FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — In its two matchups with New England under coach Mike Vrabel, Tennessee has turned the Patriot Way into the Titan Way.
The Patriots dominated the series for years, winning 10 of 12 before the Titans hired the former New England linebacker as their head coach in 2018. Implementing elements of the accountability culture he thrived in while playing under coach Bill Belichick, Vrabel quickly helped Tennessee change its fortunes.
Along with leading the Titans to back-to-back postseason appearances in 2019 and 2020, under Vrabel they’ve won their last two meetings with the Patriots — a regular season win in Tennessee during his first season, and a wild-card playoff victory at New England the following year that was Tom Brady’s last game in a Patriots uniform.
Vrabel will try to make it three in a row Sunday in a matchup of two of the AFC’s top teams. The Titans (8-3) have the best record in the conference. The Patriots (7-4) have won five straight.
Vrabel downplayed the chance to keep his streak alive against Belichick.
“Bill and I won’t be squaring off to determine this game,” Vrabel said. “This game will be won, like it always is, by the players.”
One of those players could be tight Jonnu Smith, who spent his first four seasons in the NFL with the Titans before departing for New England in free agency this past offseason. He recalled a coach and culture in Tennessee that’s eerily familiar.
“Great guy, great energy. A lot like this guy (Belichick). Not as far as personality-wise, but just coaching styles,” Smith said. “They demand a lot of their players and that’s what any great coach should do. They want them to be the best and demand that they’re the best every snap. You can’t ask for a better coach than that. He knows his stuff and he’s a great guy off the field.”
The Patriots come in allowing a league-low 16.1 points per game on defense. It's part of a pattern for a team that has finished in the top 10 in fewest points allowed in each of the last nine seasons.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower said progression to playing their best football at this time of the season has been the blueprint since he's been in New England.
“It’s something that we believe here,” he said. “It feels good knowing everyone is buying in and seeing the process work. The execution, the hard work — all that stuff. ... It's refilling the tank."
While the Patriots enter the game as healthy as they’ve been in weeks, the Titans are dealing with a bevy of issues.
Along with star running back Derrick Henry remaining sidelined following right foot surgery, Titans receiver A.J. Brown was among nine Titans who did not practice Wednesday on an injury report that featured 15 players for a team with 17 on injured reserve.
FINDING SOME RHYTHM
The Titans are showing signs of finding a new rhythm running the ball without Henry. They just had their most productive game without the back-to-back rushing champ, running for 103 yards with a committee approach. Tennessee waived 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson on Tuesday and signed Dontrell Hilliard, a four-year NFL veteran who went undrafted out of Tulane, to the roster off the practice squad in his place.
Hilliard, who has been with Cleveland and Houston, has played in 32 games before this season. Hillard just turned in his best game yet, rushing for 35 yards on seven carries with eight catches for 47 yards in last week’s loss to Houston.
D’Onta Foreman had 40 combined yards from scrimmage last week, and fullback Khari Blasingame has been activated to start practicing in a possible return from injured reserve.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said even without Henry the Titans' rushing attack (ranked fourth in NFL, averaging 129 yards per game) is dangerous.
“He’s a great player, but what they do, if we don’t come down and stop the run they’ll keep doing that,” McCourty said. “They’ll keep sticking to that run and then once you get aggressive the play-action will open up. You’ll have a tough day. … This team is resilient.”
SO MANY PLAYERS
The Titans have used a league-high 82 players this season, a mark likely to go up Sunday with veteran Buster Skrine in line to replace cornerback Chris Jackson, now on injured reserve. They also might need more help at wide receiver with Marcus Johnson just added to IR. The NFL record, first set by Miami in 2019 and matched by San Francisco in 2020, is 84 players.
Titans safety Kevin Byard says everybody has to be clued in ready to play with all the injuries they’ve had.
“When they bring guys in from other places or maybe from the street, those guys do a great job of coming in the building and understanding what the mentality is and how much we love football, how much we love to prepare and get ready for games, and they need to get up to speed really quick,” Byard said.
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.
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Kyle Hightower, The Associated Press