The New England Patriots are looking to start the season on the right foot when they take on the Tennessee Titans in what should be affectionately known as "The McCourty Bowl." As the Patriots start their campaign to head back to the promised land, the team's success can hinge upon a few key match-ups. Let's take a look:
5. Receivers Catching On - Ever since the explosive and dynamic 2007 offense, the Patriots have been searching for a way to solidify their receiving corps. Last season, the Patriots brought on Chad Johnson to be the number three receiver and to be an outside threat to spread the field. That failed miserably. It seemed as if the Patriots were trying to address the lack of a 3rd receiver this off-season by bringing in Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth, Anthony Gonzalez, and many other receiving talents. In the end, only Lloyd stuck to the roster and Tom Brady's binkie- Deion Branch- wound up getting the ax in final cuts.
The team has bolstered their tight end position, but it appears to have been at the expense of the receiving unit. How Wes Welker responds to a generally inactive preseason, how well Lloyd adjusts to the new offense, how well Julian Edelman and Greg Salas can provide depth options, and how much of a load the tight ends will take on are all questions to be answered. There are plenty of questions surrounding the team- I think how much of an impact the receivers can have will be one of the main focuses of week 1.
4. Secondary Progress - Last season, the Patriots ranked an abysmal second to last in the league in yards allowed and much was made about Devin McCourty's regression as a player. I've argued that the lack of a true safety ruined the back end defense and their ability to prevent big plays, and the Patriots have seemed to address that issue, bringing in three new faces to the safety group. Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, and Nate Ebner, heck, maybe even Sterling Moore, are asked to transform a safety unit that featured nearly two full hands worth of players over the course of last season. If the Patriots and the safeties can elevate the level of play over their production from last season, the secondary will visibly improve and the cornerbacks will be able to be more aggressive. In fact, the cornerbacks should be in focus as McCourty, Kyle Arrington, and Ras-I Dowling look to earn their starting roles on defense.
Last season was historic with respect to how many injuries the Patriots had to endure at the defensive back position. Let's see how a healthy unit can perform.
3. Locker's Athleticism - The Titans are featuring a young quarterback, renowned for his ability to extend plays with his legs. He's mobile and can throw on the run (might even be better while on the run) and is a constant danger to scramble and to pick up the easy yards. Luckily for the Patriots, they have a sterling track record against mobile quarterbacks, posting a 9-1 record against quarterbacks that run for over 20 yards in a game (a benchmark that Locker broke twice this preseason) over the past two years. On the other hand, the one loss came against a rookie named Colt McCoy who somehow managed to complete nearly 75% of his passes.
The Patriots defensive front seven will have to do their job of containing the quarterback, while still applying pressure. Every player must do their job to prevent Locker from making plays from nothing and they need to rattle the young quarterback early, and often. If the Patriots can contain Locker, they can focus the rest of their game on stopping running back Chris Johnson.
2. Rookie Ability - The Patriots invested their top three draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, snagging DE Chandler Jones, LB Dont'a Hightower, and S Tavon Wilson. All three look to have an important role on the defense as all three should see extended playing time. Jones and Hightower are expected to be starters, while Wilson could see extended time due to his fellow safeties Pat Chung and Gregory being so dinged up. Additionally, each rookie will have a role at a different level of the field- the line, the middle, and the depth- where they cannot afford to be exploited.
When the rookies are thrown to the fire, it will be important to see which ones can handle the heat.
1. Offensive Blocking - Nate Solder. Logan Mankins? Ryan Wendell? Dan Connolly? Sebastian Vollmer? That's how the offensive line breaks down. Second year Solder will take over the reigns at left tackle and attempt to fill in the large gap left open by Matt Light. Based upon his play this preseason, Solder still has a lot of work to do if he wishes to capture the mojo he exuded playing right tackle as a rookie. Beyond that, the Patriots are filled with question marks.
Mankins hardly played this preseason. How will he hold up after surgery?
Wendell is likely the starter at center. How will he do with that role?
Connolly has slid over as Brian Waters has not returned. He's a great back-up, but his play at right guard has been his worst of all three interior line roles. How will he step up?
Vollmer has been a consistent walking injury. Can he be healthy enough to play so that Marcus Cannon won't be asked to assist defenders right into Brady's throwing arm?
The entire offensive line has not really played as a unit. Yet. How they play on Sunday will show the starting point and perhaps shed a little light on the potential of where this line can go by the end of the season.
Mention - CJ?K: The Patriots won't be able to control which CJ shows up, so that's less on the Patriots to decide and more on the Patriots to expect and prepare for the worst.
Hopefully the Patriots can walk away 1-0 to start the season and the team can take their first step towards another great season.