Former Pats assistants, players pose new challenge for Bill Belichick

NASHVILLE, Tennessee -- The New England Patriots head into their bye week with a chance to reflect on their 7-3 start and what’s ahead. One obvious takeaway: Fortunately, they won’t be facing a team led by a former Patriots assistant coach or player.

The team’s two worst performances of the season were road losses against former Patriots defense coordinator Matt Patricia’s Detroit Lions and former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans. In those games, they scored 10 points apiece and quarterback Tom Brady completed 52 percent of his passes.

Compare that to the Patriots’ other eight games, in which they went 7-1 and the club averaged 32.5 points and Brady completed 68 percent of his passes.

Clearly, the background Patricia and Vrabel had with the Patriots was an advantage. Patricia spent 14 years with the franchise before landing in Detroit this year. And Vrabel, in his first year as Titans coach, is a future Patriots Hall of Famer who won three Super Bowl championships in his time with the team (2001-08).

It is similar to when former Patriots assistant Eric Mangini led the New York Jets to a 17-14 victory over New England in 2006, which was his first year as head coach. Or in 2009, when Josh McDaniels, in his first year as Denver Broncos coach, devised a creative plan to help knock off the Patriots 20-17.

Ultimately, the players have to make the plays, but it never hurts to have such fresh intelligence. One member of the Patriots said it seemed like the Titans -- with former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees calling the D -- knew the team’s offensive line calls on Sunday.

This is one of the challenges for Belichick, now in his 19th season, to combat in these types of situations. It's unusual when the other side knows you so well, and the book on their team is still developing because it's only year one of their program.

With remaining games against the Jets (twice), Vikings, Dolphins, Steelers and Bills, the situation won’t come up again for the Patriots in 2018, unless there’s a rematch with Tennessee in the playoffs. Of course, that doesn’t mean other teams won’t try to duplicate what the Titans did.

“You’ve got to make Tom [Brady] blink, and if you make him have to go to a second read, you have a chance. If you let him rip it to the first guy he looks at, it’s going to be a long day,” said Vrabel, who expounded upon his remarks in an interview with Pro Football Talk in which he stressed his message of physicality and taking away Brady's "easy-access" throws. “We were able to combine the rush, the different patterns and the coverage, and I think that goes a long way. It’s a coordination of 11 guys and a good call.”

Focusing on pressure up the middle was part of the plan, and there’s also probably also something to be said for a coach like Vrabel being able to stand in front of his team and get instant belief in the message he’s delivering because of his background with the Patriots. Having a few former Patriots on the team doesn’t hurt, either.

“Some teams are probably just scared of them, just because of who they are,” said Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler, who played for the Patriots from 2014-17. “They are like anyone else -- successful, don’t get me wrong, but I just think you have to have the right mindset days before you even play them.”