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BOSTON (CBS) – While it’s New England’s duo of rookie defenders that are the talk of the town Monday morning, as a whole, the Patriots defense played very well in Sunday’s season-opening 34-13 win over the Titans.
There are still questions in the secondary, but it’s hard to complain when the Titans totaled just 284 yards and only put up 13 points on the board.
The focus for the defense heading into the game was to shut down Titans’ star running back Chris Johnson, and they passed that test with flying colors. The All Pro back managed just four yards on 11 carries – a career low – and as a team Tennessee had just 20 yards on the ground.
“One of our goals every year is being able to stop the run and playing good third down defense. Today we responded well against the run,” said nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who had one of New England’s five tackles for a loss on a key 1st and goal five-yard loss by Johnson in the fourth quarter. “I think throughout the preseason we showed improvement each week. This is something that I think can be a backbone for us — if we can go into a game and just get teams one-dimensional. That will help us tremendously.”
“When you come out in Week 1 you have certain things that you want to get done in a game, and that was certainly one of them,” corner Devin McCourty said of shutting down Johnson. “So to get that done, it really shows that we are working hard and coming out there and executing on Sundays.”
While there were times the Titans looked to be moving the ball with ease – Jake Locker’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Nate Washington in the third quarter looked way too easy — the Patriots pass-defense looked a bit better than the one that allowed the second most yards in the NFL in 2011. Tennessee was just 5-for-14 on third down, and didn’t find the end zone in two trips to the red zone.
“We take pride (stopping) any offense,” said safety Patrick Chung. “When you can stop a dangerous group of athletes like that, Chris Johnson, Locker and (tight end Jared) Cook; it takes a lot of execution to stop those guys. We executed, played as a team, did our job, and it all worked out.”
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But a lot of the credit goes to the two first-rounders on the defensive side, Chandler Jones and Don’t’a Hightower. Along with their five total tackles apiece, the two combined for a game-changing play in the second quarter – a strip-sack by Jones which let Hightower pick up the ball and run it in for a six-yard touchdown to give New England a 14-3 lead.
“Huge play in the game,” head coach Bill Belichick said following the win. “Those seven-point swings, defensive scores, are always enormous plays in the National Football League. When you get bonus points like that it normally tips the scale.”
“Defensive scores helps our team,” said Chung. “If you can score quick it helps our offense. It gets us tired sometimes – we have to go right back out there — but we love it. It gets us going and keeps us intense.”
“The play that Chandler made, with the sack, and then the scoop-and-score by Dont’a , is just a great rookie play all around,” said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. “Both of those guys are going to help us, which is a great addition to the team.”
When asked if they are already considered playmakers, Ninkovich said it was obvious what the defense was adding shortly after their names were called in April’s draft.
“That’s why they’re here. You don’t get drafted in the first round if you’re not (a playmaker),” he said.
“That was the duo of the young guys,” added Wilfork, the elder on the defense at the age of 30. “They made their NFL debut and they’re going to make ‘Sportscenter.’ Congratulations to them.”
There were some lumps along the way — McCourty still looking lost at times and Locker scrambling for some big gains — but overall the defensive performance was an impressive one. The Pats’ tacklers were swarming around the ball, and made several key stops before the Titans could hit the first down marker. The missed tackles of a year ago for not heard from, and the box score showed it.
It was a much better performance than what was expected, and with the two rookies combining for a touchdown — and fellow rookie Tavon Wilson also coming up with an interception and a pair of pass deflections — there is plenty of reason to have hopes for the New England defense going forward.