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VOL. 44 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 10, 2020

Built in Vrabel's image

Titans playing with toughness, confidence coach had as a player

By Terry McCormick

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Titans coach Mike Vrabel greets running back Derrick Henry as he comes off the field Saturday night in Foxboro. Henry accounted for more than 200 yards for the second consecutive week.

-- Photo By Steven Senne | Ap Photo

In the aftermath of the Tennessee Titans’ shocking upset of the New England Patriots on Saturday night, receiver Tajae Sharpe wore a New York Yankees cap as he was heading out of the locker room.

Sharpe, who is a Yankees fan from New Jersey, made it a point to wear the cap because of something head coach Mike Vrabel had told the Titans in their week of preparation to play the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Vrabel, who spent eight years playing in New England, had a distinct message for his upstart Titans, comparing the Patriots and their glory to that of the New York Yankees’ dominance in baseball. He wisely advised his players not to get caught up in the hype and tradition of the Patriots and their six Super Bowl wins.

“He said not to be intimidated,’’ Sharpe says. “That’s part of the reason I put the Yankee hat on. It’s kind of like let’s bring our own pinstripes to the party. He spoke about that to us early in the week about just going out there and playing football and not worry about the banners hanging in the stadium.

‘Just focus on football.’”

It was perhaps the best example yet of how the Titans are buying into Vrabel’s personality and making it a team persona.

“He said don’t stare at the pinstripes, and we took it for what it was. I kind of felt like a lot of teams come into this place and they get beat because they’re worried about playing the Patriots,” Sharpe adds. “So we felt like we weren’t going to worry about that at all, not worrying about what the name on the front of the jersey is at all, but just going out and executing every single play and finding a way to win, and that’s what we did.”

The Titans players bought into Vrabel’s message completely and used it as part of their formula for victory – something they hope will carry them even further in the postseason.

“We weren’t looking at the pinstripes. We weren’t looking at the banners or we weren’t looking at the hype, nothing like that,’’ safety Kevin Byard says, echoing Sharpe.

“We came in and ran the football, and that was the formula for winning that ballgame.’’

No doubt, a win in his old stomping grounds in his first playoff game meant a lot to the Titans coach. But he also learned about playing things close to the vest, especially when it comes to the media, from his mentor, Bill Belichick, and didn’t dare show any personal emotions publicly following the biggest win yet of his young coaching career.

“I’m honored to coach these guys. And there is no other team that I would rather have come in here with,” Vrabel said, deflecting and redirecting the question about him. “I’m thankful that I get to coach them another week.”

He also was pleased that his message had gotten through.

“I’m just proud of the way the guys handled the environment, the way they handled the preparation,” Vrabel says. “I thought they were focused and ready to go.

“We’ll need more of that this week.’’

Winning the mind games

Vrabel’s unique personality seems to fit the Titans, and they are becoming molded in his image. The veteran of 14 NFL seasons as a player – four with Pittsburgh, eight with the Patriots and two with the Chiefs, retiring in 2010 – Vrabel is indeed a players’ coach. He says he believes in the sanctity of the locker room and creating an environment in which the team and winning are the only things that matter.

One gets the feeling he would strap up the shoulder pads and helmet if he were a little younger. But given that he is now 44 years old, and played linebacker, he does the next best thing in his mind – he brings a players’ mindset to his coaching.

That’s why at practice, Vrabel holds a blocking pad and allows an injured player to work out on the side against him before the player returns to full practice with the team.

It is why you could see him doing pushups on the soggy Gillette Stadium turf two hours before kickoff Saturday night. And it is probably the reason he had the Titans gather at midfield on top of the Patriots logo just before kickoff after his club ran onto the field.

But the best example of Vrabel’s approach and personality showing through came in the fourth quarter with the Titans nursing a 14-13 lead. The Titans were in punt formation, and Vrabel used a loophole in the rules discovered by Belichick himself against the Patriots’ Hall of Fame coach.

In a midseason Monday night blowout of the Jets, Belichick instructed his special teams unit to intentionally take a delay of game. NFL rules state that the clock restarts after a penalty, and the Patriots used it to effectively run more than a minute off the clock late in the game.

So Vrabel, who tried the strategy first late in the Titans playoff-clinching win against the Texans, this time deployed it on Belichick, and then doubled down by having Wesley Woodyard intentionally false start at the end of the second clock restart, draining even more time off the clock.

Belichick was not happy, bellowing to officials about what the Titans were doing, and it played a role in the Patriots having very little time to work with late in the contest.

Vrabel was in fine form at his Monday press conference and unapologetic for using Belichick’s loophole against him. It was akin to Darth Vader using the Force against Obi Wan Kenobi.

“I can only concentrate on one team,’’ Vrabel said. “Just trying to do what’s best for us each and every week. Sometimes that’s the case, and then sometimes I have to do a better job.

“Again, I just try to understand what the rules are and play by them and use them to our advantage where we can.”

On to Baltimore

To paraphrase a famous Belichick attempt at evasion, the Titans and Vrabel are now “on to” Baltimore, where Lamar Jackson and the Ravens await this Saturday night, (7:15 p.m. CT, CBS).

While the defense is still strong as always in Baltimore, these Ravens are not like the ones that relied on Ray Lewis and Ed Reed for big defensive plays for their success. While those Ravens were a hated rival of the Titans, the new version features likely NFL Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson, whose running ability creates many a headache that NFL defensive coordinators have yet to cure.

The top-seeded Ravens present a challenge unlike any the Titans have seen this year.

“They’re No. 1 in most statistical categories,’’ Vrabel notes. “Offensively, near the top in almost all statistical categories. Defensively, they’re long in the secondary, physical. Matthew (Judon)’s playing at a high level. The defensive line is disruptive, they play with their hands, and they’re hard to move. “Offensively, they have the best player in the league who’s impossible to tackle. A great scheme. I think on any other day it’d be fun to watch, but not when you’re trying to prepare for them and stop them,” Vrabel points out.

“Greg (Roman, offensive coordinator) does a fantastic job. They’re well-coached, they’re physical. It’s what the Baltimore Ravens have always been, especially with John (Harbaugh). Fundamentally sound and they’re good in the kicking game.”

Jackson, for whom the Ravens changed their offense to fit his skillset last year, will be especially hard for the Titans to handle with his athleticism and improvisation.

“It’s been impressive just in the few games that I’ve watched today because you kind of hear about what he’s doing, but you’ve never really watched it,” Vrabel continues. “You watched it a little bit just in the crossover games, but then to be able to sit there and watch him just improvise and make plays when there’s guys there. Not sure that that’s how they drew up the play, but that’s what this league’s about is guys going out there and making plays. He’s a special player.”

But Vrabel’s personality and mindset are rubbing off on the Titans, who face a big obstacle in Jackson and the Ravens this week. Byard vocalized that in the locker room after the win in New England.

“We didn’t come here to the postseason just to beat Tom Brady. We came here to win a championship,” Byard said.

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