Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his assistants have plenty of history with their Tennessee Titan counterparts. But, even after a thorough review of the Titans’ tendencies, the Patriots are expecting tactical surprises Sunday.
In Belichick’s first season as a Patriot assistant in 1996, he worked with Chris Palmer, now Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. Palmer’s game plans allow for improvisation and spontaneity by receivers and tight end Jared Cook.
“Chris has a real good grasp of the passing game, as well as overall, offensively,” Belichick said during a conference call Tuesday. “They definitely have elements of the four-wide receiver, run-and-shoot type of offense, in their system. With Cook, he’s really flexed out a lot, playing like a wide receiver, although they have versatility with him because he doesn’t have to be flexed out. He can be in the backfield protection or on the line in his normal tight end position.
“They have a good scheme, they definitely try to take advantage of where the defense is weak and they do that by trying to read the coverage pre-snap, but also having the receivers adjust their routes after the snap, based on what defense you’re in. They’re always attacking your weakness defensively, so that will be a big challenge for us to be able to make sure that whatever coverage we’re in, we know they’re going to the softer spots in the coverage.’’
The Titans’ unpredictability extends to the defense schemes, as well.
“I’ve had a chance to coach against Jerry Gray’s defenses before and he always does a great job of having his group prepared,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “I know he’s going to have them prepared and we also know that we’re going to see some different things on opening day that you couldn’t necessarily prepare for, as happens most years. It’s a great challenge for us and a tough place to play, and certainly a lot of excitement for opening day.”
The wildest of Titans’ wild cards has been running back Chris Johnson.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Belichick said of Johnson. “His production speaks for itself. He’s really an outstanding player with the ball in his hands — in the passing game, in the running game, inside runs, outside runs, draws, screens.
“Everybody is at the point of attack because he has the speed to start one way and go the other, to get back to the cutback, backside of the defense, or bounce out in either direction. Really, everybody is at the point of attack when he has the ball.
“He’s very dangerous. He’s had, like, four touchdowns over 75 yards, something like that. Whenever he gets the ball, anywhere on the field, he’s just one play away from the end zone.’’
Safety Nate Ebner has emerged as one of the Patriots’ better rookies.
“He’ll come in and work hard every day,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “So we’re definitely pleased with the effort and his ability to work hard. But he’s obviously got a long way to go, so he’ll just keep working at it. I think the whole point of all of it is that you don’t set your standards too high and you don’t set your standards too low. You just see how he progresses each day, and that’s really just what we grade it off of. Make sure he comes in every day and tries to improve from the previous day.’’
Better and better
McDaniels has been impressed with the work of quarterback Tom Brady.
“I think Tom has gotten better every year,” said McDaniels, who returned to the Patriots staff after coaching at Denver and St. Louis from 2009-11. “I wouldn’t say it’s dramatically different for Tom in terms of the way he prepares. He studies and prepares so well for each team and puts in so much hard work and does a great job of demonstrating how to get ready for each game.
“It’s a great example for our younger players to see how he goes about trying to prepare for this opening game. I see a guy that’s determined, that’s working extremely hard, that wants to play his best football and he’s trying to do everything that he can to make sure that happens this year.”
The Patriots signed running back Lex Hilliard and released former Boston College offensive lineman Matt Tennant. Hilliard, 28, is a veteran of three NFL seasons with the Dolphins . . . The Patriots worked out former Eagles quarterback Mike Kafka and tight end Kellen Winslow, according to NFL.com. Winslow was cut by the Seahawks. His contract is guaranteed if he is signed before the season.
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.