FOXBORO, Mass. — During his Tuesday morning news conference, Bill Belichick fielded a question about the Tennessee Titans’ offensive scheme. Is it similar, the reporter asked, to any offense the New England Patriots have faced this season?
“Well, we practiced against them for a week,” Belichick replied. “I don?t know how you?d get a better look at it than that.”
The Patriots and Titans shared a practice field in August, holding two joint sessions ahead of their preseason matchup at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. Those practices focused on internal competition and self-improvement, not scheming and game-planning, but they offered New England’s players a rare in-person look at the team they’ll be facing Saturday night in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.
Belichick said reviewing film from those hot, sweaty, highly competitive days at the Titans’ training facility would be part of his team’s preparation this week.
“We?ll look at them,” the Patriots coach said. “But there?s a lot of water under the bridge since then, so I think a lot of things are more relevant as we look at the more recent games and the season that?s gone on. But, yeah, there?s certainly some — those are worth looking at. Those are the matchups, so it?ll be a part of it.”
The Patriots have experience with this type of scenario. In 2017, they practiced with the Jacksonville Jaguars during the preseason, then squared off against them in the AFC Championship Game a few months later.
Most players who spoke to the media this week agreed that, while far from the only source of relevant scouting info, the joint practices offered a helpful preview of what they can expect Saturday at Gillette Stadium.
“You can draw a little bit from it,” running back James White said. “Obviously, they could do things differently than when we practiced against them and whatnot and the preseason game. You can take the way that they were coached for the practices, how physical they were, the energy that they play with, and you can look at the 1-on-1s that we had, all that good stuff from the team drills. But you?ve got to study the game film, as well.”
Added running back Rex Burkhead: “You have familiarity, I guess. At the same time, neither team wants to really show all their guns out there. So you have that experience, you have going against them, but at the same time, that was a while ago. Both teams have made adjustments and improvements throughout the season. We’ll look back at it, but we’ll look at all the other games, as well.”
New England also faced Tennessee during the 2018 regular season — a 34-10 road loss — though that Titans team was missing a few of this current squad’s key contributors, most notably quarterback Ryan Tannehill and rookie receiver A.J. Brown. The Patriots know Tannehill well from his time with the Miami Dolphins and had a chance to practice against both him and Brown this past August.
“I think you know some of their personnel,” safety Devin McCourty said. “Like, we?re not going to be surprised when A.J. Brown comes out there and he?s running, or Corey Davis or (Kalif) Raymond when he?s out there. We saw him in camp how quick and fast he is. I think that stuff always helps. … Watching them on film is one thing, but then you see them in person. We?ve kind of got that when we went against them in the joint practices and saw some of those guys running and what they?re able to do. … When you go against someone, you remember those players and what they do well.”
Stephon Gilmore, who struggled in last season’s loss to Tennessee, concurred.
“You can (take lessons from the joint practices),” the star cornerback said. “Obviously, they know us; we know them. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be whoever can perform on Saturday and get the job done.”
The Patriots haven’t changed much defensively since the preseason, but their offense looks significantly different from the one it trotted out near the tail end of training camp. Wide receivers Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett and N’Keal Harry and tight end Matt LaCosse all missed one or both of the Titans practices, and wideout Mohamed Sanu didn’t join the team until midseason.
Tom Brady’s receivers in those practices: Jakobi Meyers, Braxton Berrios, Gunner Olszewski, Damoun Patterson and Dontrelle Inman.
“Both teams have evolved a lot, and again, we weren?t really scheming against each other,” Belichick said. “We were just doing what we do to try to improve our basic fundamentals and techniques. That?s what that was for, and I feel like we accomplished that. (But) you can?t help but see what they?re doing on the other side of the ball. That?s what you?re practicing against.”