The Boston Globe breaks down the X’s and O’s for the Patriots trip to Nashville for opening weekend and offers a prediction for who will win:
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: LP Field, Nashville
When the Titans run
Nobody is looking for more of a bounce back year than tailback Chris Johnson. After signing a $50-million-plus extension (following a lengthy holdout), Johnson last season looked liked Marion Butts, the Patriots years. When healthy, engaged, and in game shape, Johnson is among the league’s most explosive players. The 5-11, 191-pounder, Johnson has a tremendous first step and excellent vision. He hits creases hard and shows rare acceleration and impressive breakaway speed. He can be very productive between the tackles but is at his best when he bounces outside and hits the corner. Johnson’s upright running style leaves him vulnerable to big hits, so durability will always be a concern. Javon Ringer is a sturdy backup with excellent leg drive. He lacks speed and stamina but will push the pile.
Veteran left guard Steve Hutchinson sets the tone for the offensive line. Hutchinson is both physically strong and technically sound. He still shows good pop for a 12-year veteran and will reach the second level. Right guard Leroy Harris works hard to finish his blocks, while unproven center Fernando Velasco will have nightmares about Vince Wilfork.
The ultra-strong and deceptively nimble Wilfork and his interior runningmate, Kyle Love (he has an excellent motor) will clear space for New England’s trio of hard-hitting and instinctive linebackers Jerod Mayo (he’s smart as a whip), Brandon Spikes (his enthusiasm is infectious), and Dont’a Hightower (he’s oozing with talent).
Rushing yards per game (2011):
Tennessee offense: 89.9 (31st)
New England defense: 117.1 (17th)
When the Titans pass
After a year of holding the clipboard, Jake Locker gets his shot to run Tennessee’s offense. Locker has all the prototypical physical tools scouts love in an NFL quarterback. The 6-3, 234-pounder is an excellent all-around athlete -- the Angels hold his baseball rights. He has a very strong arm and can zip the ball into the tightest windows. He also has quick feet, allowing him to buy time in the pocket, and runs well enough to pull the ball down and make plays outside the pocket. He’s very tough. He took a beating in college, playing behind a substandard line. Locker plays with confidence. Sometimes too much. He will try to fit passes into places where he has no right trying (leads to interceptions) and will often try to take on linebackers and safeties rather than sliding (leads to injuries).
Nate Washington is Tennessee’s best receiver. The 6-1, 185-pounder runs good routes, isn’t afraid to go over the middle, and has the power to outmuscle defenders. He has strong hands and will use them to gain separation and make tough catches. Damian Williams has similar skills to Washington, but lacks consistency and drops too many catchable balls. Tight end Jared Cook has excellent size (6-5, 248 pounds) and athleticism. He runs sloppy routes and isn’t a reliable receiver. When he does catch it, look out. He is a beast in the open field.
Patriots safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory have good range and hit hard. They provide nice insurance for corners Kyle Arrington (he’s a ballhawk) and Devin McCourty (he’s trying to regain ballhawk form), but both can be fragile.
Passing yards per game (2011)
Tennessee offense: 245.2 (12th)
New England defense: 293.9 (31st)
When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley gets his chance to prove he can be the lead horse in a stable of backs which hasn’t done a lot to inspire confidence during the preseason. Ridley showed flashes last season but struggled to consistently make the right reads and his late-season bout with fumblitis led to extended time on the bench. When he’s right, Ridley runs with nifty combination of speed, power, and moves. He’s better at running between the tackles because he lacks the elite speed to get outside. He has good vision and will slide through creases and spin off would-be tacklers. Shane Vereen continues to tease with his package of quickness and balance. If he can ever stay healthy he may challenge Ridley for the top spot.
Danny Woodhead’s quickness, instincts, and versatility make him a valuable role player. His lack of size and speed prevent him from being a workhorse. Rookie Brandon Bolden has good vision, foot speed, and power (he could be the next BenJarvus Green-Ellis). Dolphins castoff Lex Hilliard is underrated. He has good size (5-11, 240 pounds) and power and will finish his runs with a blow.
Whoever gets the totes will be running behind a revamped offensive line that must jell quickly, shed their initial blocks, and get their hands on Tennessee’s active linebackers. The interior three has left guard Logan Mankins (he’s burly and surly), center Ryan Wendell (he’s smart and quick), and right guard Dan Connolly (he’s versatile and technically sound). Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is one to watch. He has great instincts and delivers pad-popping hits.
Rushing yards per game (2011)
New England offense: 110.2 (20th)
Tennessee defense: 128.3 (24th)
When the Patriots pass
Some of the characters’ names have changed but the storyline here remains largely the same: Tom Brady plays the starring role and he has plenty of talent on his supporting cast. Brady remains an elite quarterback who breaks down coverages and exploits mismatches quickly. He delivers a very catchable ball and has the precision of a surgeon on short and intermediate routes. Deep routes aren’t Brady’s specialty, but it rarely matters.
Wes Welker has been mostly invisible this preseason but he’ll be front and center Sunday. The slot machine has great quickness and strong hands. He’s adept at finding and getting to open spaces and he’s always on the same page as Brady. Brandon Lloyd has impressive quickness and tremendous acceleration. He has great body control, long arms, and a penchant for making spectacular catches look ordinary.
Aaron Hernandez is special. A versatile athlete (it’s almost unfair to label him just a tight end), he can make plays from anywhere on the field. He can lineup as a tight end, as an H-back, in the slot, outside, and even in the backfield. He has great quickness, instincts, and hands. He is what scouts meant when they coined the phrase “nightmare matchup.”
Then there’s Rob Gronkowski. A more traditional tight end, the 6-6, 265-pounder is strong and athletic and often looks like an adult playing against Pop Warner defenders. He’s a nice safety blanket and a red zone monster. Tennessee corners Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner and safeties Jordan Babineaux and Michael Griffin will be screaming a collective “no mas” before this one is over.
Passing yards per game (2011)
New England offense: 317.8 (Second)
Tennessee defense: 226.8 (14th)
TITANS’ key player: Chris Johnson
It’s a critical season for Johnson. If he can return to the form he flashed in 2009 (2,006 yards and 5.6 yards per carry) it will take a lot of the pressure off young quarterback Jake Locker and the Titans could contend for a playoff spot. If he can’t, he’s a likely salary cap casualty at season’s end.
How he beats you: With speed and quickness. Johnson has a blinding fast first step and he passes through creases with ease. He accelerates at the second level and if he gets into the secondary, you can kiss him goodbye.
How to shut him down: By making the initial hit hurt. Johnson is not elusive and lacks the power to break tackles. He’s slender and durability will always be a concern because he absorbs a lot of abuse.
TITANS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1.) Southern comfort: It’s imperative to get Jake Locker some quick and easy completions because he’s bound to be more-than-a-little nervous facing Bill Belichick’s schemes.
2.) Rush: The Titans have to put pressure on the re-worked offensive line and Tom Brady. Karl Klug has the strength and quickness to come from the inside and Kamerion Wimbley can be a demon off the edge.
3.) Special: Speedy and elusive return man Darius Reynaud has to have an impact in the kicking game. Keeping the field short makes Locker’s job easier. And Rob Bironas is one the league’s best kickers.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1.) Hurt Locker: Send a message in the first quarter. If you allow Locker to make plays early, his confidence will soar. So hurt his body – and his feelings – from the get-go.
2.) Groove: Tom Brady has looked like anything but Tom Brady this preseason. It’s time to get on the same page with his new weapons and his old weapons and get moving.
3.) The Rookies: Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower were drafted to re-energize the aging defense and get after the quarterback. Give them plenty of plays so they can show their stuff.
Patriots 31, Titans 10