NASHVILLE — The Patriots had to settle for playing the second-best defense at LP Field on Sunday.
The best defense came courtesy of an overzealous security guard who wouldn’t let the media pass through to the bowels of the building to attend Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s news conference. That left Belichick with a postgame presser that should have been soundtracked by crickets. He must have been devastated.
The Red Sox probably would have called it a full house, pointing to the fact credentials had been distributed.
That was about the only thing that went wrong for the Patriots in their 2012 season opener, a 34-13 win over the Tennessee Titans. Belichick’s boys dusted off the playbook marked “2004” and used defense and the running game to win their ninth consecutive opener.
For all the angst about the offensive line — and it increased when they let the nose of quarterback Tom Brady get bloodied in the second quarter; Gisele won’t be happy — the biggest fill-in-the-blank about the 2012 Patriots remains the defense.
For one day, the oft-maligned New England defense didn’t have to spend any time defending its performance, as it held the Titans to 284 total yards, 20 rushing, and forced two turnovers, one of which was a Chandler Jones strip-sack returned for a second-quarter touchdown by fellow rookie Dont’a Hightower.
The Patriots have been, in the words of Belichick buddy Jon Bon Jovi, who was in attendance, “living on a prayer” on defense for the last few seasons. Now, they look like a unit that can bring offenses to their knees.
Belichick, one of the greatest defensive coaches to ever scrawl an X or an O, dedicated the offseason to redesigning the defense after it finished 31st overall in the NFL last season, and in the biggest game of the season could only get the ball back to Brady for one last shot at glory by allowing the Giants to score.
Belichick used six of his first seven picks on the defensive side of the ball and traded up twice in the first round to draft end Jones and linebacker Hightower. All that offseason remodeling of the defense by Belichick paid off, as Jones had the strip-sack and Tavon Wilson, a second-round pick, had an interception.
“They’ve been playing like that all preseason,” said Brady. “We see them in practice every day.”
Hightower’s touchdown was the turning point.
It came three plays after Brady got his schnoz bloodied on a sack by Kamerion Wimbley. On third and 13 from the Tennessee 7, Jones blew by Titans left tackle Michael Roos and stripped quarterback Jake Locker. Hightower scooped up the loose ball and returned it for a 6-yard touchdown and a 14-3 Patriots lead.
“That was a huge play in the game,’’ said Belichick. “Those 7-point swings, defensive score, are always enormous plays in the National Football League. When you get bonus points like that it normally tips the scales.’’
The doyen of the defense, Vince Wilfork, said the two pups were going to end up on ESPN for their handiwork.
“They made their NFL debut and they’re going to make ‘SportsCenter,’ so congratulations to them,” said Wilfork.
The best work the Patriots did, though, was in defending the run. Yes, NFL teams do still run the ball, apparently. Someone should have told that to the Titans.
Tennessee was 31st in the league last year in rushing and the Patriots didn’t help them make the case for improvement.
Tennessee running back Chris Johnson would have found more room to maneuver in a sleeping bag, limited to 11 carries for 4 yards.
Of course the caveat to the euphoria about the Patriots’ defense is that their performance came against Locker, whose stats (23 of 32 for 229 yards, one touchdown, one interception) belied the training wheels that remain attached to his game in his first career start.
In Nashville’s Centennial Park there is a sparkling replica of the Parthenon in Greece. Besides the blatant improbability of an iconic structure from antiquity residing in Tennessee, it’s obvious it’s just a knock-off.
Locker has the look of an NFL quarterback. But right now, he’s just a knock-off. He turned out to be a knock-off who got knocked out of the game early in the fourth quarter, when he hurt his shoulder tackling Patrick Chung on a 49-yard fumble return that never should have been.
When Xaverian and Boston College homeboy Matt Hasselbeck came on, the Patriots’ defense looked a little more like last year’s 31st-against-the-pass unit. Hasselbeck completed his first five passes to move the Titans, trailing 28-10 at that point, to the Patriots’ 1. But Tennessee had to settle for ending a 16-play drive with a field goal.
Get used to more of what you saw Sunday because the quality quarterbacks on the Patriots’ schedule are scarce. Houdini would have been impressed at the way the Patriots escape elite quarterbacks.
Peyton Manning comes to Gillette in Week 5. But there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam facing the Patriots under center in the first part of the season.
“The first game of the season, to walk away with some of the plays that we had today, positive plays, that’s good football,” said Wilfork. “Being able to turn the ball over on defense, being able to score on defense, those are big, big plays because you never know what the game might come down to at some point down the road.
“We have goals each week. Each game we have goals and one of them was turnovers and scoring on defense. We got both of them today.”
The Patriots may have gained something more valuable than just a season-opening victory. They may have something they haven’t had since Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, and Richard Seymour were suiting up — a difference-making defense.