By Brian Garland
Fresh off a statement home win over Green Bay, the New England Patriots headed to Nashville for a matchup with coach Mike Vrabel’s Titans.
This week was a reunion for former Patriots Logan Ryan, Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler, who all left for Tennessee in free agency.
The Titans are commonly called “Patriots South” with former Patriots scout Jon Robinson as their general manager and former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel hired as head coach this offseason.
Since his watching Super Bowl 52 from New England’s bench, Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler kept his silence to the media about the incident. He signed a five-year, $61 million dollar deal with the Titans in the offseason, but the Patriots also hoped to keep Butler for the right price.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport divulged the day before the game that the Patriots were one of four teams including the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans, that expressed interest in Butler.
The Super Bowl 49 MVP wished the Patriots well in the week leading up to the game with words for his unnamed doubters in an interview with The Athletic’s Jeff Howe: “I’ll get right. You’ll see. Everybody’ll see.” Entering Patriots-Titans, Butler allowed the most yards to opposing receivers than any other cornerback this season, according to Stats, Inc.
Malcolm Butler is not an outspoken type and would not let the idea of bad blood between he and Patriots coach Bill Belichick reach the surface. His cool head and focus is what earned his spot with the Patriots after all.
Butler started as a nickel cornerback for the first series of Patriots-Titans and played over half of all snaps in the game. He lined up with Patriots receiver Julian Edelman for most of the game and did not allow Edelman to control the game despite Edelman reaching 104 yards on nine catches. Butler’s assignment was eased by the aggressiveness of Tennessee’s pass rush and the pressure they forced on Tom Brady and his short-handed offensive line.
Patriots left tackle Trent Brown left the game due to a back injury with LaAdrian Waddle replacing him. The difference mattered as Tom Brady was unable to comfortably reach his receivers.
Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon were Brady’s leading receivers, combining for 13 catches and 185 yards of Brady’s total 254 yards passing on the game. While Edelman and Gordon’s numbers look satisfactory, they were unable to haul in passes in key situations such as third downs. Receiver Chris Hogan’s disappointing season continued with another zero-catch game against Tennessee.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski made the trip to Nashville but was not able to play in this game. His replacement in Dwayne Allen was only used as a blocker, and Allen would also leave the game early due to a knee injury.
The Patriots offense was one-dimensional and predictable with a lack of a rushing game. Rookie running back Sony Michel returned this week but was his best, contributing only 31 rushing yards on 11 attempts for the Patriots. James White’s role lessened with Michel playing and he had one carry for a five-yard loss.
The struggles on offense put more pressure on New England’s defense as they allowed Tennessee to score 34 points. After a stellar performance handling Green Bay’s leading receiver in Davante Adams, Stephon Gilmore struggled against Titans receiver Corey Davis in pass coverage.
Davis’ speed allowed him to create space over the top as he and Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota for a 23-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Davis would be called upon by Mariota for key throws in this game and he did not disappoint.
While compensating for Mariota’s ability to scramble and run, the New England pass rush was unable to apply pressure as it did against Green Bay. Titans running back Derrick Henry was tough to tackle, and he would always have a hole to run through because of Tennessee’s offensive line.
Henry and Mariota accounted for all four of Tennessee’s touchdowns on the day in a 34-10 win.
The Patriots remained within striking distance in the second and third quarters, but drops by receivers and rushed throws by Tom Brady eventually cost them the chance to mount a comeback.
Receiver Julian Edelman also left the game in the third quarter with an ankle injury.
The game was a wash by the fourth quarter, with Brian Hoyer replacing Brady with eight minutes left in the game to avoid further injuries.
Former Patriots running back Dion Lewis was vocal in post-game and on social media, calling New England “cheap” for replacing him with a rookie. Lewis finished with 20 carries and 68 total yards.
He told NFL Network’s Mike Giardi that this game was personal for Lewis, and that New England deserved their loss for letting Lewis and presumably Malcolm Butler leave in free agency.
Lewis did not stop there, taking to Twitter Sunday night to post three laughing emojis directed toward the Patriots.
Now 7-3, the Patriots fall behind in AFC playoff seeding to the Kansas City Chiefs (8-1), Los Angeles Chargers (7-2) and Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2-1). The
The Patriots head into their bye week on a disappointing note, but they return the Sunday after Thanksgiving for a road game against the 3-7 New York Jets at 1PM.
Brian Garland is the Sports Editor for The Comment.