FOXBORO — Wes Welker was not going to give up the football.
It was the sort of reception we’ve seen from Welker a million times — split left, he hauled it a quick little screen from quarterback Tom Brady. Waiting for the blockers to fall into place, once they were where they needed to be, he used them — in this case, tight ends Alge Crumpler and Rob Gronkowski — to pave the way before lunging forward for extra yardage. This time, the receiver crashed over the goal line, giving New England a quick 7-0 first-quarter lead with a nine-yard score.
It was a reception, his second of the day. But the play represented so much more. For the receiver, who shredded his left knee in the 2009 regular-season finale and was originally thought not to have a chance to play in the 2010 opener, it was the end of a long journey, one that started on the back of a cart last January in Houston and included eight months of rehab, thousands of hours of workouts and one pain-in-the-ass knee brace.
“I can’t wait to burn [the brace],” he said with a small smile.
So when he got his hands on the ball, he wasn’t letting up. He held on to it through the post-touchdown celebration, through the high-fives and handshakes from teammates and coaches. As Gillette Stadium danced and cheered and celebrated the start of a new football season, he walked the thing all the way over to the equipment guys. This football was the payoff — the reward for eight months of scratching and clawing and hustling his way back to the field.
“I really didn’t expect to lead off the season scoring a touchdown on the first drive or things like that. It was definitely a special deal,” Welker said. “All the adversity and everything I’ve had to go through this offseason and to get where I’m at and score on the opening drive was definitely a call thing.
“I’ll definitely put that ball in a special spot.”
“I spent a lot of time with him this offseason, and the determination that he has is pretty remarkable,” Brady said of Welker. “[He’s an] extremely mentally tough person. I knew in February, as a matter of fact, or March, that he was going to be back out on the field opening day. It just shows what his mind is all about. He’s really overcome a lot in his career and this thing is only going to make him better.”
Welker, who was targeted 11 times by Brady finished with eight catches and two touchdown receptions in the 38-24 win for the Patriots (click here for the complete recap). The line was relatively tame — his longest reception was a 12-yarder, and the only real pass play where he was a little out of his element was on a fly pattern where Cincinnati cornerback Leon Hall broke up a pass play in the end zone. (Welker would later make his second touchdown catch of the day later on the drive when he hauled in a four-yard TD reception from Brady.)
While it wasn’t the most awesome statistical day of his career, in the end, it was the sweetest 64-yard afternoon he’s ever had.
“I still have a ways to go … we’re not all there yet. I have this stupid knee brace that I hate,” he said with a wry grin. “We’re getting there, slowly but surely. At the same time, [I’m] trying to get in some plays and help the team win however I can.”
Here are nine other things we learned on Sunday:
RANDY MOSS DEMANDS ATTENTION, WHETHER HE’S ON OR OFF THE FIELD
The 16-minute session Moss had with the media after Sunday’s game was fascinating theatre. On the Patriots’ beat, press conferences with Moss are events — they are extremely rare, and while he usually gives himself over to a handful of questions, there’s always the legitimate concern he won’t stay for all of those. While he may be short with the media, he’s always insightful and never boring. For those reasons, and because his appearances are so rare, no single player draws as much attention as Moss.
Sunday marked his longest and most expansive press conference he has given in his three-plus seasons with the Patriots, touching primarily on his contract situation, but also spiraling off to include his feelings about the media, his indifference about a variety of topics, Robert Kraft, Tom Brady and the New York Jets and Darrelle Revis. (For the complete transcript of the press conference, click here, and to get WEEI.com columnist Kirk Minihane’s take on what went down, click here.)
While it overshadowed everything after the game, it also obscured the on-field performance of the receiver. It wasn’t up to his usual standards for a season opener (in his three previous opening day appearances with the Patriots, he averaged nine catches and 147 yards receiving), but there were moments that showed the 33-year-old receiver is still one of the most dangerous threats in the game. He and Brady missed on two deep balls, but Moss still had five catches for 59 yards, with the longest being a nifty 32-yarder where he hauled in a short gainer, stepped back and made cornerback Johnathan Joseph swing and miss on a tackle while he bolted for extra yardage.
No one knows what the future holds for Moss in New England. (It says here that this is the first step in the inevitable departure in free agency, which should come sometime this offseason.) But if he does decide to move on after this season, Sunday’s game — and the postgame soliloquy with the media — is another reminder that we will never see the likes of him around Foxboro ever again … both as an on- and off-field presence.
VINCE WILFORK MADE A GOOD CASE FOR A PASS RUSH COMING UP THE GUT AS OPPOSED TO THE OUTSIDE
The nose tackle was part of a really good sequence in the first quarter involving the New England defensive line, as they were able to get good pressure on Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer on the first three series’. On the Bengals’ first offensive sequence, Vince Wilfork absolutely caved in the pocket, which allowed Tully Banta-Cain and Myron Pryor to share a sack. On the second series, it was fellow defensive lineman Gerard “Big Money” Warren who was able to get good heat on Palmer, which forced a quick throw by the quarterback that ended up landing incomplete.
Later in the first quarter, they were again able to get a great push into the backfield when Mike Wright got to Cedric Benson behind the line of scrimmage. Wright couldn’t bring him down, but Rob Ninkovich did get there, knocking him down, forcing the fumble and coming away with the ball.
As an individual, Wilfork was tremendous, finishing with three tackles and a quarterback hit. He was a big reason why the Bengals steered clear of trying to run up the middle, clogging up the inside and making life miserable for Cincinnati’s interior linemen. He was the anchor of a constantly rotating defensive line, as the Patriots presented a series of defensive fronts as the Bengals struggled to keep up with the blocking assignments.
Even though the Patriots did only have one sack on the day, for a team that had a lot of questions about their pass rush heading into the 2010 season, it was a good opening act — New England had six quarterback hits on the afternoon.
“We know what we have here. We hear a lot of stuff about the pass rush and the rush defense, [defensive backs], this and that — we try to avoid that stuff,” Wilfork said. “Going through camp out there, we had guys knowing what to expect, how to play. We put a game plan together today and executed it.
“Everything’s not perfect, don’t get me wrong, but we did what we wanted to do. We came out with a W. We started the game fast and we finished. Even though there were some little bumps and stuff, some things that we gave up, but we finished. We won the game.”
DESPITE A CRAZY WEEK, TOM BRADY STAYED TRUE TO FORM
On Sunday against the Bengals, no one would have begrudged Brady if he were less than his best. The quarterback had just endured a crazy week, going from the whirlwind that started earlier this week that he was close on a new contract, to an early-morning car crash outside his Back Bay home (and the media circus that followed) to the Thursday night news that he had just agreed on a big new deal that will set a new standard for annual salary for an NFL quarterback.
But in the postgame press conference, Tom Brady looked at a questioner — who asked about his ability to put everything aside and concentrate only on football — like he was speaking Aramaic.
“It’s my job, you know?” he shrugged. “It’s my job. That’s what my teammates expect me to do. They expect me to come out and do my job.”
While Brady and the offense weren’t completely on point from start to finish, he was certainly able to do more than his job, going 25-for-35 for 258 yards and three touchdown passes (two to Welker and one to Rob Gronkowski). He was able to engineer several crisp, efficient drives that kept the New England offense on the field and the Cincinnati group of Chad Ochocino, Terrell Owens, Carson Palmer, Jermaine Gresham and Cedric Benson on the sidelines. In the end, it was enough for him to pick up his seventh straight win on opening day.
“It was a fun day today, I’ll tell you that. The celebration after the game is what it’s all about,” Brady said. “We have a lot of new faces in here, and we’ve been working pretty hard for the entire offseason. Coach said a lot of really meaningful things last night and one of them [was], ‘You know guys, this is when we start keeping score. All of the work we’ve put in, this is what it’s all about.’
“We started really fast. The defense made some really big plays: two returns for touchdowns, which really sparked us. And then throwing it to Wes [Welker] and scoring a couple touchdowns was good, too. Everyone contributed; I think that was the good part about today.”
THE PATRIOTS STILL NEED TO GUARD AGAINST SECOND-HALF DEFENSIVE LETDOWNS
The Patriots’ defense did an excellent job in the first half — the Bengals were unable to develop any sort of offensive consistency through the first 30 minutes of the game. Cincinnati crossed midfield for the first time with just over six minutes left in the first half, were only 2-for-7 on third-down conversions in the first half and their only points came on a field goal late in the second quarter.
But three extended second-half drives — all three of which went for at least 12 plays and a minimum of 73 yards — provided a contrast to the stifling defense displayed by New England in the first half.
“I felt early on we did a great job getting off the field and really neutralizing them in both the run and the pass. Obviously in the second half they made some adjustments — we weren’t too happy about them scoring three touchdowns in the second half,” said linebacker Tully Banta-Cain.
“I think they came out in a no-huddle offense and that obviously got some guys a little bit out of place. They made some adjustments and saw what we were doing. They were able to capitalize on a couple of things. It’s just something that we just need to be prepared to do to come out in the second half.”
GETTING AN EARLY LEAD WAS BIG
Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer threw the ball 19 times in the first half, but faced with a 31-3 deficit by the time he got the ball in the third quarter, the Patriots knew what was coming: Palmer and the Bengals were going to air it out, and they threw the ball 31 times in the third and fourth quarter.
Cincinnati was able to cut into the lead, getting it to 31-17 after a 28-yard touchdown reception by Chad Ochocinco with 22 seconds left in the third quarter, but the Bengals could get no closer. Palmer finished with 345 yards and two touchdowns, but most of it came in garbage time because the Patriots knew what was coming. After the game, he saluted the defensive effort of the Patriots and Bill Belichick.
“I haven’t played against anybody better at it,” Palmer said of Belichick’s defensive game-planning. “I haven’t played against every head coach and coordinator in the league, but he’s won a bunch of Super Bowls for a reason. He is the winningest coach in the game for a reason. He is very good at game-planning and changing game-planning, good at adjusting mid-game. A lot of people that have played for him say he’s the best coach they’ve ever played for, and that’s fair to say.”
THE KIDS WERE ALL RIGHT
It was a good opener for the Patriots’ rookie class — four of the Patriots’ 2010 draft picks were in the starting lineup. First-round pick Devin McCourty (cornerback) and second-round pick Brandon Spikes (linebacker) started on defense and second-round pick Rob Gronkowski (tight end) and Aaron Hernandez (tight end) started on offense.
On offense, Gronkowski and Hernandez were able to provide a variety of looks, while the youthful secondary more than held their own. Second-year cornerback Darius Butler (eight tackles, one pass defensed) struggled for part of the afternoon, but delivered a big hit on Terrell Owens on a third-down pass attempt that ended up forcing a punt. In addition, rookie Devin McCourty (four tackles) had a nice pass-breakup on Owens on the first series, as well as a pass breakup in the end zone at the end of the first half. He also delivered a big hit on Palmer at the goal-line, popping him on his hip and sending him flying out of bounds at the New England 1-yard line.
It was a memorable start for the first round pick, so much so that his agent enjoyed a prideful Tweet as the game came to a close.
“Devin is a real mature kid — he’s been that way since Day 1,” Belichick said. “[He’s] very professional going about his job and being prepared and playing good technique and really trying to play the responsibilities of the defense. He’s been like that all the way. He’s still got a lot to learn, but he’s done a good job for us.”
In addition, safety Pat Chung had a team-high 16 tackles (he had 37 as a rookie). Meanwhile, in his first pro start, Spikes had three tackles and one pass defensed, getting his hands on a second-half pass attempt by Palmer.
“We really try to treat our rookies like they’re not rookies, and we believe that if everybody does their job, there’s no rookies, no thin areas of our defense,” Banta-Cain said. “I think the guys that were out there did a good job. They had a great challenge in Ochocinco and Owens and Shipley and Gresham, and I thought for the most part, they were able to neutralize those guys.”
YOU CANNOT OVERESTIMATE THE WORTH OF BRANDON TATE TO THE NEW ENGLAND RETURN GAME
No matter what you thought of Ellis Hobbs as a cornerback — and he had plenty of detractors in his time with the Patriots — he was a very good kick returner.
After the Patriots traded Hobbs to Philadelphia for draft picks in 2009, New England went through a series of kick returners (Laurence Maroney, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, Kevin Faulk, Darius Butler … even the late, great Isaiah Stanback was used on one occasion) in a fruitless attempt to find someone who could replace Hobbs. In the end, the Patriots ended up averaging 22.7 yards per return — 15th in the league — and were one of only a handful of teams that didn’t run a kick back for a touchdown in 2009.
On a team that prided itself on standout special teams play, it amounted to an embarrassment. There was no consistency, and little hope that the Patriots could ever hope to change a game with their return team.
But with the emergence of Tate, it’s clear that things have changed dramatically. He ripped off a 97-yard return for a touchdown in the preseason, and turned the trick again on Sunday against the Bengals. On Sunday, Tate picked up the squib kick after it had rolled a few seconds, gave a little hop after a few steps, and was off. He raced right up the middle of the field, untouched, and made it 31-3 seconds into the third quarter.
“First, they did like a squib kick that kind of messed up our reads. But I just got it, made a guy or two miss and I was off to the races,” said Tate, who accounted for 224 total yards on the day. “I figure once I beat the kicker, I just threw my head back and took off.”
He covered the 97 yards in just over 12 seconds — not quite Usain Bolt kind of stuff, but good enough to separate himself from three Bengals’ special teamers he left in his wake, and signal to the rest of the league that New England’s return game has, well … returned.
“It’s good to get those points in the kicking game,” Belichick added. “We’ve been working hard on that. We’ve been working hard on our return game. We’ve had some production here so far this year. Of course, today was a big one, so hopefully we can keep that going.”
THE NEW TIGHT ENDS WILL PRESENT ALL SORTS OF PROBLEMS FOR PASS DEFENSES
Cincinnati has a good secondary — it was only one of a handful of teams in the league last season that had more picks (19) than touchdown passes allowed (18). It was sixth in the league in 2009 in fewest average passing yards allowed with 203.1. So when the Patriots started moving receivers around like chess pieces in the first half, you would have thought that Bengals defensive coordinator would be able to respond in kind with some sort of adjustments.
Nope. For much of the afternoon, Cincinnati was overwhelmed with the options the Patriots presented in the passing game. Seven different players caught passes from Brady, as players — particularly the young tight ends, as well as running back Kevin Faulk, who was split wide right on a number of occasions — were everywhere.
New England’s first drive — a crisp five-play sequence — was highlighted by a 45-yard connection from Brady to Hernandez where no Cincinnati defender was within five yards of the rookie tight end when he caught the ball. (Hernandez crossed the field, making good yardage after the catch.) Later in the first half, Brady missed a wide-open Gronkowski, who was streaking down the middle of the field. And in the second half, Brady and Gronkowski were able to exploit a matchup on the goal line where Gronkowski caught a touchdown over a helpless linebacker Dhani Jones for a 1-yard touchdown catch, the first of his professional career.
“It was a great feeling to get the first touchdown,” Gronkowski said of his touchdown. “It was a good executed play, everyone did their job and it was a good throw by the quarterback. It was a great feeling.”
In the end, the rookie tight ends accounted for just two catches and 46 yards of offense. It’s a small sample size, but the versatility they displayed will almost certainly raise some eyebrows around the league.
“That’s part of the position on this team,” Belichick shrugged when he was asked afterward about the tight ends being shifted all over the field. “[For] tight ends through the years, that’s been a big part of their job — formationing, doing different things, giving us some versatility offensively. So that’s a big part of their job.
“Really, they do more than anybody else,” he added. “There are all the assignments on the plays and everything, but the formationing, a lot of it goes on their shoulders. To be able to have that and those guys do a good job is important to us. It makes it hard on the defense to adjust to all of that.”
MORE MOSS-REVIS? YES, PLEASE
Toward the end of his 16-minute Q&A after Sunday’s game, Moss was asked by NESN.com’s Jeff Howe if he was excited to see Darrelle Revis next week. Moss smiled, and revealed some very interesting information. Turns out that Revis was the guy who kept him cranked up all offseason.
“Am I excited to see Revis? I think I am because there was a lot of talk last year. And I’m not taking anything from him — he did some good things last year to be the shutdown corner that he is,” Moss said. “And I’m not scared to say this — I prided my offseason on Revis. Like I said, I take pride in what I do, but what he did last year was something that even opened my eyes up as a wide receiver, that there’s a cornerback out there that I really have to be on my ‘A’ game [for].
“So I prided my offseason on staying off Revis Island.”
It will be just one of the several delicious subplots that will dominate a week’s worth of hype between the Patriots and Jets.
“We’ll come in and watch film [Monday] and get ready for the Jets,” Wilfork said. “That’ll be a pretty tough one, a division game. They always play us tough and its an away game — the first test away. So, we have our hands full. We’re going to enjoy this one today, but we’re going to get right back to work.”