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Tempering Expectations

No, Kamerion! Take me! TAKE ME! (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
No, Kamerion! Take me! TAKE ME! (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
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The first day after Week 1's slate of Sunday games has been dubbed "Overreaction Monday" by many members of the media. And for my money, there hasn't been a more appropriately named day than Free Cone Day down at my local Ben & Jerry's, from which I have since been soundly banned for some nonsense known as "excessive and dangerous overconsumption." It seemed as if the Sunday night Steelers/Broncos game had barely even hit the books before the articles started flying all across the league, many of which we will all be able to look back on in five or six weeks and have a good laugh.

And while I'm sure that Bill Belichick has made damn sure that nobody on the Patriots roster got so much as a glimpse of any of this week's articles, that doesn't mean that the team wasn't very much a subject of Overreaction Monday. Brady is spectacular! The defense is fixed! The Pats finally have a running game! Wes Welker is finished! The list goes on. Now I'd like to say that I haven't bought into it either, and that I've remained as stalwart and passive as The Hooded One himself, but who am I kidding; I was downright giddy after Sunday's beatdown, and successfully managed to kill almost an entire workday on Monday reading pretty much every piece of Pats analysis I could get my Cheetos-stained hands on.

But it's Wednesday now, and the feelings of euphoria have passed. It's almost time to turn the page and start looking at New England's Week 2 opponent, the Arizona Cardinals. But before we do that, I thought I'd return to doing what I do best - acting like a pessimistic, obnoxious jerk - and put Sunday's win in perspective. Sure, it was a great victory, and there are WAY more positives than negatives at the end of the day, but there was also a decent amount not to like in Sunday's game, and so before everyone starts reserving their hotel rooms in New Orleans, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at some of the things that didn't go so well for the Patriots last week. Let's call this an Exceedingly Negative Wednesday in an attempt to combat any potential ill-effects of Overreaction Monday.

Locker's first start. As someone who once beat Street Fighter II at my local bowling alley with a fairly sizable crowd looking on, I know a thing or two about pressure and feel that I'm more than qualified to speak to the stress of playing professional football at the NFL level. I don't care how much preparation a player gets, there's simply no comparison between practice/preseason and game day. Not only was Sunday Jake Locker's first career start, but he was also starting without his number 1 wideout Kenny Britt. New England's defensive gameplan was clearly to eliminate Chris Johnson (who very well may not be the force of nature he once was) and make Locker beat them through the air - a game plan that worked to a T. However, Locker wasn't totally inept against the Patriots secondary, and a better, more experienced quarterback may have significantly more success against the Patriots than a second year player missing his best receiver and making his very first NFL start.

Nate Solder's pass protection. In the running game, I thought that Solder was one of the better linemen on the field on Sunday; he charged forward, opened up holes, and made a handful of beautiful pulls that allowed him to throw multiple blocks as Stevan Ridley reached the second level. His pass protection, however, was spotty. He got beat low by Kamerion Wimbley on The Nose Sack, got caught flat-footed with his arms fully extended on a few plays, and had trouble against speedy edge rushers. His performance wasn't awful, but it wasn't great either, and he's going to need to do better on the off chance that Arizona decides to match 6'8", 300 pounds of Calais Campbell up against him this week.

Sebastian Vollmer. The good news about Vollmer is that I didn't hear his name mentioned all game and didn't really think much about him. The bad news is that he only played consistently for one quarter and then split reps with Marcus Canon. Now maybe it's just me, but I can't help but feel that Right Tackle doesn't really fall into the "by committee" category. Cannon actually had a decent game, but I'm starting to wonder whether or not Vollmer will ever be able to play completely devoid of back issues. There are few things more important than chemistry when it comes to the offensive line, and if Vollmer is consistently in and out of the lineup, it could be trouble against the more fierce pass rushing defenses. No reason to panic yet, but something to monitor.

Third down conversions and big gains. The big number of the day is 35%, which was Tennessee's 3rd down conversion rate (5 for 14), a significant improvement over last year's 3rd down efficiency. However, let's take a look at those 3rd downs that Tennessee did convert:

  • 3rd and 7 at TEN 23, Locker passes Kendall Wright for 17 yards.
  • 3rd and 6 at TEN 22, Locker passes to Jared Cook for 19 yards.
  • 3rd and 8 at TEN 20, Locker scrambles, pushed out of bounds for 9 yards
  • 3rd and 10 at TEN 21, Locker passes to Damian Williams for 10 yards.
  • 3rd and 1 at NE 48, Hasselbeck passes to CJ2K for 14 yards.

With the exception of the garbage time conversion, all of those plays were third and medium/third and long and the defense gave up a big play to keep a Tennessee drive alive - and this was against Locker and the relatively weak Titans passing attack. You know that Belichick is going to have all of these plays on a loop during film review sessions; it's one thing to allow a conversion on 3rd and short, but to give up 19 yards on a 3rd and 6 is an issue that this defense needs to resolve and resolve soon. No reason to panic yet, but let's not look at that 5-14 Tennessee day and see nothing but sunshine and rainbows.

Questionable PI calls. This one is a bit of a reach, I'll openly admit. And I've always been preaching that you should just let these guys play and allow a little bit of contact between a receiver and a defensive back. That said, however, there was one fairly obvious Pass Interference call that the refs missed, and two other calls that could just as easily been flagged as well. If Devin McCourty gets called for PI in the end zone, giving the Titans first and goal at the 1 yard line, then Tennessee is likely up 7-0 after driving 80 yards on their opening drive against the defending AFC Champs. If that isn't a massive confidence builder, I don't know what is. There was also a Pat Chung end zone breakup against Jared Cook that led to a Titans FG instead of a potential 1st and goal at the 1. A TD conversion there would have made the game 28-17, which is significantly more manageable than 28-13. Again, I'm not sitting here trying to say that there was blatant PI that the refs flat out missed and the Pats got some lucky breaks. But I am saying that the real refs are going to come back eventually, and I don't want the Patriots to get used to a highly physical style of pass defending that may cost them big down the road.

Like I said before - there was way more to like about Sunday's game than there was to dislike. And anyone who isn't extremely excited about what the 2012 Patriots are capable of clearly hasn't been paying attention. Let's all just temper expectations a bit and let this season unfold a ways before we start making too many long-term predictions.