The Patriots will be looking to Brandon Lloyd to stretch the field more this season. (Steve Balestrieri photo)

On Sunday, the 2012 football season will start for the New England Patriots as they travel to Tennessee to take on the Titans.

The Patriots are coming off a Super Bowl appearance from 2011 and have retooled their defense. With all the new faces on defense, New England now is the 5th youngest defense in the NFL. Rookies will start and other ones will be asked to play prominent roles on the team. Optimism and expectations remain high in New England. With improvements on defense and adding WR Brandon Lloyd to an already potent offense, anything less than a Super Bowl berth would be considered a disappointment.

Tennessee is building their identity and doing it behind young QB Jake Locker, who has supplanted Matt Hasselbeck as the starter. Locker will be making his first career start but has RB Chris Johnson and some talented but not flashy weapons on offense. Like the Patriots, the Titans optimism and expectations are high under new coach Mike Munchak.

The first game of the year is usually one of the harder ones to make a prediction for since no one shows much during the pre-season. The Patriots have at times struggled out of the gate during Week 1 getting untracked. Bill Belichick has said that sometimes this is one of the harder games to prepare for. This one may be no exception. So with that it’s off to the matchups….

Patriots Running Game-
Gone is reliable BenJarvus Green-Ellis who has never fumbled in the NFL. While the Lawfirm was never a burner or a home run threat, he always played downhill and was steady. Replacing him now the Patriots are turning to younger players but they must remain question marks until they prove themselves.

Stevan Ridley will be the lead back in a lot of two back sets that Offensive Coordinator Josh Daniels ran in the pre-season. Ridley is a much better threat to break a big play but he also put the ball on the ground down the stretch which caused him to ride the bench during the playoffs.

Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead should all see some reps and all have versatility to run and have the speed to break into the second level. The Titans struggled to stop the run last season and have addressed that weakness by adding some new pieces to their front seven.

The Patriots remain a passing team first and running only to keep defenses honest. I don’t expect huge numbers in this game, but if the Patriots get the lead, a good assessment of the running game will be whether or not the running game can close out the game.

Titans Running Game-
Tennessee has Chris Johnson who is among the most explosive backs in the league. He can cutback against the grain so maintaining their discipline will be key for the Patriots front seven. Also, Jake Locker makes a lot of plays with his feet, so he is a big threat to run and scramble for yardage. Being his first start, don’t be shocked to see him pull it down and run more often than not.

The Patriots have revamped their base defense in a 4-3, with big players inside using Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love and more athletic defensive ends in Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones with big, downhill linebackers Jerod Mayo and rookie Dont’a Hightower outside flanking Brandon Spikes in the middle. This defense will be very tough to run upon.

The key is to remain disciplined and stay in their lanes. Ninkovich and Jones will have to set the edge and not over-pursue and allow Johnson or Locker to cut back and make huge chunks of yardage.

One thing Bill Belichick has always done is to take away opponents best weapon and what they like to do and force them to beat them in another. Expect them to try this again and attempt to stifle the Titans ground game just enough to force the game into Locker’s hands.

Patriots Passing Game-
Forget the pre-season, this is a team that passed for over 5000 yards last year and they’ve gotten better by adding Brandon Lloyd to the mix. QB Tom Brady has Wes Welker and Lloyd outside as well as TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to throw the ball to. This means if given the time, someone is going to get open and no one is better than Brady at finding the open man.

The offensive line struggled mightily during the summer as everyone has been made aware of….but for the first time, the actual starting lineup will take the field and I expect the protection to be much improved.

Tennessee will be looking for Kamerion Wimbley to provide pressure on Brady, expect Nate Solder to have some help early and then depending on how it goes, each team will adjust accordingly. The Titans lost their best corner, Cortland Finnegan this off-season, so it falls to Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner to take away the outside.

One key will be how well LBs Akeem Ayers and Zack Brown who comes in for subpackages will handle Gronkowski and Hernandez. Safeties Jordan Babineaux and Michael Griffin are good solid safeties but can’t be expected to shoulder the entire load against the tight ends and still help with Welker underneath.

Unless the Titans repeat what we’ve seen throughout the pre-season and pressure Brady, expect the Patriots to find plenty of real estate to work the passing game, there are just too many weapons for Tennessee to cover.

Titans Passing Game-
I expect Tennessee to throw a lot in this one, regardless that it is Locker’s first start. He’s at his best when moving the pocket and rolling outside. Eventually, the Titans will attempt to keep him more inside their protection but for now, they’ll play to his strengths, which is his excellent athleticism.

The key for the Patriots defense is to keep him in the pocket, and not so much going for the pressure, which could allow him to do damage with his feet. Patience will be the goal here and force him to throw while stationary. Right now at this point of Locker’s young career, it is not his strong suit. Fresh legs will be the rule of the day, expect to see DEs Jermaine Cunningham, Trevor Scott and Jake Bequette to see some action.

With the talented but troubled Kenny Britt suspended, the Titans will pit Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Kendall Wright against the Patriots revamped secondary which struggled last year badly. This group of WRs is talented but not outstanding but should provide a good first test.

One big key to watch for in both the passing and running games will be Vince Wilfork going against C Fernando Velasco and G Leroy Harris. Wilfork with a fresh start to the season and now flanked by Kyle Love should be able to assert himself a lot in the middle of the front seven.

One player to watch for the Titans will be TE Jared Cook, who may be a guy that Locker looks to a lot especially in the early going. A big weakness last season for the Patriots was covering the tight ends and it will be interesting to see how the Pats decide to cover Cook.

I also expect the Titans to try to get the ball to Johnson in space, so his coverage will probably fall to Jerod Mayo who has the best speed to cover the backs coming out of the backfield.

A big key for the Patriots will be their communication in the back end of the defense.  With new comer Steve Gregory at safety, the Patriots seemed much more solid back there this summer. But now the games are for real, Gregory will be the guy to watch if Locker begins to lock in on his receivers.

SPECIAL TEAMS-
Arguably the best Patriots player this summer has been P Zoltan Mesko. Mesko followed up his best season in 2011 with an outstanding summer and is primed for a big season in 2012. This is one area that the Patriots have a decided advantage over the Titans and their P Brett Kern.

The Patriots also return K Stephen Gostkowski who also had a very solid 2011 and he too like Mesko had a solid summer hitting on two 50+ yard field goals during the pre-season. But is there a more solid kicker with a big leg than Rob Bironas?

Bironas can and has hit from 60 yards and is extremely accurate with a better than 86 percent success rate for his career. He’s one of if not the best in the game right now and if the Titans even sniff a FG at crunch time, Bironas is one guy you don’t want to see kicking it, if you are the opposition.

The Patriots coverage units are always solid, however their return game has been lacking the past few years. They’ve tried different combinations but none have seemed to click. Now it seems it will be Danny Woodhead on kickoffs and Julian Edelman on punt returns. It is one area of the team that needs a serious upgrade. Jeff Demps was supposed to fill that void but landed on IR.

The Titans will counter with Washington now that Marc Mariani is out with a broken leg. It is a huge blow for Tennessee as Mariani ran back every kickoff and punt last season except for one.

 “X” FACTORS-
Like we mentioned before, sometimes a Week 1 matchup is one of the harder ones to prepare for as Bill Belichick mentioned earlier this week. Tennessee has a lot going for it, a team that is on the upswing, a loud boisterous stadium, and a quarterback that the opposition has little film on.

But under Belichick, New England has always seemed to weather the storm. The Patriots have won their last eight opening week games. They are always prepared and they’ve had a few weeks of getting ready for this one. It helps having Brady at the helm as he never seems to get too flustered by events around him.

Conclusions-
This should be an entertaining game to watch, from a Patriots perspective, there will be a lot of questions that need to be answered. Can rookies Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower continue with solid play on the defense now that the games are for real?

Can Steve Gregory and Pat Chung solidify a safety position that was a nightmare for much of 2011?

Can Brandon Lloyd find the necessary comfort level with Tom Brady that so many other FAs never could?

Can the running backs Ridley and Vereen step up and stay healthy to give the team a legitimate running back threat this year?

And finally can Nate Solder move over to LT for retired Matt Light and protect Brady’s blindside?

None of these will be answered in one game but each week these are some of the things that we’ll be looking for. I do expect Solder will be better, having Mankins beside him is sure to help and Sebastian Vollmer, now healthy will be a huge boost for the offensive line.

Brady has too many weapons at his disposal for the Titans to cover. The safeties will get asked to do too much and someone will have a big day. I think that man will be Aaron Hernandez. Brady will pass for about 280 yards and 2 TDs as they’ll spread out the Titans and pick their spots.

I expect Jake Locker to have a very good game, he’s looked very good for the most part during the pre-season and I think he’ll acquit himself very well.

However, the Patriots will attempt to neutralize Chris Johnson and force Locker into beating them with his arm. Johnson and Locker will get their yards but in the end, experience wins out as the Pats pull out a close game on the road. Patriots 27-17.

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