The New England Patriots travel to face the Tennessee Titans today to open the 2012 NFL Regular Season. Week 1 matchups always bring significant shocks to the results page and ambiguity to the buildup as franchises roll out the annual versions of their teams for the first time.
With the Titans starting second-year quarterback Jake Locker, that ambiguity is thickened. Locker showed flashes as a rookie, but played very few snaps. Locker completed 34 of 66 passes with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Since then he has supplanted veteran Matt Hasselbeck as the team's starting quarterback.
It came as no surprise that Locker won the battle, as the Titans had been crafting an offense to suit his skill-set. The addition of rookie receiver Kendall Wright brought in a dynamic play making receiver to pair with the deep threat of Nate Washington and Kenny Britt. Washington and Britt are big physical receivers who can beat defenders for the football while Wright has the ability to adjust to the ball in the air to make difficult receptions. That should help Locker with his accuracy issues while receiving tight end Jared Cook is one of the more difficult bodies in the NFL to stick with.
Fortunately for the Patriots, the Titans star receiver, Britt, is suspended for the game. Without Britt, Kendall Wright will be forced into a starting role and the Patriots defense won't face the difficulty of covering two starting receivers who significantly outweigh their cornerbacks. The return of Ras-I Dowling offers the team a bigger, more physical cornerback to matchup up to Washington while Devin McCourty or Kyle Arrington should be comfortable in a matchup with Wright, at least from a physical point of view.
If the Patriots start both Arrington and McCourty, the Titans will instantly have an advantage with Washington. With Arrington or McCourty covering him, Jake Locker would be able to simply throw the ball up for Washington to go and get it over the smaller defensive backs.
The Patriots defense is very much going to be relying on their head coach's ability to gameplan for a rookie quarterback. The 4-3 base defense that has been used in preseason could easily be transformed into a 3-4 defense in order to throw the youngster off balance. Locker will have to prove that he can adjust in the heat of the regular season. While he is not a rookie and will have benefited from being on the roster last season, adjusting on the field is a lot more difficult than seeing it from the sidelines.
He may be inexperienced, but Locker won the starting job for a reason and will pose some serious problems for the Patriots defense.
Locker's accuracy has a question mark, but his arm strength and athleticism comes with an exclamation point. The Titans will likely look to establish Chris Johnson early in order to set up play action for Locker down the field. With Locker's combination of athleticism and arm strength, hard play actions and bootlegs should become more prominent as the game goes on.
His ability to find receivers deep will allow the Titans' passing game to take off chunks of yardage at a time, but it is Locker's athleticism that will really affect the Patriots' defense. Locker's ability to tuck the ball and run, throw on the edge and escape pressure, will hold the Patriots' weak-side defender on running plays for Chris Johnson. That should open more lanes in the running game while posing more questions of inexperienced defenders such as Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower.
Jones and Hightower will be eager to make impressions on their debuts, but the Titans offense will require them to be more reactive than proactive. If either are caught chasing the ball upfield, Johnson has the ability to cut through holes and carry the ball to the house. Despite a down-year last year, Johnson has game-breaking speed and the ability to win games on his own from the running-back position. Containing him will require not only Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love to play well at defensive tackle, but for every single defender on the field to sustain gap integrity.
The Patriots face a tough task on defense as they will be tempted to push Patrick Chung into the box to create an eight man front against Johnson. However, without the cornerbacks to matchup to Washington and Wright outside, the Patriots also need to contemplate leaving Chung deep to cover the receiving threats.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots offense is somewhat of a juxtaposition of superstars and unknowns.
After having what must have been one of the oldest offensive lines in the NFL last year, the Patriots enter this season with two very inexperienced starters at key positions. Former first-round pick Nate Solder will be Tom Brady's new blindside protector, after the retirement of Matt Light. Fourth year player Ryan Wendell becomes the team's starting center despite only starting five games in his brief career.
Furthermore, the Patriots most recent center, Dan Connolly, is once again a starting guard in the place of Brian Waters. Waters was eventually lost from the team after an off-season when he didn't report and his absence went unexplained. Waters was an excellent addition for the Patriots last year but at 35 years of age he has seemingly given up on football.
That leaves the Patriots with two carry over starters from last season: Logan Mankins and Sebastien Vollmer. Those two are not without problems either however. Mankins is returning from a torn ACL while Vollmer continues to deal with chronic back issues. Protection is the Patriots' most important problem to address this year because Tom Brady is not the type of quarterback who can extend plays with his feet.
If the Patriots can keep Brady upright, he arguably has more weapons this year than at any other point in his career. The addition of Brandon Lloyd gives the Patriots an explosive receiver outside to perfectly complement Wes Welker and take advantage of the matchup advantages the team's tight ends create. Lloyd is not a big name, but he has very safe hands, consistent speed and runs deceptive routes. Lloyd is a good enough receiver that teams will be scared to cover him with just a cornerback.
With Lloyd posing a matchup problem, the Patriots will have four receiving options who could require a double team from week-to-week. Rob Gronkowski's dominance at the tight end position is obvious, he is too fast for linebackers and too big for safeties. Aaron Hernandez's speed at tight end blurs his position tag, while Wes Welker will take advantage of whatever space you afford to him.
Once defenses deal with all of those receivers, they will be limited in bodies to blitz defenders with. Fortunately for the Titans, they should have a marked advantage in the trenches. With Jurrell Casy, a fully healthy Derrick Morgan and versatile Kamerion Wimbley on the defensive line, the Titans can win one-on-one matchups by just rushing four defenders.
Wimbley in particular will be intriguing because he has the ability to drop into the linebacker position. With Akeem Ayers being a similar player at strongside linebacker, the Titans can move pieces around to confuse Brady without bringing more bodies away from coverage. Wimbley and Ayers could swap positions from snap to snap if the Titans want them to. Therefore, while the Titans don't have the players to cover the teams tight ends in single coverage, they do have the pass rushers to disrupt Brady's timing.
Significantly the Patriots are not solely a passing team. The Patriots offense is always more than willing to check to the running game and has done so successfully with BenJarvus Green-Ellis in recent seasons. Green-Ellis has brought his reliability to Cincinnati to be the Bengals starter, but Stevan Ridley has stepped into his starting spot.
Ridley and Shane Vereen battled for the starting job during the off-season, but Vereen has been ruled out for the opening game to hand the job to Ridley. While Ridley offers more explosion to the backfield than Green-Ellis, he has to prove his reliability taking care of the football and picking up pass rushers. If Ridley adds more yards but misses key blocks or fumbles the football, he won't be the starting back for very long.
Even with Ridley's speed and explosion, the Titans defense is very fast and likely won't be intimidated by him. With a lot of younger pieces such as Colin McCarthy, Jurrell Casey, Karl Klug, Derrick Morgan, Akeem Ayers, Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty, the Titans will be more concerned about Brady's ability to manipulate the defense with time in the pocket.
How long Brady is able to hang in the pocket could be the difference between a 1-0 or 0-1 start for both teams.
Cian Fahey writes for Irishcentral and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter@Cianaf