NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 09: Runningback Stevan Ridley #22 of the New England Patriots scores a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans during their season opener at LP Field on September 9, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Well, that was fun, wasn't it?
It's been a long seven months since we've seen the Patriots play a football game and even longer since that task has been a positive experience. But Sunday's 34-13 win over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville made it easier to forget that last game in which the Pats played, mostly because the team looked so different, so much more versatile, so dynamic on both sides.
What we saw Sunday was a diverse mix of attributes on both offense and defense as well as a willingness to balance things out on both sides. As opposed to seeing Tom Brady throw the ball 45 times and the defense sit back and allow itself to be picked apart all the way down the field by one medium range pass over the middle (though there was some of that) after another.
Instead, the Pats ran the ball more than they threw it and did it with great success. And they completely took away the Titans' running game, which allowed the front seven to apply a nice amount of pressure on QB Jake Locker, making his first career start.
As Bill Belichick would (and did) say, it wasn't perfect and there was plenty that the team could have done better. But in winning their ninth consecutive season opener, the Pats as usual gave us plenty with which to be impressed. So with that, let's get into our first position analysis of the season. Position groups will be graded on a scale of 1-5, with 1 obviously being the worst and 5 being the best. Off we go!
Is it possible to be Tom Brady, be great in a game and still not even be one of the the three or four best stories? On Sunday, the answer to that question was a resounding yes. Brady finished up a tidy 23-of-31 for 236 yards and two TDs, good for a 117.1 passer rating. His 7.6 yards per attempt was a bit pedestrian and he missed on a handful of throws, none worse than the deep ball to Brandon Lloyd early in the game that was on Lloyd's wrong shoulder (it should be noted here that even though the pass was off, Lloyd probably could have caught it anyway had he continued to run through it). But, smashed up nose and all, he was more than efficient enough to overcome those mistakes. His chemistry with his tight ends continues to improve, as if it needed to be any better. It's tough to put the kind of touch he had on the 2-yard TD pass to Rob Gronkowski in the second quarter and it's similarly just as tough to thread a throw right into the numbers the way he did in drilling the season's first score to Aaron Hernandez in the first quarter. Sunday in Nashville was a typically excellent performance, one that netted him fifth place in league history in TD passes, passing John Elway.
Running Backs: 5
In 2004, the Pats brought in Corey Dillon to spearhead their running game and man, did it pay off. Dillon ran for 1,635 yards that season and was as vital a cog in the Pats winning the Super Bowl that season as any. This is relevant because for the first time since then, they may have themselves a back
like that, Stevan Ridley showed flashes of Dillon-ness last season, but a couple of late season fumbles wiped him out of the team's postseason plans. But he's back in a big way after Sunday. Ridley ripped off 120 yards on 21 attempts, a whopping 6 yards a pop. He was decisive, elsuive, shifty, fast, quick, assertive and, perhaps most importantly, extremely physical. His running style is a bit unorthodox; he's taller and seems to have a higher center of gravity than a lot of backs but that was just fine on Sunday. And it helped immensely that the offensive line spent the afternoon opening giant running lanes for him, that he had ample amounts of room to run and that the Titans probably weren't expecting the Pats to be as committed to the run as they were. Still, the credit here should go to Ridley. He may not run for over 1,600 yards. But if the Pats stay with him and he looks like he did on Sunday, watch out.
Wide Receivers: 3.5
Obviously, bringing in Lloyd was a big move. And Wes Welker, despite his lack of a contract, is a superstar. But it seems like the wide receiver position may be becoming somewhat of an afterthought for the Patriots. Even though they line Hernandez up all over the place, including the backfield, it seems pretty clear that he's is playing the role of the No. 3. So with that in mind, when you look at the snap counts and the targets from Sunday, it's not all that surprising that Lloyd and Welker mostly took a back seat to both Gronkowski and Hernandez. Lloyd, after that early missed connection on the deep ball from Brady, showed that he's got a game unlike anyone the Pats have had at the position in the Belichick/Brady era not named Randy Moss. His stretching, sideline grab of a somewhat wide pass in the second quarter was a tremendous catch, a textbook example of hands, field awareness and acrobatics. This guy can run routes and get first downs as precisely as he can get open anywhere on the field and that's going to be a huge plus for the Pats a ton of times before the end of the year. As for Welker, that first quarter drop off the face mask was a bummer. And it was strange that he not only was targeted five times and made just three catches for 14 yards while basically splitting reps with Julian Edelman. But this half-baked idea that there's some kind of controversy surrounding it, that anyone thinks his lack of game action on Sunday is all part of some master plan to phase him out. The Pats are a game plan team and Sunday's game plan was aimed more at the running game and the tight ends than anywhere else. Anyone who tells you anything else is nothing but a shit stirrer. Watch him catch 12 passes for 135 yards and a score this week against the Cardinals. Then what will the headlines read?
Tight Ends: 5
Not much to see here. Just another all-around outstanding game by Gronk and Hernandez, the prototypes for tight end oriented offenses. Not only did they combine for 12 catches, 119 yards and two TDs, they showed what incredible athletes and players they are for the umpteenth time in their respecyive careers. Gronk went from making a perfect, tiptoe catch in the corner of the end zone, to wiping out would be tacklers on both sides of the line on running plays, to making an incredible shoestring catch on a throw Brady zinged right into his feet on a quick screen. Hernandez caught the ball, outran defenders, picked up yards after the catch with strength and athleticism and even carried the ball out of the backfield. With health, there doesn't seem to be anything this duo can't accomplish.
Offensive Line: 4
Nate Solder needs to get better at left tackle in pass protection. No doubt about it. Brady was only sacked once (and knocked down three times) but that one time resulted in the nose mangling and it was against Solder. Titans' pass rushing specialist Kamerion Wimbley made him look foolish on the play. And Solder definitely had to hold on at least one other occasion. The point is, he is a very good, very young player with loads of potential who is a work in progress on the left side. Given how well the Pats are coached up front, it's only a matter of time. Sebastian Vollmer split time with Marcus Cannon on the right side, likely for health and conditioning reasons and both were just fine. Logan Mankins didn't tear his ACL (as far as we know) and looked mostly like himself save one negative running play. Ryan Wendell was flawless at center. And Dan Connolly, who was dinged up playing fullback on one play and suffered a mild concussion, was his usual solid self as well. It should not go unmentioned that this group was practically perfect with it's run blocking. Aside from two or three missed assignments, there wasn't much the O-line looked like it couldn't handle.
Defensive Line: 5
Chandler Jones has gotten a lot of press these past couple of days for his play on Sunday in his first ever NFL game, and he deserves the praise. But Vince Wilfork is the most vital, important, ferocious player on this defense and man did it show against the Titans. Wilfork was the leader of a run defense which held former 2,000-yard gainer Chris Johnson to four yards on 11 carries. That's four. That's less than half a yard per carry. Particularly in the second half, when the Titans looked a bit winded on both sides, Wilfork dominated the line of scrimmage, balsting through double teams, stunting around fellow terror Kyle Love, intimidating, making plays or clearing enough to space so that others could make plays. He was the star of the d-line on Sunday. Jones was fantastic. and the fact that he played all but seven defensive snaps means the coaches thought so too. He played a dynamic, athletic, angry kind of defensive end that hasn't been seen around these parts in some time. His strip sack of Locker that was recovered and run back by fellow rookie Dont'a Hightower, was executed perfectly. Hopefully it was a sign of things to come. Also, a big shout out to Jermaine Cunningham, a favorite in this space, who had a sack, forced a hold and continued to look like the former second-rounder he is. Cunningham looks like he could grow into being the next Willie McGinest. That would be absolutely awesome.
It was the Hightower show pretty much all day. He was all over the field in the first half. The TD was his biggest highlight but it was pretty sweet when he ran over All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson and dropped Johnson for one of his several losses a couple plays earlier. The Pats have to be thrilled at what they got out of Hightower on Sunday. This team hasn't had an impact linebacker since Mike Vrabel was traded and Tedy Bruschi retired. Jerod Mayo, regardless of his tackle numbers isn't one. Brandon Spikes has shown flashes but isn't on the field enough. If Hightower becomes that guy, it offers an entirely new dimension to the defense and may even make Mayo more impactful too. Sunday was a typical game for the middle backer. He rolled up a lot of tackles, was in on a lot of plays, was made to look silly at least three times and never came off the field. It remains somewhat of a mystery why Mayo is so, so highly regarded not just by the coaching staff and the organization but by the media as well. He's a poor man's Junior Seau who makes a big play maybe once or twice a year. But to his credit, he is as steady and consistent as it gets and that's how he should be judged. 10-15 tackles and 2-4 eye rolls per game are pretty much what you're going to get every single week. Not too bad, certainly not great.
Defensive Backs: 3.5
Who knew Tavon Wilson could play like this? He looks a lot like another safety from Illinois named Wilson drafted by the Pats almost 10 years ago, Eugene Wilson. He was in the right place at the right time on his interception (Kyle Arrington made the play) but he also was trusted to play more than half the defensive snaps and had five tackles and a couple of pass breakups in addition to his INT. He outplayed his platoon partner Steve Gregory, who wasn't bad but didn't look like the same guy as during camp, when he appeared to be a plus pickup. As for the corners, it may be another long year. Devin McCourty won't get as lucky as he did in the first half, when he interfered with a reciever in the end zone three different ways and still got away with it, many more times in his career. He also dropped an easy interception and was beaten by no-name receivers on more than one occasion. This is probably a make or break year for McCourty. He was as bad last year as he was good in his rookie campaign so perhaps this year will lend a little bit more gray area in regards to what kind of player he really is. Sunday wasn't a great start. Arrington wasn't anything special either though he still looks like the moost competent corner this Pats have. And Ras-al Ghul Dowling recovered nicely from a rough start (penalty, bad read, missed tackle) to not only look like he knew what he was doing but not get hurt. If there's a weak link on this team, it's the secondary once again. Time will tell if this group is less so than it's been the past three seasons.
Coaching/Special Teams/Intangibles: 4
Mostly OK with special teams. Our man Zoltan Mesko got away with one really bad punt and looked great in dropping three inside the 20 on short fields. Stephen Gostkowski has now made 27 straight field goals in the fourth quarter after drilling two on Sunday. And Edelman had one nice punt return (won't bother to talk about kick returns; if the Pats don't care about 'em, why should we?).
The coaching report card reads exceptionally well. Not only did the defense look good, it was so fundamentally sound, and so well schooled, much praise should be heaped on Matt Patricia and his defensive staff. It's ahrd to remember a game in whicb the Pats tackled so consistently and so soundly. Really impressive stuff there, and the way the defensive game plan played out couldn't have gone better. Taking away Johnson worked about as well as it possibly could have and while it would be nice to see the Pats play less deep zones and try taking more chances against the pass , they only allowed one TD and were stout as usual in the red zone. On offense, Josh McDaniels must be giggling when he looks at what he has to work with now as opposed to thye past three years. If he continues to draw up game plans and play calls this diverse, the Pats will continue to look like the wagon they resembled in Nashville all year long. Belichick has himself another stellar looking outfit. And he's still the best choice to lead the way.