New England Patriots: Questions Left Unanswered After Week 1
The New England Patriots answered many of their questions and shut up a lot of their pundits during an emphatic opening week victory. A few stragglers remain, however.
Few teams' fans likely feel better than the Patriots' do heading into the second week. New England looked dynamic in a 34-13 victory over the Tennessee Titans. They ran the ball, threw the ball and made Titans running back Chris Johnson feel like he was running in a phone booth. A phone booth that is quickly collapsing in on both sides.
But Week 1 isn't a time to brush one's hands, call a team a juggernaut, denounce the competition and make championship reservations. It can be in college, but not in the pro game. The season's too long and the opponents are too good.
In the NFL, teams evolve. Weaknesses get corrected and become strengths. Strengths suddenly spring leaks and become weaknesses, and must in turn get fixed. Teams have questions, every week.
The Patriots are no exception.
It's hard to start a season better than it did, but New England has work to do. It still has questions to answer and areas to prove. Some are doubts and concerns that have just popped up, and some are the same questions that have been there since the start of training camp.
Question No. 1: How Will the Wes Welker Situation Pan Out?
No, not the contract fiasco currently going on between the Patriots and No. 83. That's been an issue, but it's not available for solution anytime soon.
There's a new issue with Welker. An on-the-field one.
Welker, who caught 122 passes last year and has become a household name as the bread and butter of the Patriots passing attack, had a catching line that reads more like a third-down back's rushing stats.
He caught three passes. Three. For a meager 14 yards. He was on the field for 43 of 67 offensive snaps, an anemic (for Welker) 64.2 percent. And the first ball thrown his way since his infamous Super Bowl XLVI drop had a chance for a long gain, only to clang off his facemask.
The Patriots recovered, but Welker didn't, and it's fair to ponder whether Welker was simply a momentary game-plan casualty, or if the offense is moving away from the slot receiver extraordinaire.
Nobody not on the Patriots or their coaching staff knows the answer, but for a team that once couldn't function without going through Welker, it's a surprising dip, and it becomes a suspicious one considering Welker's offseason situation.
A Welker phase-out could just be the Patriots doing what they feel is healthiest for the offense. They do have a pair of franchise tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and a sparkling new deep threat in Brandon Lloyd. At this point, they may just be better targets.
The next few weeks will bring an answer.
Question No. 2: Can the Patriots Cover?
It was a lost point in the wake of New England's incredible run-stopping performance, but it remains as undecided a question as ever.
Can this Patriots team cover? Can they limit the passing game? Can they get off the field when they have to?
The coverage Sunday was mediocre at best. The Patriots did make a big play with Tavon Wilson's second-quarter interception, but flashbacks to New England's 31st-ranked pass defense from last year were in full force in the early going.
Take Tennessee's first drive, for example. The Patriots allowed a 17-yard pass on 3rd-and-7, were flagged for pass interference on 2nd-and-5, gave up a 24-yard pass on 4th-and-1 and got off the field only when Devin McCourty escaped with blatantly illegal defense in the end zone on a 3rd-and-7 pass.
The Patriots allowed five more passes of 14 or more yards, including a 29-yard touchdown strike to Nate Washington. This was against a quarterback making his first career start in Jake Locker, who finished with 229 yards passing.
So is this unit better equipped to go up against elite quarterbacks? Their pass rush appears to be better, but secondary play has to stand up for itself at some point, in order to have a healthy pass defense.
It was wondered coming in if Devin McCourty was ready to snap back into form, if Kyle Arrington would continue a strong season from a year ago, or if Ras-I Dowling could make a sophomore year jump. One week in, we're still wondering.
Question No. 3: How Much of the Load Is Going to Ridley?
Stevan Ridley showed flashes of No. 1 running back ability last year. On Sunday, Ridley pulled together four quarters of highlight reel material.
The second-year back showed plenty of everything, battling the Titans defense with a deadly combination of speed, burst, agility and power. He gained 125 yards on 21 carries, making it look easy in the process.
So Ridley has the look of a primary back. Whether the Patriots intend to make him one is uncertain.
Ridley will be the top ground option going forward, but just how many of the carries he'll command is the question. Second-year back and former second-round pick Shane Vereen is back at practice, and if Vereen is finally able to stay healthy, it's hard to imagine the Patriots letting a high pick just deteriorate on the bench or as an inactive.
If Vereen can go without the injury setbacks long enough to round himself back into playing condition, it'll be interesting to see just how much he shakes up the mix.
Question No. 4: Is the Offense Line Turning Things Around?
It's unusual to praise an offensive line when the quarterback its built to protect comes away from the field bandaged, but the Patriots really did make strides in the right direction in the opener.
Brady may have busted his nose, but it occurred during his one sack for the game, on a hit that was not especially hard. No. 12 was hit only two other times, making it a strong showing overall for an offensive line that was lambasted following an awful preseason display.
The overall well-protected Brady was able to show just why offensive line play is crucial to this Patriots offense. Brady utilizes the play-action pass as well as any quarterback in the league, and he used it as part of his attack on the Titans.
The just-missed connection with Brandon Lloyd on the first offensive series came on a play-action play (a fake reverse, even more impressive). Brady was never even threatened in the pocket, and if Lloyd makes the catch, the play goes down as the perfect example of how lethal the play-action pass can be to the New England offense.
The offensive line showed reason to feel comfortable about it going forward, but it's important to be cautious as well. The Titans don't have a particularly intimidating pass rush, and those offensive line woes from the preseason weren't an accident.
The line still has a ways to go to prove itself. But so far, so good for the men in the trenches.
Question No. 5: Are the Patriots as Good as Advertised, or Are the Titans Worse?
Of the teams that came away with head-turning Week 1 performances, the Patriots had one of the least impressive victories from a competitive opponent standpoint.
The Patriots beat a non-playoff team, and one that offered little reason to think it could get there this year.
So how much of a 34-13 blowout is a result of Patriots domination, and how much is the result of preying on a weak Titans team? How much of what went right can be expected to change against a better opponent?
New England's run defense should feel good about itself. Chris Johnson is a difficult running back to slow down, and an even harder one to completely shut out. The Patriots pulled it off, causing Phil Simms to comment that the team's run defense should be one of the finest on the season.
But the rest of the team's output came against questionable competition. The Titans ranked in the middle and bottom half of the league in passing offense, passing defense and run defense. They also had a quarterback making the first start of his career.
The Patriots have a weak schedule this year, so more of these favorable matchups await. But a challenge is coming up soon, as New England faces Baltimore in Week 3. That game will provide a better litmus test as to just how good this team is.