It's opening day in the NFL and, as usual, the Patriots rolled to victory. It seems so long ago that Buffalo trounced New England 31-0 back in 2003, and the Pats have now won nine consecutive openers in a row. There was a lot to like from a Patriot's perspective in this one, and to make sure that I don't miss anything, we'll review the game position by position.
The Running Game:
Surpisingly enough, the running game is really what set the tone offensively for the Patriots. Steven Ridley was a beast, racking up 125 rushing yards and averaging 6 per carry. Because Ridley was so successful, Tom Brady and Co. didn't end up with their usual gaudy stats. Josh McDaniels was more than happy to eat up clock and yards through the ground game. New England's aerial assault is always a joy to watch, so in a strange way, Ridley's dominance made the game a little less exciting. Had Brady been forced to chuck the ball all day, the passing stats would likely have been higher and, potentially, the point total as well. Still, the fact that the Patriots attack has suddenly become less one dimensional bodes very well for them down the line. Having a horse like Ridley may have certainly turned the tide in the playoffs for the Pats the past two seasons.
The Passing Game:
While not up to their usual standard of excellence, Tom Brady and his slew of receivers/tight ends still had a pretty good day. Part of their dominance was tempered by Ridley's excellence, and there were a few miscues there as well, such as Brandon Lloyd slowing up on what would have been a wide-open touch down bomb. Lloyd and Gronk also managed to bail out Brady on occasion by hauling in some errant throws with tremendous catches. Other than a muffed post-TD spike, Gronkkowski and Hernandez looked solid. Lloyd showed flashes of brilliance that could become a weekly occurance as he becomes more familiar with Brady. The big surprise for me was how quiet of a day Wes Welker had. He may be working his way back from an undisclosed injury, which could explain things, but overall, the $9M+ that the Patriots are paying him this year seems a tad high based on today's showing. I'm sure that will change though as the season marches on.
The Offensive Line:
Considering that the season could be derailed by an injury to Brady, there's simply no room for error when it comes to protecting #12. Brady took some decent shots today, getting hit four times and sacked once. Nate Solder in particular seemed to have a rough go at it today. This was the big question mark for me heading into the season and it remains that way after today. To be fair though, they did an excellent job of opening up holes for Ridley.
The Patriots' front four were dominant, utterly dominant. In some ways, they may have been too dominant as their overwhelming ability to stuff the run lead to the Titans abandon it and go strictly through the air in the early second half. This opened up the shaky Patriots secondary to more action and ultimately to Jake Locker's only TD throw of the game.
You can't say enough about Chandler Jones' debut, which ended with a sack (a second one was nullified by a penalty) and a strip fumble in the end zone. You gotta love the fact that the fumble forced by the Patriots top 1st round pick was run back for a touchdown by their other 1st round pick.! I think it's officially safe to say that New England's pass rush is no longer anemic. They were swarming the Titans' QB duo and it paid big dividends in the secondary. In the end, the Pats corners still got beat every now and then and there is still work to be done on 3rd down, but there was a marked improvement from last season. I don't know how dominant of a secondary anyone can put up in today's pass-happy NFL, but suffice it to say that this year's crew should no longer be the laughing stock of the NFL.
Nothing too exciting here. Gostkowski nailed two FG's and was booming his kickoffs. He also made a solid tackle on one return, which was called back by a penalty anyway. Zoltan Mesko did an admirable job punting. There were no huge returns by either team, so a nod to the Pats for not making any major mistakes here.
The Pats need better protection for Brady. The passing game could've been more crisp. The secondary needs to capitalize better on the 3rd and longs set up by the impressive run defense.
Stevan Ridley is a beast. Rookies Jones, Hightower, and Wilson all impressed in their NFL debuts. No one is running over the Patriots this season, which bodes well for them as Ray Rice and Arian Foster are the main weapons for the Top 2 AFC challengers.
One final note...
I had mentioned last week that I had chosen Aaron Hernandez as my 1-year old son's favorite player. He's almost two now, and today was the first time he really had the capacity to watch a game with me. I had been talking up the Patriots to him every day for the past several months, and while he doesn't really get what is going on, he knows that we really like the guys with the Flying Elvis on their helmets. For a while, until his short attention span got the better of him, he really enjoyed it when I pointed out "Brady" throwing the ball to "Gronk", "Wes", "Aaron", and "Llyod". After all these months of hearing about these guys, he finally got to see them in action and seemed genuinely excited.
Tonight, as we were getting him ready for bed, I asked him who he watched today, and he said "Patriots". Then I asked him which players he saw, and wouldn't you know, without any real prompting on my part, he said... "Aaron".
I may not do everything right as a father, but there is no denying this: When it comes to properly indoctrinating my son to like sports teams, I am second to none.