By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots got off to an impressive start in the 2012 season by beating the Tennessee Titans 34-13 in Nashville on Sunday. The Patriots improved front seven completely negated the Titans rushing attack and a balanced attack on offense was the key.
With the victory the Patriots ran their current streak of opening week wins, tops in the NFL to nine. The early questions about poor offensive line play were put to rest, at least for this week as the unit looked much better.
With the team returning to Foxboro on Sunday for their home opener against Arizona, here are some observations from the game.
Early Returns From 2012 NFL Draft –
A common criticism heard in New England is that the Patriots lack and have a need for playmakers on their much maligned defense. The Patriots rookie class got off to a very good start on Sunday. Tavon Wilson, the safety that Bill Belichick got so much flak for drafting so early (or at all in some circles) intercepted a deflected pass in the end zone wiping out a Tennessee drive. He also played in about 2/3 of the defensive snaps and showed strong tackling ability.
But even bigger was the play of Pats 1st Rd draft choice Chandler Jones, who strip-sacked Titans QB Jake Locker and the fumble was picked up by their other 1st Rd draft pick LB Dont’a Hightower, who returned it for a touchdown. Jones played nearly every snap on defense and played very solidly as he and Hightower was part of a dominant front seven.
Patriots Run Defense Outstanding-
It was a major part of the game plan to try to limit Chris Johnson and the Titans rushing attack and force Tennessee into being one-dimensional on offense. The plan worked to perfection.
Tennessee had only 20 yards rushing on 16 carries and Johnson was held to just 4 yards on 11 carries. The front seven was dominant; it started with Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love who were immovable in the trenches. DEs Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Jermaine Cunningham did a fantastic job of setting the edge and it was seen time and again, Tennessee runners attempting to cut back and there was nowhere to go.
With the line holding their own at the point of attack, the linebackers and secondary were coming up and making plays. It was a fantastic team effort where the game plan worked to perfection. Overall the speed of this defense seems light years ahead of last season’s unit. Speed will allow the defense to make plays and it was in evidence on Sunday.
Offensive Line Problems Minimal-
With the much ballyhooed struggles of the offensive line in the preseason, the coaches, players and game plan kept Tom Brady upright nearly the entire game and was vastly improved. Brady was sacked only once and was hit a few times but generally had plenty of time to throw. Nate Solder gave up the one sack and later a pressure where Brady had to force the throw out early but was much improved. Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon rotated at right tackle and both played very well.
Dan Connolly left with a possible concussion and Donald Thomas filled in for him. That will bear watching as Connolly has had concussion problems in the past. One area the offensive line as a whole excelled in was run blocking. The team ran for 162 yards and was offensively very balanced. While it wasn’t perfect, it was far from the nightmare that was being predicted in many parts prior to the game.
Stevan Ridley Answers the Bell-
With BenJarvus Green-Ellis leaving for Cincinnati, Stevan Ridley was looked to provide an efficient, more dangerous running game. Ridley receives high marks in his first start for this season. Carrying 21 times for 125 yards, Ridley showed excellent vision with excellent burst as he reached the second level.
Ridley’s performance was so solid that fellow RBs Danny Woodhead, Brandon Bolden and Lex Hilliard were mere afterthoughts on Sunday. While its only one game, the Patriots running game showed much better explosiveness and big play ability on Sunday. The balance that they provided makes the offense that much better.
Wes Welker was virtually a non-factor on Sunday, catching only 3 passes for 14 yards as the Patriots didn’t make him a big part of the game plan on Sunday. Part of it could have been, the Titans defensive game plan, where they took the short pass away from Welker, but this will bear watching as it seemed the Patriots were trying to attack more outside the numbers on Sunday.
Welker split time with Julian Edelman but the big three in the passing game were TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and WR Brandon Lloyd. Each of the tight ends caught six passes and a touchdown while Lloyd had five catches in his first game as a Patriot. Lloyd and Brady misconnected on a first quarter bomb that had Lloyd far behind the secondary for what would have been an easy touchdown.
Secondary Wasn’t Great But Much Improved-
After a first drive where the defense resembled the much maligned 2011 unit, the defense, especially the secondary played much better. Most importantly, the communication seemed vastly improved, players were in position, and when a Titans receiver caught the ball, he was greeted by a host of tacklers.
Tennessee did hit on a couple of big passes to WR Nate Washington and TE Jared Cook, a third quarter touchdown pass was the result however of Jake Locker being able to break containment and make a play with his feet but overall this unit looked much better. Not perfect by any means but a very good first step.
Ras-I Dowling was the third corner to enter in sub-packages and then the team slid starter Kyle Arrington into the slot. Pat Chung, Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson played solid at safety. Again, it’s only one game, but the Titans averaged 5.9 yards per pass, contrast this with last year’s 8.0 per pass and it is something to build upon.
Overall this was an excellent start of the season for the Patriots; they beat a tough opponent on the road in a game they should have won while still leaving some plays on the field.
There were plenty of positive things to point to while still having a lot of points that they can watch on film and improve upon. The most important thing however is besides the loss of Dan Connolly, the Patriots came through Week 1 fairly unscathed injury wise.
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