FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There may not be another game this year with as much coaching wisdom and firepower on opposite sidelines as when New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick squares off against Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on Saturday.
“Well, we’re both experienced coaches. Let’s put it that way,” LeBeau chuckled, while avoiding the obvious age reference. “Once we walk on that field Saturday, we won’t know who the hell is on the other side of the field.”
“Experienced” does seem more appropriate for coaches who have as much success as Belichick, 65, and LeBeau, 80. Each showered the other in praise, but it was particularly noticeable what the typically reserved Belichick had to say.
“I have great respect for Coach LeBeau. He’s a great person, consider him a good friend,” Belichick said. “I had an opportunity to spend some time with him and he’s such a great person, very humble guy that accomplished so much but he’s very modest about it.”
Their Steelers-Patriots battles may have been contentious, but their relationship with each other isn’t.
“I learned an awful lot from watching him, watching his defenses and watching the way that he does things. Techniques and adjustments and schematics and so forth,” Belichick said. “He’s one of the great coaches to ever walk the sidelines in this league. He does a tremendous job.”
LeBeau responded: “[I’m] humbled because there’s not very many coaches that have the record that Coach Belichick’s got. In fact, he’s probably closing in on the best ever.”
“[He] really revolutionized the game and his system has certainly withstood the test of time,” Belichick countered.
Those lessons have turned out to be particularly effective, given Belichick’s 6-3 record against LeBeau since 2004 (one of those losses came with Matt Cassel starting in 2008 for New England).
This is noteworthy, but it would be more interesting if the Patriots coach didn’t have lopsided records against nearly every NFL coach he’s faced throughout the years.
The records won’t mean much Saturday if LeBeau can cook up a scheme to beat the Patriots. Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan, who has to expose his matchup advantage over Patriots right tackle Cameron Fleming, anticipates a “chess match” between LeBeau and Belichick.
“He has all the experience in the world. He has probably been in 50 playoff games, give or take, but we have a lot of confidence in him that he’s going to put us in the right position,” Morgan said. “I like our chances with Dick. I like our guys.”
The key for the Titans’ defense Saturday will be making Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense uncomfortable. The road map, if there even is a true path, to beat the Patriots depends on pressuring Brady, particularly up the middle (hello, Jurrell Casey), and playing stout man-to-man coverage on the outside.
Brady looked ordinary, by his standards, in December, completing 61 percent of his passes for an average of 240 passing yards a game. He had six touchdowns to five interceptions in December. Brady’s recent slump was likely impacted by his Achilles injury, which could be aggravated by the weather Saturday.
But the Titans shouldn’t count on that. They should expect No. 12 to be the great QB he’s shown himself to be over the years.
LeBeau’s system evolved from zone to more man as he gained trust in cornerbacks Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson and Tye Smith to play a lot more man coverage during the second half of the season. They’ll all need one of their best performances of the year against Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola because the Titans will likely deploy double coverage all game toward tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Jackson, who is having a strong rookie season, loves that LeBeau trusts him to play and he’s focused on taking away the big play from Cooks.
LeBeau’s defense has struggled against receiving backs this season (hello, Dion Lewis) and elite tight ends like Kansas City’s Travis Kelce last week. But the Titans recognize that and will likely do more to combat those weaknesses.
“It’ll be a battle of two of the smartest coaches in the NFL. I’m excited,” linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. “I’m glad we got Coach LeBeau on our side.”