BOSTON (CBS) – There are plenty of question marks heading into the Patriots season opener against the Titans in Tennessee on Sunday.
For one, no one knows what to expect out of an offensive line that looked downright offensive at points in the preseason. There are also still questions that remain in the secondary, with the group actually getting younger in the offseason. Then there is all that goes with facing a quarterback who has just five NFL games under his belt — despite Bill Belichick’s success against first-time starting QBs (in three debuts, Bill’s squad has come out on top in each of them).
But if there is anything we’ve learned watching the Patriots since Belichick took over is that he will have the team prepared for anything. Here are some keys to the Patriots starting 2012 off with a W.
Containing Chris Johnson
This job can’t be placed on one player — or one group of players — but on the entire defense. The electric Johnson had a down season last year after sitting out most of training camp in a contract dispute, but still managed to tally over 1,000 yards on the ground and another 400 through the air. Not bad for a so-called “down season.”
Johnson is a touchdown threat whenever he touches the ball, and the Patriots know that. He said he never really got into rhythm until late in the season thanks to his holdout, but is already feeling like his old self this time around.
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This is bad news for the Patriots and should make for a busy afternoon in Nashville.
“You have to play against him for 60 minutes,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo, noting Johnson is “super-fast” among everything else he can do. “It was a down year for him, but it was still a good year. Especially in the fourth quarter he would break a lot of runs. You have to stay focused on him. It’s going to take 11 guys, and that’s our goal.
“You can’t just put one guy on him. You have to have different guys covering him, different guys trying to tackle him,” said Mayo.
New England has first-hand knowledge of Johnson’s big-play ability. Back in 2009, he ran for 128 yards in a snowy Foxboro in the Patriots’ 59-0 blowout win. Nearly half of those yards came on a 48-yard scamper in the third quarter (granted, in a 52-0 game), but the Titans got no points out of it thanks to a Kerry Collins fumble four plays later.
The Patriots will make a point to contain Johnson, but they really can’t lose focus on the rest of the Titans in trying to stop him completely. They will do their due diligence on the touchdown-waiting-to-happen, but they will be focused on the entire offense; much like how they used to handle LaDainian Tomlinson during his Chargers days. They let him get his yards, but kept the team off the board.
So expect Johnson to get his yards, and maybe a score or two, but the Pats won’t care if he makes fantasy owners happy. All they’ll care about is how many times he, and the Titans, reach pay dirt.
Don’t Let Jake Locker Run Wild
The second-year QB now has the keys to the offense in Tennessee, and he can get it done through the air or on the ground.
Locker appeared in five games last season, but this will be his first career start in the NFL. In that small sampling in 2011, he connected on 51.5 percent of his passes, tossing four touchdowns with no interceptions. He didn’t do much this preseason, but it was enough to win him the job from veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck.
“I think he’s got a lot of talent. He’s got a really strong arm. He was drafted eighth overall for a reason and he’s the quarterback of the future here, there’s no doubt about that,” Hasselbeck told 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Gresh and Zolak earlier this week. “He’s also a great athlete, a big kid. He can run, he’s very fast, and he’s real mobile.”
But Belichick and the Pats’ secondary already knew all that.
“It is definitely a problem,” the Pats’ head coach said of Locker’s speed. “He is very athletic and runs well and can buy time in the pocket. They also use him on some moving-pocket plays, bootlegs and roll-outs and things like that to make it a little tougher on the defense to find him. That is definitely a big challenge for us. They have real good speed in their backfield at the running back position and the quarterback position, as well as tight end and wide receiver.”
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“He’s a mobile guy and he has a very strong arm. For us in the secondary, we have to be alert when he scrambles around,” corner Devin McCourty said Friday. “But he’s not always looking to run the ball, we have to be alert throwing the ball down field.
“For us it’s a big awareness game. We need to be aware of where all those guys are at; they have good receivers on the perimeter,” added McCourty.
One thing going against Locker will be the absence of his No. 1 receiver, Kenny Britt, who was suspended for the first game due to another DUI charge. Locker will still have weapons like Nate Washington and rookie Kendall Wright, and of course the always-dangerous Johnson. The key will be to keep Locker in the pocket, make him think, and make him throw.
The young defense can’t get too antsy to get after him, even though watching Chandler Jones get to the QB is what fans have been salivating about all offseason, because he can make them pay if they over-rush him. The last thing the Patriots need is Locker running around, picking up big yards or first downs.
Offensive Line Woes
It’s been the talk of the preseason: the struggling offensive line. But on Sunday, we’ll see the actual offensive line – anchored by Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer – get its first real reps together.
Protecting Tom Brady is obviously priority No. 1 for New England, and they weren’t able to do that in the preseason (at least protect Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett) with Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder anchoring the unit. Now that Mankins and Vollmer will be by their side (at least Solder’s) there should be a collective sigh of relief from the New England area.
Even the man who has the most to lose has faith in the guys protecting him.
“Whoever is out there is out there and whoever’s out there has earned that position,” Brady said earlier in the week. “They’ve done what the coaches have asked them to do and there’s a lot of confidence that they’ll be able to do their job. My focus is on quarterback and I’ve got enough to worry about as it. It’s not like I figured everything out the past four weeks either, so I’ve got to go out there and try to do what my role is and that’s play quarterback. I let those guys really do what they do and they do a damn good job of doing that and playing offensive line.”
The Titans will certainly test the unknown that is Brady’s protectors, although their pass-rush is nothing to write home about. But Brady is worried about their front seven.
“It’s a very fast front that’s very disruptive, so you don’t have a lot of time to sit back there and evaluate what’s going on,” he said. “I think they mix in enough zone coverage with man coverage where it’s really tough to anticipate. To try to get a good pre-snap read and a good post-snap read and not really make up your mind before the ball is snapped of where the ball should go because they and they make some things look very similar, some blitzes look like coverage, some coverages look like blitzes, so you have to do a good job post-snap of really figuring out what they’re doing and find the open guy.”
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Second-year year defensive tackle Karl Klug led the way for Tennessee last season with seven sacks, four of which came over the final five weeks. A few other names to look out for are linebackers Kamerion Wimbley (who had 7 sacks for the Raiders last season and has made a career of getting after opposing QBs) and rookie Zach Brown.
The Patriots shouldn’t have too much issue on offense — with the most dominant a tight end duo in Gronkowski and Hernandez and Wes Welker primed for a big contract year — but with “unkown” on the Brady-Brandon Lloyd connection and Stevan Ridley’s ability to be a full-time back, and those issues with the line, an aggressive Tennessee pass-rush could derail any thoughts of a 30+ point scoring performance.
Tune in to Patriots-Titans at 1p.m. Sunday afternoon on both WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub! Pregame coverage begins at 10 a.m. on the Hub and at 11:30a.m. on WBZ with Patriots Gameday. Tune in after the game for full postgame coverage on 98.5 and on MyTV-38!