NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
New England takes the field on Sunday looking to put an erratic preseason behind them in action against the Tennessee Titans, who won nine games in 2011 and could very well be even more successful in 2012.
The Titans managed to win three games against playoff teams last year – Baltimore, Denver, and Houston – and an upset over New England would significantly strengthen their chances of making a playoff run considering a relatively light schedule which includes games against Minnesota, Indianapolis (twice), Miami, and Jacksonville (twice.) Their team matches up surprisingly well with New England’s: their offense is loaded with dynamic players at skill positions, they have perhaps the best pair of offensive tackles in the league, and their secondary is well-equipped to deal with New England’s passing attack.
Read on in order to discover ten key storylines for New England’s season opener.
1. Tennessee’s secondary is still formidable despite losing cornerback Cortland Finnegan
Finnegan, who joined Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams in free agency, was considered the Titans’ best defensive back, but his departure should not cripple the secondary, as the team still boasts free safety Michael Griffin as well as cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner. Griffin’s primary responsibility will be in coverage against tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez; his size, physicality, athletic ability, and ball skills make him one of the premier safeties in the league, and in June he was rewarded with a five year contract extension worth up to $35 million.
Jason McCourty was also the recipient of a new five-year deal which will pay him $20 million in guaranteed money and could total $43 million; he is an exceptional run defender who recorded 103 tackles last year and is also very effective in coverage, breaking up 13 passes in 2011 while intercepting two. McCourty played left cornerback last season and will attempt to ruin Brandon Lloyd’s Patriots debut. During practice, Verner has been playing both inside and inside; he has seen significant work in both of his NFL seasons and will likely be asked to cover Wes Welker. Opponents failed to expose Verner in 2011, throwing for just 334 yards on 66 attempts while completing 56.1% of their passes in his direction. New England’s success in the passing game will likely come primarily through testing the depth of Tennessee’s secondary rather than their top three players; strong safety Jordan Babineaux is only adequate, while reserve cornerbacks Ryan Mouton and Tommie Campbell have not seen much action on the defensive side of the ball.
2. Tom Brady should provide New England with a substantial advantage at quarterback
Tennessee drafted Jake Locker with the eighth overall pick in 2011; Locker is expected to develop into a franchise quarterback. He is a dual-threat whose style of play is highly reminiscent of Donovan McNabb’s. Locker played in a pro-style offense under Steve Sarkisian at Washington and was very highly regarded for his considerable arm strength, athleticism (4.50 second 40-yard dash), toughness, and ability to throw the ball on the run. Bill Belichick does not have a large body of professional work suggesting exactly how Tennessee plans to utilize Locker’s diverse talents, and young quarterbacks have historically had a surprising amount of success against the Patriots.
Locker’s mobility will allow him additional time to comprehend New England’s exotic coverage shells, but he is not an extremely accurate quarterback and it will be difficult for him to carry the Titans. On the other side of the ball, Tennessee fans are all too familiar with Brady’s ability to dissect defenses; he threw for 380 yards and six touchdowns (completing 85.3% of his passes) during the Patriots’ last meeting with the Titans, a 59-0 blowout in 2009. Replicating that production this weekend will be extremely difficult, but Brady should nonetheless be able to make use New England’s offensive weapons and begin the season with an impressive performance.
3. Patriots running back Stevan Ridley could have a major role in New England’s gameplan
Tennessee’s talented secondary may push Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels towards making the running game a priority; with Shane Vereen set to miss the game, Stevan Ridley should receive a heavy workload against a Titans defensive front which is not regarded as especially stout against the run, having allowed 2,053 rushing yards in 2011 (an average of 128.3 per game.) Tennessee lacks a true nose tackle – Jurrell Casey should fill that role this weekend – so the Patriots would be wise to try and pound the ball between the tackles, especially behind left guard Logan Mankins.
Former first-round pick Derrick Morgan (left end) has had a disappointing career thus far, and his ability to hold up against Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is also worth investigating. Second-year linebackers Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy combined to miss 17 tackles as rookies and may have trouble dealing with Ridley’s power at the second level of the defense; the two linebackers may also be preoccupied with New England’s tight ends. Establishing the running game may force Tennessee to play one of their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, which would help in the passing game.
4. Left tackle Nate Solder must rebound from a disappointing preseason performance
Solder put together an encouraging rookie campaign in which he allowed just four sacks in 1,044 offensive snaps, but was inconsistent at best in the preseason; he appears to have trouble dealing with power and his technique in pass protection looked sloppy at times. His season debut features a matchup against recently-signed Titans right end Kamerion Wimbley, who was inked to a five-year, $35 million contract in March.
The Patriots had expressed some interest in signing Wimbley before he landed in Tennessee, so he may have some additional incentive to perform. Wimbley made 16 sacks over two seasons with the Raiders and was responsible for a considerable amount of pressures last year as well; he is considered an explosive, athletic threat off of the edge. New England may be forced to help Solder by chipping Wimbley at the line of scrimmage, which is one area where a player such as tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (signed on Wednesday) can make an immediate contribution.
5. The interior offensive line will be challenged by Tennessee’s quick defensive tackles
Fortunately for New England, the Titans lack a powerful, big-bodied nose tackle, but the interior offensive line – left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly – may have some difficulties in pass protection against Tennessee’s collection of quick three-technique defensive tackles. Starting tackle Sen’Derrick Marks is doubtful with a knee injury, but look for the team’s other starter, 2011 third-round pick Jurrell Casey, to play; he is currently listed as questionable with an elbow injury. Casey, who recorded 52 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a rookie, will be joined by 2011 fifth-rounder and University of Iowa product Karl Klug, whose lack of size (6’3″, 275) has been masked by his effectiveness as an interior pass rusher; Klug collected seven sacks last season as a rotational player.
Tennessee also added former Michigan Wolverine Mike Martin in the third round this April, and signed DaJohn Harris (USC Trojans) as an undrafted free agent; Harris was considered a third or fourth-round pick before a Combine medical examination revealed a heart defect.