6. An appetizing matchup for Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork
The matchup between the Patriots’ massive run-stuffing nose tackle, Vince Wilfork, and Tennessee’s inexperienced center, Fernando Velasco, represents New England’s biggest defensive advantage. The Titans had employed Eugene Amano, who struggled through 1,044 snaps at the center position in 2011, as their starter for the past four seasons, but Amano tore his right triceps in early August and will miss the entire season. Velasco logged 247 snaps along the offensive line in 2010 between left guard (63) and center (184), but saw the field for only 28 offensive snaps in 2011; he will have his hands full on Sunday against Wilfork.
Tennessee struggled to run the ball between the tackles in 2011 and will have a difficult time doing so tomorrow afternoon. The addition of Steve Hutchinson at left guard should help, but the Titans will likely have to stretch their running game to the outside behind bookends Michael Roos (left side) and David Stewart (right) in order to find success.
7. Major test for Chandler Jones and the rest of New England’s defensive ends
Michael Roos and David Stewart additionally offer second-year quarterback Jake Locker the possibility of operating in a pocket well-protected against the outside rush. The two offensive tackles combined to allow just five sacks last season, meaning that Patriots defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones may very well have some difficulty creating pressure in the passing game. Jones is expected to have a strong rookie campaign following his impressive preseason performance, but a week one matchup against Ross represents one of his most difficult assignments of the entire season, so it may be unrealistic to expect a great deal of production.
Alternately, if Jones is able to compromise the left side of Tennessee’s protections, the Patriots will gain a major, unexpected advantage in the game.
8. Patriots’ linebackers will have their range tested against Titans RB Chris Johnson
Coach Belichick’s philosophy of defending the run emphasizes an inside-to-outside approach which forces opposing teams to abandon the interior running game and attack the edges of the defense. However, that strategy may require revising in defending Titans running back Chris Johnson, one of the fastest players in the entire league. Last season, Johnson’s two most productive rushing lanes were off of the left end (285 yards, 5.6 yards per carry) and the right end (190 yards, 4.4) of the offensive line.
Tennessee’s propensity for rushing to the outside places pressure on outside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower to set the edge effectively and quarantine Johnson between the tackles, where he will have to contend with Vince Wilfork and middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, both of whom are known for their exceptional run defense.
9. Tennessee tight end Jared Cook presents a difficult coverage assignment
Head coach Bill Belichick was quick to praise the play of tight end Jared Cook, whose combination of size (6’5″, 245 pounds) and athleticism (4.49 second 40-yard dash, 41″ vertical at the 2009 NFL Draft Combine) makes him perhaps the most difficult Titans weapon to cover in the passing game. Cook’s production leapt from 361 yards and one touchdown in 2010 to 759 yards and three touchdowns in 2011 on 74 targets (10.26 yards per attempt.)
Strong safety Patrick Chung, who has been a full participant in practice this week, will likely receive the largest share of coverage responsibilities on Cook, but look for the Patriots to rotate other linebackers and safeties in coverage as well; possibilities include linebacker Jerod Mayo as well as rookie defensive back Tavon Wilson.
10. New England’s secondary must contain a deep, varied Titans receiving corps
In addition to Chris Johnson and Jared Cook, the Titans have also assembled an arsenal of wide receivers with different skill sets. Star receiver Kenny Britt will be suspended for week one thanks to a DUI arrest, but Nate Washington, Damian Williams, and Lavelle Hawkins are all coming off of big seasons and first-round pick Kendall Wright is also expected to see playing time. Washington sits atop the Titans’ depth chart after a 74-catch, 1,023 yard 2011 campaign which included seven touchdown grabs, but Williams (592 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Hawkins (470 yards, 1 touchdown) are challenging assignments as well.
The rookie Wright ran a sub-par 40-yard dash of 4.61 seconds at the NFL Combine but looks significantly faster on the field and is a threat vertically as well as via his ability to gain yards after the catch. All four of the cornerbacks atop New England’s depth chart – Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, and Sterling Moore – should see significant playing time and must be prepared to cover various different options.