Due to certain circumstances that I'd rather not mention right now (or ever again, for that matter), we didn't have a Patriots 2012 Top Moment last week. But it's the first of the month, it's Monday, and as far as I'm concerned there's no reason to dwell on the past, so it's time to get back to the countdown - particularly now that we're into the Top Five.
The list so far:
#20. The Patriots surprise everyone, sign Jeff Demps.
#19. The Patriots move up in the draft, select Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower in the first round.
#18. Jerod Mayo comes up with a huge 3rd down sack on Ryan Tannehill, holding the Dolphins to a field goal.
#17. Devin McCourty picks off Ryan Fitzpatrick in the end zone to seal the game vs. the Buffalo Bills.
#16. A diving catch in the end zone shows off Brandon Lloyd's athleticism as well as his pearly whites.
#15. Brandon Spikes’ forced fumble of Willis McGahee to seal the game against the Broncos.
#14. New England engineers an 7-plus minute drive to close out the Dolphins and clinch the AFC East.
#13. Baltimore Beats New England 31-30 in a disastrous weekend of replacement reffing.
#12. Julian Edelman's electric punt return TD against the Indianapolis Colts.
#11. New England's 28 point comeback against the San Francisco 49ers.
#10. Rob Ninkovich forces a Mark Sanchez fumble to seal the game against the Jets in overtime.
#9. Dual 100 yard days for Ridley and Bolden, dual 100 yard days for Welker and Gronk against the Buffalo Bills.
#8. Tom Brady's playaction pass to Brandon Lloyd against the Texans, the rout is on.
# 7. A Danny Woodhead fumble becomes a Brandon Lloyd touchdown, courtesy of J.J. Watt
# 6. Shane Vereen’s over-the-shoulder touchdown catch against the Texans to ice the game in the playoffs.
# 5. Aqib Talib's pick six in his Patriots debut.
Time for the Number 4 Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2012
4. Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower team up for a strip sack/fumble return for a touchdown in the season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
Last offseason was most certainly bittersweet; most of us were still reeling from yet another Super Bowl loss at the hands of the New York Giants, and the long, drawn out months between the end of that game and the beginning of the 2012 season left us all a lot of time for reflecting, stewing, and replaying that Wes Welker drop over and over - and over - in our heads on those cold winter nights when sleep simply eluded us. On the flip side, however, there was a lot of cause for optimism around New England, as the 2012 Draft saw Bill Belichick make a rare move up the board to grab two players in the first round. When Belichick trades up, he clearly sees something that he likes, and so Patriots Nation was very much looking forward to seeing what rookies Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower could do.
We didn't have to wait long.
September 9, 2012 saw the Patriots traveling down to Tennessee for a game against the Titans, who would be debuting young quarterback Jake Locker against New England's suspect defense. While the Pats were still favored, there were a lot of X factors in this game that left plenty of people wondering. Would Chris Johnson come charging out of the box? Would Locker live up to the hype? Has Brady lost a step? Can New England's secondary get it together?
After a relatively quiet first quarter that opened with a Titans field goal and only saw the Patriots in the end zone once (a 23 yard pass from Tom Brady to some tight end, I can't remember who), you could already see the Monday morning "Patriots are done" headlines forming. Sure, the defense was holding its own, but that was more a result of Locker's nerves than anything else. The second quarter didn't start much better, as the Patriots were forced to punt after running just four plays and the Titans got the ball back inside their own 10 yard line looking to drive for the go-ahead score. The first play of the drive, a short right pass intended for Nate Washington, fell incomplete as Locker couldn't quite find his accuracy. The second play, a Johnson run up the middle, was stopped in the Titans backfield for a loss of three yards. The New England offense wasn't clicking, but at least the defense was keeping it competitive.
Then, on 3rd and 13 from the 7, Locker came out in a shotgun formation with Johnson lined up directly to his left, three recivers bunched over on the right side, and Washington lined up alone on the left side against Kyle Arrington. The Patriots were in a smaller 3-4 and showed blitz by cheating all of the linebackers and safeties up to the line. Locker, anticipating the blitz, looked to rid himself of the ball quickly by hitting Washington on the quick slant-in off the snap, but both Hightower and Chung dropped back into coverage to block the passing lane. Locker tried to dump the ball off to Johnson, but Mayo had him blanketed. As he tried to step up into the rapidly collapsing pocket, Chandler Jones (who was facing single-man protection for the first time that day) came around the edge off of a phenomenal rip move to get around Michael Roos and right into Locker's back. Jones took Locker down at the 1 yard line, swatting the ball loose in the process. Hightower, who was playing a soft zone in the middle in order to prevent any quick throws to the inside, showed remarkable awareness for a rookie and picked the ball up in stride as it bobbled along the turf. Whereas a lot of young players would simply have fallen on the ball, Hightower scooped it up at the six, made a few moves, and ran into the end zone for the first defensive touchdown of the season. New England would go on to win the game 34-13 and the defense would allow just one touchdown the entire day.
On its own, the Jones strip sack was a great play. It showed speed, instinct, solid pass rush moves, and on-field awareness, and the Hightower run-back took some coordination and elusiveness that highlighted just why the Patriots traded up to get him. But it isn't so much the play itself that landed it at the number four spot on this list as much as it was what the play represented. When a team trades up in the draft twice to grab two players it covets, there is a certain hype and level of expectation that comes with those players - fair or unfair, that's just the way it is. And as fans of that team, we expect those players to deliver. Well it didn't take long for not one, but both of our shiny new rookies to make an impact on this defense, and they both did it on the same play. That play alone was almost like a justification for Belichick bucking the trend and moving up the board instead of down.
Also, this play, which happened on the second quarter of the Patriots season, was a great defensive effort that saw a great pass rush, solid coverage, a strip sack, and a turnover. Perhaps if that play had happened just once a few short months earlier, that Welker drop wouldn't even have been an issue. It represented a level of excitement and hope that I hadn't felt in a long time when it came to the pass rush and the defense overall. It set the tone for the entire season and allowed me to think that maybe all of the pieces were finally in place. Now obviously my sentiments were a little premature, as the defense remained a work in progress as the season went on, but the energy, optimism, and confidence I felt in that moment made me extremely excited for what the 2012 Patriots were capable of. It's very rare that not one, but two first round picks make an on-field impact that quickly, and watching Jones and Hightower make that play was about as much fun as it gets.
You can relive that play here.