Titans' Mike Vrabel faces teacher-turned-competitor in playoff debut

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Titans' Mike Vrabel faces teacher-turned-competitor in playoff debut

Post by admin » Thu Jan 02, 2020 8:58 am

The jubilation over leading the Tennessee Titans to a playoff bid was short-lived for coach Mike Vrabel. Having spent most of his playing career with the New England Patriots, Vrabel is more than a little familiar with his team's next opponent.

"You're basically walking into a viper's den," Vrabel said.

The Patriots' home, Gillette Stadium, has hosted eight playoff games in the past five years. The Patriots came out on top in all of them, going on to win three Super Bowls over that span. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have 18 years of playoff experience between the two of them.

By contrast, Vrabel (as coach) and quarterback Ryan Tannehill will make their postseason debuts on Saturday night. To put things in perspective, Tannehill, now 31, was 13 years old when Brady made his playoff debut in 2001.

Saturday's playoff matchup (8:15 p.m. ET, CBS) has a teacher vs. student vibe when it comes to the coaches. It will be the first postseason coaching matchup in which one head coach played for the other since 1985 (Patriots' Raymond Berry vs. Miami's Don Shula).

Vrabel's versatility, technically sound approach and physicality epitomized the "Patriot Way" during his eight seasons as a linebacker in New England. Belichick's fondness for Vrabel shows in his praise for his player-turned-coach.

"I have a ton of respect for Mike as a person, as a coach," Belichick said. "He's been a friend for a long time. He was a really smart player, a very fundamental player, so I'm sure that you can see those strengths in the way he coaches his team.

"Mike has a lot of great qualities as a person, and that translates into being a good coach. He's very astute and picks things up quickly. I think the game comes fairly easily to him in terms of understanding concepts and situations and things like that. I think you saw that in his playing. He was a great player here, one that hopefully will be recognized into the Patriots Hall of Fame."

Their relationship hasn't always been rosy. Hard feelings emerged after the Patriots dealt Vrabel and quarterback Matt Cassel to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2009 draft (No. 34 overall).

They didn't talk for months after the deal, according to Vrabel.

Once Vrabel's playing days were over, Belichick became a valuable resource when Vrabel had questions about coaching and what to look for when he first got started.

"Spending time there, there are some similarities that I believe in, and you grow up as a player believing in," Vrabel said. "We have different personalities. I respect his friendship and his guidance and leadership when I played there. Now we're competitors, and we have to do everything we can to beat the Patriots."

This isn't the first time that Vrabel has faced his former team. The Titans beat New England 34-10 in Week 10 last season before the Patriots went on to capture another Lombardi Trophy. During training camp, Brady jokingly gave Vrabel a trophy with the 34-10 score on it when the two teams came together for joint practices in Tennessee.

The joint sessions were a way for Vrabel's Titans to gauge where they were before the season.

"We learned a lot," Vrabel said. "Some of the personnel, a lot of it’s the same. What you saw in those practices was a lot of base schemes in all three phases, trying to improve technique and fundamentals. Some of those same plays have carried through most of the year. Some of them may show up on Saturday night, but there’ll be a lot of new things and a lot of new players on both teams."

Both teams have used their share of gadget plays this season. Vrabel knows the Titans need to keep their guard up.

"If [Julian] Edelman throws it, or [James] White throws it, those are things that we’re always going to have to be conscious of," Vrabel said. "That they have gadgets that they carry every week -- everybody does, whether you have the opportunity or not -- we’ll always have to be alert for everything that could happen in every situation."

Vrabel is no stranger to trick plays himself. Two Titans offensive linemen have caught passes for touchdowns this season. Tennessee also has attempted a few fake punts. Perhaps those plays spur from Vrabel's days as a touchdown-catching linebacker.

He caught 10 touchdowns as a Patriot, two of which came in Super Bowls. Vrabel is grateful for the pleasant memories and lessons learned in New England, but those feelings will be put aside this weekend.

"I haven't had a paycheck with a Patriots logo on it since 2008," Vrabel said. "It's no different than going and coaching against them [when Vrabel was defensive coordinator] with the Texans or coaching against them last year. I’m not going to be out there trying to pass-rush Tom. This isn’t about my career, my eight years in New England.

"This is about the Titans and our preparation to go up there. It's about being focused on the Patriots and how I get this football team prepared to go on the road. We're going to have to go on the road in a tough environment. They are no strangers to winning playoff football games at home. They’ve got the No. 1 defense, they’ve got the best coach, they’ve got the best quarterback, so it’s quite a challenge."

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