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Pats’ new look defense takes down Titans

Monday, September 10, 2012

 

There’s so much to anticipate before a season-opening game, it just doesn’t seem fair to focus on one spot.

But it is fair to say the Patriots’ “new look” defense deserves a fair share of scrutiny…even though last year’s version – as poor as it may have been statistically – came within a play or two of winning a Super Bowl. It’s also fair to say the defense played a big part in New England’s 34-13 season-opening win on the road in Nashville, TN against the Tennessee Titans.

An early sign of things to come? It’s fair to say there were concerns. On the opening drive of the season, secondary issues became primary. Titans’ quarterback Jake Locker exploited Ras-I Dowling’s presence in the secondary by connecting with rookie receiver Kendall Wright over the middle, and then forcing Dowling into a pass interference call on Wright to keep their drive alive. On a 4th and inches play, wide receiver Nate Washington went up and over cornerback Kyle Arrington on a superb play call to reel in another Locker pass…before having to settle for a Rob Bironas 28 yard field goal and a 3-0 Tennessee lead with 8:43 to play in the 1st quarter.

With one drive under their belts, perhaps one way to look at it was the “new look” defense bent, but didn’t break.

Tom Brady and the offense managed one first down on their opening salvo of the season, but could not sustain the drive when a third down attempt for Wes Welker hit Welker right in the face mask, and he could not hold on. Earlier in the drive, Brady had also missed Brandon Lloyd on a wide open try up the field. Ok, not the best start, sure. Time for the defense to grow up and show a little more?

They did…holding the Titans to three-plays-and-out. Cue the offensive output, as Brady led the team down the field on a 5-play, 67 yard drive where their two star tight ends were prominently featured. Rob Gronkowski caught a 28 yard offering from Brady to set up a 23 yard shot over the middle to Aaron Hernandez for the first score of the season, and the Patriots grabbed a 7-3 lead with 1:59 to play in the period.

On the third play of the second quarter, the Patriots “D” came up with their first big play…as rookie defensive back Tavon Wilson latched onto a deep Locker pass intended for Washington in the end zone, off of a tip from Arrington. But while the offense could not convert - never fear, that “D” would be near. On a third down pass attempt from the end zone, Locker was strip-sacked by rookie defensive end Chandler Jones…and his fellow rookie first-round draft choice Dont’a Hightower was right there to pick up the ball and rumble six yards into that end zone for a score, giving the Patriots a 14-3 lead.

Rookies. On defense. Making plays, scoring touchdowns. It’s a great game when the plan comes together.

It’s also a great game when you have a QB like Brady, and an offense with so, so many weapons. Bandaged-nose and all (from taking a sack on a previous series), Brady led a 12-play, 67 yard drive that covered 5:17…and ended with a two yard TD toss to Gronkowski. It was a drive so flawless, the only nitpick could come from Gronk blowing his trademark spike in the end zone. 21-3 New England, 21 unanswered points, business as usual.

And an improved defense? Think of the possibilities.

But it’s not quite there, just yet. On the opening Tennessee drive of the second half, Locker was able to hold off a Jones near-sack to strong-arm a throw downfield for Washington…and find him for a 29 yard touchdown to pull the Titans back within 21-10, and 10:17 still to play in the 3rd quarter. After a Patriots’ drive stalled in Tennessee territory, the Titans found themselves with a chance to pull a little closer on their ensuing possession.

Cue the defense, again. After a near-pick of Locker by Devin McCourty, the Pats got a boost on a holding call by the Titans offense (rubbing out a 20-yard Locker draw play), and a tackle of Wright on a receiver screen that almost became a safety. Taking over on Tennessee’s 48, it didn’t take long to seize on the momentum gained by the stop – Stevan Ridley powered in from a yard out for the score (and surpassed 100 yards rushing for the day) to give the Patriots their 18-point cushion once again. 28-10, Patriots advantage, with 1:04 to play in the 3rd.

A near-catastrophic play occurred on the next Tennessee drive, as Locker connected with Washington over the middle for a 23 yard gain. Washington was laid out by Jerod Mayo high, Tavon Wilson low, and lost the ball to Patrick Chung. On Chung’s return, Locker made the tackle, but hurt his left (non-throwing) arm on the same play. It was called an incompletion, rather than a fumble. But the play might have signaled something else.

A physical, no-nonsense style of play for the Patriot defense…and the perfect complement for an already dynamic offense.

Even though Matt Hasselbeck entered the game to replace Locker and finish off an extended drive (16 plays, 73 yards, 6:47 covering two quarters), the Titans were forced to settle for a 24 yard field goal from Bironas as the defense held Tennessee out of the end zone. The offense answered the “hold” by putting together their own long drive, 11 plays covering just over five minutes, and ending with a 25 yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal for a 31-13 advantage.

It was over at that point. While it’s only the first game, the early returns were solid. Tennessee’s chief offensive weapon, running back Chris Johnson, had been held to a career-low 11 carries for just four rushing yards. The pass rush, while not overwhelming, was at least a presence…and helped the secondary in coverage. And the physical presence certainly was felt by the other side.

It’s not fair to focus on just one spot. Future Patriot opponents won’t have that luxury either, as the defense may be getting its due.  

Post Game Notes

The Patriots beat Tennessee for the team’s ninth straight season-opening victory. They now join four other NFL teams with nine-plus opening days wins. Head coach Bill Belichick is 12-6 all-time on opening day, including 10-3 as Patriots head coach. Tom Brady is 10-1 on opening day...Brady (40,215 passing yards) entered the game needing 21 yards to become the 14th player in NFL history with 40,000 career passing yards and reached the feat on a 28-yard pass to TE Rob Gronkowski in the first quarter. He finished the game with 236 yards passing and is in 14th place al-time with 40,215 career passing yards. He needs 25 passing yards to move past Johnny Unitas (40,239) into 13th place on the NFL’s all-time list. Joe Montana is 12th all-time with 40,551 passing yards...Brady also reaches 125 wins in the fewest starts (160) among quarterbacks in NFL history...Wes Welker entered the 2012 season with 554 receptions and needed four receptions to pass Troy Brown (557) and become the Patriots all-time reception leader. He had three receptions against Tennessee to reach 557 and tie Troy Brown for first on the Patriots all-time list...Gronkowski (17 in 2011 and 10 in 2011) and Aaron Hernandez (7 in 2011 and 6 in 2010) each scored a touchdown against Tennessee. Last season, they set an NFL mark by becoming the first tight end tandem to register five or more touchdowns in consecutive seasons...Stevan Ridley had a career day, finishing with 125 yards on 21 carries for a 6.0-yard average. It is his first NFL 100-yard rushing day. His previous bests were 97 yards at Oakland (10/2/11) and 15 carries vs. Buffalo (1/1/12)...the Patriots had 23 players on the opening day roster that were not on the opening day 53-man roster in 2011. Of that group, 12 saw action in their first regular-season game as a member of the Patriots: RB Brandon Bolden, CB Marquice Cole, DB Nate Ebner, S Steve Gregory, LB Dont’a Hightower, RB Lex Hilliard, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, DE Chandler Jones, WR Brandon Lloyd, LB Mike Rivera, DE Trevor Scott and DB Tavon Wilson. WR Greg Salas was active for the game but did not play...

 

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