run. They do a good job of keeping you off balance. They run the ball, the quarterback runs the ball. They have an excellent play-action game. They have a lot of mixed direction in their passing game. They can get the ball down the field. They do a great job with their screens. Defensively, they play zone, they play man, they play combination. They blitz. They have a variety of things that they do. They're good in the kicking game. So, it's a lot to prepare for. It's not just one guy to stop, or one type of play or defense to stop. You have to deal with everything. If you have trouble with it they'll just increase the dosage of it, and it just gets worse. You have to be able to handle all the bolts that they give you. Again, they're sound. They're well-coached. They make you earn it. We're going to have to go down there and play well in all three phases of the game for 60 minutes, or we're not going to do well. We know that. That's the way we have to prepare for."
Before the conference call was over, Belichick touched on Nashville – and the middle Tennessee area -- again.
The Patriots have plenty of Nashville-area connections themselves, including a pair of linebackers -- Columbia's Shaq Mason and Lewisburg's Dont'a Hightower -- and defensive lineman Adam Butler, who played at Vanderbilt.
"Shaq has done a great job for us. We have a handful of guys from Nashville – Hightower, Mason, and Adam Butler. We're proud of our Nashville connections, me included," Belichick said. "Shaq was a player in an offense that didn't throw the ball a lot, and we throw it a decent amount. He made that transition very quickly, he started it as a rookie. We were very fortunate and happy to be able to have him sign a contract that would keep him here, and extend his career here. He's a great teammate. He works hard. He's tough. He's very dependable. He's done a great job for us. Adam has come in here undrafted and earned a spot on the roster. Last year he came in and built on his rookie season, and has been a good contributor for us this year. He continues to improve and works really hard.
"I know when I met with (Vanderbilt) Coach (Derek) Mason down there last year, he said a lot of great things about Adam. We've seen all of those. He's been very impressive. Hightower is one of our best players. He gives us great leadership and has made a lot of big plays for us in the running game and in the passing game. He blocked a punt against the Bears. The guys from Nashville have done well for us here – we have quite a few of those guys. I know they're all looking forward to coming back and playing in Tennessee."
TitansOnline.com looks back at the all-time series against the New England Patriots. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)