FOXBORO, Mass. — There has been communication across enemy lines this week as the New England Patriots get set to take on the Tennessee Titans, and it has taken place in a forum familiar to most millennials with long-distance friendships: a group chat.
Patriots safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon will face off against cornerback Logan Ryan’s Titans this week, but the lines of dialogue have stayed open. They just aren’t talking about football anymore. Well, not NFL football, at least.
McCourty, Harmon, Ryan and Detroit Lions safety Tavon Wilson, another former Patriot, share a group chat. There’s no clever inside-joke nickname atop their iPhone screens (“no one’s creative enough yet”), but it’s used daily, just like with any group of close friends.
McCourty, Ryan and Harmon have known each other since 2009, when they all played at Rutgers together. The Patriots drafted McCourty in 2010, Wilson arrived in 2012, and Ryan and Harmon were part of the same fo 2013 draft class. The Titans signed Ryan away from the Patriots as a free agent this offseason while Harmon re-signed with New England. Wilson signed with the Lions as a free agent in 2016.
“We don’t talk about the game, though,” McCourty said Tuesday. “Like, last night, Tavon’s in there too, we were talking about the (college football) national championship game. That kind of stuff. We’ve talked all throughout the year, more about football and the teams. But this week it won’t be much about what’s going on in each building.”
That makes sense. Ryan doesn’t need any more intel on the Patriots. He was a staple in the Patriots’ secondary for four years, helping the Patriots make four AFC Championship Games and win two Super Bowls. Prior to last year’s Super Bowl win, wide receiver Julian Edelman compared Ryan, in practice, to a mouse who’s able to grab the peanut butter off a trap without getting caught (“I have no idea what that means,” wide receiver Danny Amendola quipped).
“We can?t give any signals because he knows all our signals,” Edelman said in February. “You can?t say anything because he knows all of what we say. When you go against Logan, you have to make up fake signals, so it?s a real true one-on-one.”
So, should the Patriots’ offense be concerned Saturday while facing off against one of the smarter players to patrol their defense in years? McCourty, one of Ryan’s best friends, isn’t too worried.
“That’s just Jules,” McCourty said laughing. “If Logan covered Jules good, he would say it was because Logan knew the route. That’s just Jules.
“I think Log’s a smart football player, so if he picks up on something — but it’s hard for me to sit here and say that Log knows. You know our offense. It’s hard. Me and Jules were talking about that last week. And he was like, ‘Log just cheated all the time.’ If you cover Jules, he’ll be like, ‘It was only because you knew my route.’ Him and Log used to go at it too.”
Harmon, who was teammates with Ryan for eight straight seasons and wanted to play with his friend forever, also didn’t seem to think the cornerback would be playing with cheat codes Saturday.
“We got Josh McDaniels, Tom Brady,” Harmon said. “I mean, they know. They played against Log for a long time. They know his familiarity with the offense. When you’ve got the best offensive coordinator and the best quarterback ever, you leave all your trust into them and we’re pretty sure they’ll take care of business.”
Titans coach Mike Mularkey joked the team “interrogated (Ryan) until he was ready to drop” Monday.
“We had a cup of coffee together,” Mularkey said. “I?ll say that.”
How much the Titans ultimately can learn could depend on how dedicated their coaching and scoutings staffs are, though. If they’re studying hard enough, there might not be much to glean.
“When we get guys here, and they come from other teams, like they tell our coaches something, and I feel like our coaches … already put stuff together,” McCourty said. “So even if you hear something, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I kind of already knew that. It helps me know that is what it is,’ but you already kind of know it. There’s so many hours put into watching film.”
Belichick always shrugs off the notion that a player taking on his former team can spill secrets.
“This is the National Football League,” Belichick scoffed. “Players change teams. So do coaches, so do front office people.”
Cornerback Eric Rowe had a different thought on how Ryan’s familiarity could help. Ryan practiced against Patriots receivers Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell every day in practice. So, he doesn’t necessarily need to watch their individual tendencies on tape.
“It’s not like a game-changing advantage,” Rowe said. “It’s like a little bit, if he remembers the releases of them. I don’t know if he would remember everyone’s release. It’s not like a game-changing advantage, but at least he’s familiar.”
As much as Belichick dismisses familiarity, the Patriots aren’t facing players like Ryan, who was in the system as a core player for years, every week. It’s not an unprecedented event, but it is infrequent.