With the kickoff to the Patriots' regular-season opener just five days away, head coach Bill Belichick and his team are well into their preparations for the Tennessee Titans.
It's a team that, as part of the NFL's rotating schedule, the Patriots typically see just once every three years, leading to a bit of unfamiliarity with their personnel from a fan's perspective. Belichick, on a conference call with local media on Tuesday afternoon, dove in to some Titans player overviews, including running back Chris Johnson, who he described as a "huge challenge" for his defense.
* Belichick on Johnson: "His production speaks for itself. He's really an outstanding player with the ball in his hands. In the passing game, in the running game, inside runs, outside runs, draws, screens. Everybody is at the point of attack because he has the speed to start one way and go the other, to get back to the cut back, backside of the defense or bounce out in either direction. Really everybody is at the point of the attack when he has the ball.
“It's a big challenge for our defense. He's very dangerous. He has a bunch of 50-plus yard touchdowns, he's had like four touchdowns over 75 yards, 80 yards, or something like that. Whenever he gets the ball anywhere on the field, he's just one play away from the end zone, so everybody's got to be ready and do their job and make sure that no matter where he hits it, we've got him defended, because he can attack anywhere on the field."
He echoed the thought that no matter where the play starts or where Johnson is on the field, the entire defense must be ready to make a play.
"All 11 guys have to get ready to defend him when he has the ball, because he's capable of getting anywhere, and even if you're there, you've still got to tackle him," he said. "He's not only a fast back, but he's elusive, shifty, has good vision. (He's a) big time home run threat every time he touches the ball."
* Belichick on Wright: "He was a very productive player in college. He was used in different ways, they moved him around some. He played a lot outside, but they also used him in the slot as well. He's got good speed, he can get down the field vertically on seam routes, go routes, things like that. They also threw him a lot of slip screens in college, catch-and-run type plays. He's had some of those with the Titans as well, so he has good ball skills, good ability to run after the catch.
“He's a 200-pound guy, he's a pretty solid guy that's big, that can run. Not big, big, but he's got good size, he can run, he can make plays with the ball in his hands after the catch and has been a very productive player. He's already had good production in preseason and good production in college, so he kind of finds a way to get open.
“Obviously the quarterbacks have confidence in him, in terms of getting him the ball; the coaches do, some of the plays they design for him. I'm sure they're happy with him, he's been a good addition to their team and looks like a good football player.”
Defensively, Belichick was asked his opinions of two key pieces to the Titans, led by linebacker Colin McCarthy, whom he described as the leader of the defense.
* Belichick on McCarthy: "Does a lot of things for them. He plays a decent amount in the deep part of the field in their 2-Tampa scheme as a middle linebacker, and where he's running deep with those vertical routes down the middle, things like that.
“But of course he's involved in the running game at the line of scrimmage, mixing it up inside, taking on centers and guards and fullbacks and all that. He's got a good set of skills. I think he's very instinctive and adept in pass coverage.
“Seems to have real good feel for route combinations, recognizing where the quarterback is trying to go with the ball, he anticipates well, get a good break on the balls, got his hands on a number of balls, interceptions. He ran one back for a touchdown against Arizona.
“He definitely on film looks like he's the leader of the defense in terms of signal callers and making adjustments and checks and that kind of thing. I see the other guys looking at him, I also see him kind of taking control of the situation. He's a guy that has really come on quickly and done a good job in all phases of the game. The running game, zone defense, man-to-man defense.
“He makes plays up inside against big people in the running game, middle of the line, and he gets to the sideline, get outside on the perimeter plays, and be a factor on those screen passes, wide routes outside. He can run well and gets outside and can make plays.
"He's a real good football player who's come on quickly and looks like he's a good middle linebacker."
Belichick also shared praise for safety Michael Griffin, who was signed to a lucrative five-year contract extension this offseason.
* Belichick on Griffin: "I think Griffin is one of the better safeties in the league. He has been very consistent back there, dependable. He's very athletic for a safety, runs well, has good quickness, can match up in man coverage, has range and can cover a lot of ground in the deep part of the field. Zone coverage, he's smart, he anticipates things well, route combinations and things like that.
“He's been used both in the deep part of the field at free safety and then this year they played him more in the strong safety type position, but, again, sometimes he's back, sometimes he's closer to the line. He'll do both, and has done both from either spot, so you never know exactly where he's going to be. But he's one of those versatile guys that can play well away from the line of scrimmage, and play well close to the line in terms of matching tight ends in coverage and then reading the quarterback on underneath combination routes in zone coverage and so forth.
He's a very good player, versatile player, done it now for a while so he's experienced. He's still a fairly young guy, he's kind of right there in the prime of his career. He's one of the better safeties in the league."
Belichick also tended to a couple orders of business related to his own team.
When asked about the timetable regarding a return to the field by tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, Belichick answered, "We're just taking it day-to-day."
He also touched upon the value new receiver Greg Salas brings on special teams.
"It's been limited, but he's got good size," he said. "Physically, he's got a good makeup to be able to compete in the kicking game from a size, speed, athletic standpoint. And, as you mentioned, has had some experience in the return game."
That ability to play special teams, according to Belichick, adds value to both the team and the player.
"Well of course it's always a plus. The more versatility a player has, the more he can do, the more value he has to our football team and to himself in terms of roster spot, playing time and so forth," he continued. "It's always good to have it. Some players don't have it, and they're good at the position they play or the things that they do, and that's great. Of course you need that too, but players that have versatility and can do multiple things, particularly do them at a good level, add a lot of value to our team and to themselves."