Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak discussed his team’s season-opener on Sunday vs. the Patriots in a conference call with reporters today. Here are excerpts from the interview, provided by the Patriots’s media relations department.
Can you start by giving us your initial impressions of the Patriots?
“I think you start with the fact that they were the best team in the AFC last year, which they’ve been for quite a few years now. They’re consistent year in and year out. To have them first on the schedule just made us realize how quickly we were going to have to focus—starting in the offseason—to get ready for this type of game that we’re expecting when you play the best team in the AFC. They’ve got a lot of great players, starting with the quarterback that makes them roll, defensively they play sound week in and week out and they are very consistent in what they do. They’re very confident in what they do, they take advantage of the other team making mistakes and they’re a team that you just can’t make mistakes [against] or you’re not going to win. It’s quite a challenge obviously for us to open the season with them.”
What have you seen from the Patriots defense thus far in the preseason?
“Just playing physical. They’ve got some young players and they remind us a little bit of our defense. They’ve got nice veteran leadership sprinkled in with a lot of young players. I know the draft pick looks good—Chandler Jones, rushing at the end. We liked him in the draft also. He’s got some great skills that you saw show up in the preseason. The linebackers are heavy and play downhill. They’ve got a lot of talent there with [Jerod] Mayo and [Brandon] Spikes and [Dont’a] Hightower now that he’s in there also. So they’re very talented, very physical and play hard. Upfront with the two defensive tackles, [Vince] Wilfork is still playing very well. Again, it’s hard to go by preseason, but I think you evaluate more of the young guys during preseason because the game plans are pretty basic and simple and teams don’t like to show a lot of things. But from what you can see, obviously they’re a group that plays well together and takes away what the offense is trying to do. They try to frustrate you.”
What makes Aaron Hernandez such a difficult guy to match up with?
“I think in general those guys do a great job of uncovering. Big guys, both of their tight ends have done a nice job of that. In the film, you watch the mismatching with the linebackers. They create problems to cover them and with [Tom] Brady’s ball being so accurate, even when you do cover them well they have great hands and they make plays and the next thing you know it’s second-and-two or first-and-ten. It’s frustrating because you think you’re doing all of the right things and they still make plays on you.”
Have you seen a different Chris Johnson this season as opposed to last?
“I think I’d say yes to that just because of having him here since April and being a part of the offseason and I think just being more confident in what he’s doing this time of year than he was last year. As far as being in shape, when you come in and you miss all of training camp that’s definitely a factor and it was last year early in the season for him. We think we have, he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s obviously very highly motivated to have a much better season this year and obviously it wasn’t all him, it was the supporting cast also, which needs to play better. We know for us to win games, especially a game like this, he has to be a big contributor to the offensive side of the ball.”
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Can you talk about your quarterback situation and how you went about deciding on Jake Locker?
“We drafted Jake last year and we drafted him thinking at the time that we didn’t have Matt Hasselbeck on the roster because of the situation with the lockout and free agency was kind of backwards—I guess more backwards than it normally is. We drafted him thinking that he could come in and play last year. We obviously had a big need last year after we really didn’t have a quarterback on the roster other than Rusty Smith, who’s our third. At the time we drafted a guy who we felt was a good leader who could come in and handle the pressure. Then after the lockout ended and we were able to go out and look for a veteran to help this team compete, we were able to get Hasselbeck. It made it easier for us. Matt was definitely what we needed last year, with me as a new head coach, with our team, with our staff and with the situation we were in where our players didn’t even know our coaching staff last training camp. They hadn’t had a chance to meet yet. So Matt came at a perfect time for us when we needed a leader, a guy that could take control, and that’s exactly what he did from day one. He was definitely the obvious choice for us last year to lead our team and start the season. I think what Jake did was then he just continued to get better. We were happy with where he was last year in training camp. He played well when he played last year; in about three or four games he entered in some tough situations and handled himself very well. He showed us that he got better during the season when usually guys don’t do that when they’re not playing at all. He did that which gave us a lot of confidence in him and he showed flashes of making a lot of plays and in a lot of ways he moved the team very well every time he got in the game. So when the season ended, we looked at it and said we had a good situation and we thought we had two quarterbacks we could win with, so we were going to let them compete this past offseason, which we did. I think Jake has just continued to get better [with] everything that we asked him to do during OTAs and through preseason. They both competed, Matt did a nice job too, but we just felt that it got to the point where Jake was ready to play and so we made the decision in the third preseason game to go with Jake.”
Two or three of the Patriots defensive players said that the thing that stuck out to them about Jake Locker is his athleticism. How much are you planning to move him around and use his athleticism?
“I don’t think I could tell you that [laughs]. That’s one thing that if he needs to use his legs he can, he runs very well, but he’s a quarterback to me that can also run. When you look at him he’s a pocket guy that can make plays with his arm [and] with his smarts for a young guy. I think he has great pocket presence and the game’s not too big for him. Being a young quarterback there’s no doubt that he’s going to see things week in and week out that he has not seen before. He could get fooled, just like all quarterbacks do, but probably more so with being a young quarterback. The advantage then is the fact that he can move around the pocket if he does miss something or if he does get confused. He has the ability to move around and make plays, extend plays and make plays. If he has to run then he will run. I think that just adds an element that at least if he does make some mistakes, he has a chance to make up for it with his ability to get out of the pocket—and that’s hard for a defense. You could play a perfect defense and a perfect coverage and a quarterback could maybe still make a play on you. So hopefully that will help overcome some of his struggles, if he struggles, as a younger player playing for the first time as far as a starter.”
When you see Jason and Devin McCourty on film, do you see the same player or are there definite distinctions between the way the two play in the secondary?
“I think there are a lot of similarities. Obviously Jason I’ve gotten to know very well. I think it’s exciting the fact that these guys get to play against each other. I know they talk quite a bit and obviously they’re very close. I think they’re very similar in a lot of ways. I’m assuming work ethic wise— [Jason’s] very professional here. I think it’s exciting for them. I think you see very similar play in how they’re doing and it’s easy for me to see that because I know how professional Jason is here and I’m sure it’s the same way there in New England. It’s exciting for them and I know it’s a big weekend for their family and it’s something that’s obviously very unique.”
Have you seen a difference in attitude and intensity this week leading into the opener?
“Oh definitely. I think the opening part of the season, especially when it’s at home, which obviously New England will have later, I think it’s kind of the ultimate to open and have a game at home, with the fan base excited about the season and everyone optimistic. It just builds. You always look forward to that first one. We’ve known since April who we’re playing and that adds obviously a big element to it when you’re playing the best team in the AFC. So I think there are a lot of things like that. Then you have to watch against just being too hyped up and going out too excited and not playing your best football. Last year we came out of the box and we didn’t play as well as we hoped in the opener last year when we traveled to Jacksonville. I think it adds a lot to it. I think you’ll definitely see it, as you do when the guys prepare because they’re getting into their normal routine that’s a lot different than training camp and preseason football and you have the rosters trimmed down. Everything is kind of gearing up towards the start of the season. I think it’s a great time of the year for the fans and for the players when you open the season because of the expectations for everybody. I think it does add that element and you hope that the crowd plays a big part in the game.”