By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Before the Patriots can enjoy their bye week, they have to take care of business against the Titans in Tennessee.
This Titans squad is much different from the one the Patriots dispatched in the Divisional Round last postseason. There is no longer any Mularkey malarkey on the sideline, with former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel now calling the shots. This weekend will mark the first time that Bill Belichick matches wits with one of his former players on the sidelines.
Tennessee is only 4-4 on the season, but they seem to be rounding into form as Vrabel hits the midway point of his first season as a head coach. Their offense remains woefully inept at times, but they’re carried by a strong defense. Even with the Patriots clicking as of late, scoring 30 or more in five of their last six, they may struggle to find the end zone on Sunday.
This could be one of those proverbial trap games for the Pats, especially with the bye week on the horizon. But the Patriots have not lost the game ahead of their bye since 2008, when a guy not named Tom Brady was under center.
Here’s what we’ll be looking for when the Patriots and Titans kick off Sunday afternoon:
Titans Secondary Will Look Familiar
Malcolm Butler was once a really good cornerback for the New England Patriots, much more than just a one-hit wonder for his Super Bowl-saving interception nearly four years ago. He was their No. 1 corner in 2015 and earned Pro Bowl honors, and was second-team All Pro in 2016.
But then 2017 happened. There was a roller coaster of an offseason where it seemed like Butler would get traded, before he ultimately signed his restricted free agent tender. He struggled throughout the season, and then watched from the bench as his teammates got burned up and down the field by Nick Foles in Super Bowl LII. We still don’t know why Butler didn’t play in that game, and probably never will get a definite answer.
Butler signed the big contract he wanted in the offseason, but his 2017 struggles have followed him to Tennessee. Teams are constantly picking on him, and he gave up two more touchdowns to the Cowboys on Monday night. Tennessee has given up 14 touchdowns this season, and Butler has been responsible for seven of them, according to Pro Football Focus.
Now he’ll likely have to match up with Josh Gordon, who has four inches on Butler and is coming off his best game in a Patriots uniform. He’s the kind of receiver Butler struggles against, and could be in line for a huge afternoon on Sunday.
The guy lining up on the other side of Butler will look familiar too. If Butler can’t handle Gordon, Logan Ryan will probably get a shot at it.
“If you mess up with Logan, he’s going to run the route for you,” Julian Edelman said of his former teeammate this week. “These guys are really good football players. They showed it here and they’re showing it now [in Tennessee]. You can’t mess up with them.”
Even with Butler’s struggles, the Titans have a solid defense. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots struggle to put up points in this one.
It was hard not to fall in love with Dion Lewis over the last three years. He was a dynamic threat out of the backfield, with the ability to look like a video game on just about any play. The Patriots were obviously not going to give him the big paycheck he sought over the offseason, so now he’s doing those shifty moves in Tennessee, one of the few threats on an otherwise underwhelming Titans offense.
Lewis has been filthy in his last two games, rushing for 153 yards while adding 10 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown. The Titans don’t score a lot of points, but Lewis remains a threat to jitterbug his way to the end zone on every play.
Patriots Defense Vs. A Mobile Quarterback
The right shoulder of Marcus Mariota doesn’t inspire much fear. His two legs are a different story.
The Patriots don’t always fare well against mobile quarterbacks. By that we mean they usually win the game, but let quarterbacks scamper for frustratingly long runs a handful of times throughout, making the contest much harder than it ever needed to be.
Look no further than Week 7, when Mitchell Trubisky racked up 81 yards on six carries, including an absurd 39-yard scamper down to the New England 1-yard line. He also ran for an eight-yard touchdown in the 38-31 Patriots victory.
But Mariota is much different then Trubisky and Deshaun Watson, who picked up 40 yards on eight carries for the Texans against the Pats in Week 1. The Titans quarterback is a lot faster than them, and doesn’t need much space to get the jets going. He’s run for 217 yards on 41 carries this season, good for 5.3 yards per attempt, and found the end zone Monday night against the Cowboys.
Chances are Mariota won’t be hurting the Patriots with his arm. But he can burn them on the ground, which will keep the defense on their toes all afternoon on Sunday.
Speaking of speedsters under center, Tom Brady needs just four more yards to hit 1,000 rushing yards for his career. Maybe this week he’ll go forward rather than backwards, and hit the career milestone.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Titans clash at 1 p.m. on WBZ-TV — the home of the New England Patriots. Coverage begins Sunday morning with Patriots GameDay at 11:30 a.m. and after the game, you can catch Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s press conferences LIVE on Patriots 5th Quarter on myTV38!