Patriots vs. Titans: 5 Keys to the Game for New England
Now we get to see it all unfold.
After a spring of offseason transactions and summer practices, it's time to see how these New England Patriots really look. After a long wait that included free agency, the draft, minicamps and preseason games, the Patriots are set to truly begin their journey back to (if everything works out) the Super Bowl.
It's time for the season to begin in Foxboro.
First up in Sunday's season opener are the Tennessee Titans, and the Patriots will have their hands full with a variety of challenges, some of which are their own and some of which are presented by their opponent.
How they handle them will go a long way to determining what kind of note New England's promising 2012 season begins on.
Key No. 1: Block
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As simple as it gets.
Anyone watching even the briefest snippets of this preseason came away with the same bottom line. Tom Brady spent too much time on the ground. Too many players looked too overmatched too many times.
The offensive line has to be better—no excuses.
The reason offensive line struggles are so agonizing for the Patriots is that there are so few variables to the offense. The running backs have looked strong. The tight ends and receivers' production is a given. Brady is as consistent as they get.
As long as the offensive line holds its own, there's very little that gets in the way of the Patriots marching down the field. So when Brady is ending up on the ground before he even gets a chance to scan the field, it's as frustrating as it gets.
So on Sunday, the goal is simple. Find a rhythm with the starting group, keep Brady upright and let the offense go to work.
Key No. 2: Watch the Scrambling
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Jake Locker has a strong arm, but he also has quick feet that he'll use to get himself out of trouble. The Patriots need to have a plan for when the former first-round pick decides to try his luck on the ground.
Young quarterbacks—and Locker certainly qualifies as he begins his first season as the full-fledged starter—can have as one of their main weaknesses a tendency to panic, feel the pressure and take off.
For more unathletic quarterbacks, that can help a defense. With Locker, however, it's a dangerous variable.
Bill Belichick has historically made it a point to slow mobile quarterbacks (he held Tim Tebow to 13 yards rushing in the playoffs after Tebow ran for 93 in the first game), so the chances are good that he'll have a spy or another plan up his sleeve to force Locker to stay in the pocket and beat New England with his arm.
Key No. 3: Limit Chris Johnson
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As was said in the previous slide, limiting Jake Locker's scrambling is a way to force the first-year starter to throw.
Another way? Keep Chris Johnson from wreaking havoc on the ground.
Johnson will have his moments, as is always the case with runners that electrifying. But the Patriots need to keep them to isolated incidents, keep Johnson contained overall and force the Titans to find other ways to beat them.
It's a job that's easier said than done, but the Patriots were recently presented with this situation. Last year, New England faced Oakland and leading rusher Darren McFadden. McFadden got loose for a 41-yard scamper, but he was held to 75 yards overall and the Raiders were held to only 19 points.
If Johnson is held to similar stats, that's a victory for New England. Tennessee will be looking for its featured running back to pass 100 total yards and will be counting on that in order to pull out the victory.
Key No. 4: Build Confidence in Coverage
The pass defense got off to a miserable start last season. After looking lukewarm in the opener against Miami, the Patriots' coverage took a step back the next week against the Chargers and was arguably at its worst in Week 3 against the Bills.
The Patriots clearly targeted the secondary as an area for improvement this season, as they dedicated 10 spots on the active roster coming out of camp to cornerbacks and safeties. New England is in good position to avoid last year's dilemma, which saw offensive players and practice squad players pressed into service on defense due to injury.
The Patriots would like to improve the coverage at the top of the depth chart, however, and getting off to a good start would be crucial to that. Confidence plays a big role in coverage, and that confidence would be instilled with a few strong opening performances.
For a player like Devin McCourty, who struggled mightily nearly all of last year, a bad start this year could build up the idea that 2012 will just be another 2011. A strong start, however, and the Rutgers product could feel that he's turned the corner and returned back to his rookie form.
There won't be a Jake Locker aerial circus to deal with Saturday, giving the Patriots a great opportunity to get this season started on the right foot.
Key No. 5: Stay Healthy
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It's a key every week, but in the season opener, preserving team health is all the more important.
Injuries and retirement hit the offensive line hard in the offseason and preseason, but there are other positions that face injury questions going into the season.
The secondary takes a hit if Ras-I Dowling and Patrick Chung fall victim to familiar injury woes. The linebacking corps' two top leaders, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, both had early-season injuries as well.
All the experts are picking this Patriots team to go far, but the wild card is always injuries. Winning Sunday is important, but avoiding major health concerns is up there as well.