New England Patriots: 3 Developing Signs to Note from Win over Titans
Since a disappointing season in 2009 when they went just 10-6, the Patriots have gone 27-5 in the regular season over the last two seasons. The dry, monotonous head coach, Bill Belichick, always has his troops ready to play, and quarterback Tom Brady can be counted on for a Pro Bowl-caliber performance just about every weekend.
On Sunday, Belichick's game plan and Brady's leadership of the offense were too much for the Titans to handle. Belichick and Brady overwhelming the rest of the NFL is nothing new, of course. The Patriots also won the turnover battle 2-0, which is also old news, as the Patriots are a combined +45 in turnover differential over the last two seasons.
However, there were three things that stood out from this game that were different from the way the Patriots have been winning in recent seasons.
The ability of the defense to shut down the run, the size and athleticism of the defense and the offensive balance displayed by the Patriots on Sunday were signs that while the team remains very good, perhaps they will win with a slightly different style this season.
Shutting Down the Run
Last season, the Patriots were just 24th in the league against the run, allowing 4.6 yards per carry.
On Sunday, playing against one of the best running backs in the league in Chris Johnson, the Patriots held the Titans to an average of just 1.3 yards per carry.
The additions of first-round draft picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower combined with playing Rob Ninkovich at defensive end full time has changed the look of the Patriots front seven. With stout defenders in Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes in the middle, the Patriots Week 1 domination against the run may be a sign of things to come.
Belichick's decision to focus on the front seven in the first round of the draft was a bit surprising given the Patriots struggles in the secondary over the past two seasons (though Jones obviously upgrades the pass rush). However, if the Patriots can make teams one-dimensional by taking away the run, that will significantly help the secondary going forward.
Size and Athleticism of the Defense
With the additions of Hightower (6'4", 270) and Jones (6'5", 260) to go with Wilfork (6'2", 325), Love (6'1", 315), Mayo (6'1", 250) and Spikes (6'2", 255), the Patriots are big and athletic up front.
In the secondary, the Patriots still lack experience, but they are young and athletic back there with Tavon Wilson (22 years old), Sterling Moore (22), Ras-I Dowling (24), Devin McCourty (25), Patrick Chung (25), Kyle Arrington (26), Marquise Cole (28) and Steven Gregory (29).
The only Patriot defender older than 29 is Wilfork, who is showing no signs of slowing down at the age of 30. Youth, along with size and speed, has been served on defense for the Patriots.
In Week 1, they held the Titans to just 16 first downs, 284 yards and 4.7 yards per play while forcing two turnovers. In 2011, they held an opponent under 300 yards only one time all season.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called 35 running plays and 32 passing plays (pass attempts plus sacks) against the Titans.
For comparison, in 2011, the Patriots called 438 running plays compared to 644 passing plays.
As with the defense making opponents one-dimensional by taking away the run, the Patriots ability to establish more balance on offense will only enhance the passing game. Being able to run the ball protects the offensive line because it prevents the defensive line from teeing off in the pass rush.
No one protects the ball better than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but Stevan Ridley clearly brings more burst, power and speed to the Patriots running game than the now-departed Green-Ellis did.
Ridley carried the ball 21 times for 125 yards against the Titans for an average of 6.0 yards per carry. Last season, Ridley had all five of the Patriots running plays of more than 20 yards despite carrying the ball nearly 100 fewer times than Green-Ellis.
One win against a mediocre opponent is admittedly a small sample size that should be taken with a grain of salt. However, the Patriots ability to run the ball to establish balance on offense, stop the run to make the Titans one-dimensional and their combination of size and speed on defense all jumped out on Sunday.
Perhaps these are signs of a new-look Patriots team for 2012. Or, perhaps Belichick and his staff will come up with something entirely different for next Sunday.