NASHVILLE — Here’s what I’m looking for today as the Patriots open the season against the Titans:
Protect Brady: While the Patriots seemed to prefer the line of Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer in the preseason, it wouldn’t be a surprise that they go with Solder, Mankins, Connolly, Donald Thomas and Sebastian Vollmer in order to get their ‘best five’ offensive linemen on the field.
Thomas didn’t play right guard in training camp or the preseason, but he was one of the Patriots’ best linemen in camp overall. He plays with toughness and intensity. Thomas isn’t perfect, but he does a good job. Also wouldn’t be surprised to see Vollmer and Cannon rotate since Vollmer has only played 10 snaps.
The line had its issues in the preseason, but now the team will be scheming protections and how/when to give certain guys help. I expect the line play to be better with or without Brian Waters.
Test the weak spots in the Cover 2: The Patriots have plenty of experience playing against the Cover 2 from the Colts. The Titans mix up the coverage a little bit more than most Cover 2 teams, but it’s still their base. The defense will force you to be very patient offensively with a lot of checkdowns. However, the weaknesses are down the sidelines at about 20 yards, and deep down the middle of the field — especially when you use play action.
Expect the Patriots to hit the tight ends in the seam to make solid MLB Colin McCarthy run for his life, and then go to Brandon Lloyd on the boundary, and then flip back and forth throughout the game to keep the Titans on their toes.
Cornerbacks must tackle well: Vince Wilfork (or Kyle Love should the Titans double Wilfork) should own the weak middle of this Titans’ offensive line, much like he/they did against the Ravens. And Brandon Spikes will do his usual bust through the line routine. Expect the Patriots to two-gap the Titans a lot up front, if not all game.
The Patriots almost always want to force the running back to the sideline, even when it’s speedy Chris Johnson of the Titans. That means Devin McCourty (normally an excellent tackler) and the rest of the cornerbacks must do their part by containing the spill.
Don’t give up the big play in the kicking game: LP Field and Raymond James Stadium are the two of the stadiums where, in my experience, weird things tend to happen, whether it be bounces, injuries or whatever. One thing the Patriots do not want to do is give up a big play in the kicking game, which will energize a stadium that can be a rough place to play for a visiting team. Don’t let the crowd get into it early.
Keep Jake Locker in the pocket: Locker is most comfortable when he can make plays with his feet. It’s very important that the Patriots don’t let him do that, so that means a controlled pass rush where the ends aren’t tearing off the edge. Also important for the interior rushers to two-gap and then disengage from the blockers to take Locker down. If Locker has to stay in the pocket all day, the Patriots have to like their chances.
Prediction: The Patriots got a few breaks when Titans WR Kenny Britt was suspended, and the weather here is very mild for early September. And the Titans have issues on the interior of the line, and the pass rush isn’t that good. So the Patriots should, on paper, win this game rather easily. But Week 1 is always a bit strange and the Patriots have a lot of unknowns on the offensive line, in the secondary, with Josh McDaniels and Brandon Lloyd, and LP Field can be a very tough place to play. Oh, and the replacement officials will let a lot of contact go down the field in the passing game. That adds up, to me, to a lackluster win for the Patriots where the Titans hang on for a while.
Patriots 24, Titans 17