Chandler Jones was dancing.
It has been a long time since we have seen a member of the Patriots defense feel good enough about his performance to dance, but in this case, the dance -- kind of a wobbly hula -- was well earned. It was early in the second quarter, and Jones had just delivered a strip sack of Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker, knocking the ball away in the process. Fellow first-rounder Dont’a Hightower scooped it up and rumbled six yards into the end zone, setting off a celebration.
While Jones was the one dancing, ultimately, the whole defense deserved to do all the dancing it wanted. Whether it was hula, limbo, lambada or whatever, it was a dance-worthy kind of day for the defense. New England put up 34 points in a relatively easy 34-13 win over the Titans in Tennessee on Sunday in the season-opener for both teams (click here for the complete recap), but it was the defense that led the way.
Consider: The Patriots allowed one touchdown on the afternoon. The New England run defense limited all-world running back Chris Johnson to a career-low four yards on 11 attempts, and the Titans to 20 ground yards as a team. The Patriots had a pair of sacks. Tennessee had 284 total yards, ran a total of four plays in New England territory in the second and third quarters, and was 5-for-14 on third down.
“I think when you put 11 guys together and you have goals, you don’t want to let the guy beside you down,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “I think throughout the preseason we showed improvements each week.
“We’re very excited about these guys, and very, very happy with the performance that [we] had as a team and as a unit, especially being a defensive lineman and holding a great back to only four yards. That is just good team defense. It’s not just the guys up front. It is the backers, the secondary at times. We all play this game together. As long as we continue to play better and get better as a team, I think we’ll do some special things.”
While Titans quarterback Jake Locker showed some positives, this Tennessee team will never be confused with the 2007 Patriots. After all, the Titans were 17th in the league in total offense last season. But for this New England defense, it’s a starting point. After a 2011 season when the defense struggled against the run and the pass, it was the sort of opening statement the Patriots were hoping to make.
“I tell you, they’ve been playing like that all preseason,” quarterback Tom Brady said of the defenders. “We see them in practice every day. They’re very competitive, they’re competitive on the outside, they rush the quarterback, get turnovers and they do a good job covering backs out of the backfield.
“It was a lot of team defense out there, and I thought the special teams really complemented what we’re doing. It was very much a team win.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday.
A LITTLE BLOOD WON’T FAZE TOM BRADY
The quarterback was knocked around pretty solidly at the start of the game, with Tennessee defensive end Kamerion Wimbley getting him with an accidental knee to the face after dragging him down in the second quarter. The hit bloodied Brady -- it’s the first time I can recall someone drawing blood on a shot to Brady over the course of his professional career.
The quarterback was examined by the team’s medical staff on the sidelines. However, Brady didn’t appear much worse for wear. He finished the first half on a roll, going 10-for-13 for 123 yards and two touchdowns before the half, with two of the incompletions occurring on straight drops on passes to Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker. (He finished 23-for-31 for 236 yards and two touchdowns.)
The best Brady moment of the afternoon came at the end of New England’s first touchdown drive of the regular season. Late in the first quarter, the Patriots took over on their own 33-yard line, and after running back Stevan Ridley couldn’t get anywhere on first-and-10, Brady evaded a Tennessee rush and found Rob Gronkowski cutting over the middle for a 28-yard gain. Ridley followed that with a 17-yard burst, and two plays later, Brady found Aaron Hernandez for the score.
On the touchdown pass, Brady opened with a nice play-action fake to Ridley. The quarterback again stood up to the Titans rush, and moved forward gradually as the pocket started to collapse on the exterior. He looked off three different targets and found Hernandez streaking down the middle of the field after the tight end had split the coverage. He gathered it in inside the five-yard line and walked into the end zone for the score.
After taking a shot from Wimbley, Brady played the rest of the game with a bandage on his nose. Was it broken?
“I have no idea what a broken nose feels like,” Brady said. “It’ll be fine. I need some of that anyway.”
IF THE PATRIOTS ARE USING A RUNNING BACK BY COMMITTEE, IT’S A SMALL COMMITTEE
Ridley had the finest game of his young career Sunday against the Titans, running for a career-best 125 yards on 21 carries with one touchdown. The second-year back averaged six yards per carry, and brought a dynamic presence to the New England running game. He put up more yards in the second half than in the first, and even though he had four carries that actually produced negative yardage, still ended up as the offensive player of the game for the Patriots.
“It always starts up front,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said when asked about the running game. “[The] offensive line did a good job, we had some good holes, the backs ran hard, Stevan ran hard [and] broke some tackles. Our tight ends, our offensive line, our receivers blocked, so it was good complementary game. We had good balance offensively.”
Ridley’s finest moment came early on when he raced around left tackle for a 17-yard gain. He also proved himself to be the kind of back you can depend on with a lead -- during a third-quarter drive where the Patriots were looking to grind out some yards, Ridley accounted for 34 of the 48 yards, a sequence where he was rewarded for his hard work when he plunged over from the one for the touchdown.
It’s also worth mentioning that after stumbling to the finish in 2011 (he had a pair of bad fumbles that functionally finished his season), he was the very picture of ball security against the Titans. Zero turnovers on a team-high 23 touches. It was a very good start for the LSU product.
“When you get days like today and you’re running the ball well you can definitely feel it,” Ridley said. “There were some runs that were there and there some that weren’t. The coaches just did an exceptional job of finding the ones that were doing well and they just kept calling them until they stopped them. ... I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, I was just the player that I was and went out there and played ball.”
BRANDON LLOYD STARTED ON A STRONG NOTE
There was one missed connection between Brady and Lloyd that came early that would have led to a touchdown. With 7:20 left in the first quarter, the Patriots were in a first-and-10 at the Tennessee 48-yard line, and looking efficient in their opening drive. That’s when Brady went deep down the middle of the field to Lloyd, who slowed down and turned awkwardly to face the ball. He wasn’t able to bring it in. (In fact, the off-balance receiver reminded some of Chad Johnson last year in his attempt to make a play on the ball.)
However, after that, it was all good. Lloyd was targeted a team-high eight times, and after the misplay on the first pass attempt, delivered on five of his next seven chances. In the end, he came away with a team-high 69 yards receiving on five catches. While he had other connections with Brady, his best grab of the day came early in the second when he was able to tiptoe along the Tennessee sideline to haul in a 27-yarder.
THERE’S STILL NO ANSWER FOR ROB GRONKOWSKI AND AARON HERNANDEZ
Gronkowski and Hernandez picked up where they left off at the end of last season, and proved that once again, the offense will run through the two young tight ends. Gronkowski was targeted six times and had six catches for 60 yards and a touchdown, while Hernandez had seven targets and six catches of his own for 59 yards.
“He’s just a great player -- I love playing with him,” Gronkowski said of Hernandez. “Overall, as an offense, as a whole, everyone is a great player. And if everyone is doing their job and we’re clicking, we can accomplish anything. We just have to be out there with everyone doing their own job and having good chemistry.”
Gronkowski, who accidentally fumbled the ball when he went to spike it after his touchdown (“The thing slipped right out,” he told reporters after the game) had a number of impressive catches, including his game-high 28-yarder where he was able to evade the coverage and rumble down the sideline before he was knocked out of bounds. The best of the day was probably a fingertip grab with just over three minutes left in the third quarter that showed off his ridiculous catch radius -- he pulled a badly thrown ball off his shoe tops to open a drive that ended with New England’s fourth touchdown of the day.
As for Hernandez, his best moment wasn’t necessarily a catch, although he did do an impressive job creating separation downfield on his touchdown reception. It came midway through the second quarter, with the Patriots facing a third-and-4 at the Tennessee 35. With Hernandez in the backfield, the Patriots executed a direct snap to the tight end, who ended up going off left tackle for a five-yard gain. It was the latest example of Hernandez as an offensive chess piece who has no equal.
“I thought we started better than the past two years that I’ve been here. Good start, a lot to learn from, and we have to get better every week,” Hernandez said. “I felt like we did a great job, and like I said, we have to keep improving -- run game, pass game, and get more dangerous every week.”
IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE THERE WILL BE A BETTER JOB BY THE PATRIOTS RUN DEFENSE THIS YEAR
The Patriots defense held the Titans to 20 net yards rushing on 16 carries, an average of 1.3 yards per carry. And when it came to Chris Johnson, they were more than up to the challenge, never allowing him to get on track and holding him to a career-low four yards on 11 carries.
The heavy lifting was done by the big fellas up front, as defensive tackles Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork were stout in the middle against the Tennessee offensive line. Their success while two-gapping allowed for linebackers like Jerod Mayo (13 tackles, nine of them solo) to flow to the action and prevent Johnson from getting on track.
“He is a phenomenal player,” New England cornerback Devin McCourty said of Johnson. “The thing with Chris Johnson is that he goes anywhere on the field on any run. We just wanted to make sure that we bottled him up and for the most part we were able to do that today.
“Like I said, when you come out in Week 1, you have certain things that you want to get done in a game, and that was certainly one of them. So to get that done, it really shows that we are working hard and coming out there and executing on Sundays.”
WES WELKER HAD A QUIET START TO HIS SEASON
Welker finished with three catches on five targets for a total of 14 yards. It was his lowest output, yardage-wise, since the 2009 regular-season finale against the Texans -- the game where he suffered a brutal knee injury -- when he had one catch for 12 yards. (Before that, you have to go all the way back to the 2006 season when he had one catch for 11 yards in a Dolphins loss to the Jets -- his next-to-last game in a Miami uniform -- to find such an inauspicious day.)
THE NO-HUDDLE RETURNED
After not going no-huddle for the entire 2012 preseason, the Patriots went to it judiciously in the regular-season opener, rolling it out for 17 of their 67 plays from scrimmage, or 25 percent of the time (about the same rate as last season). New England used it twice in the first quarter, six times in the second, once in the third and eight times in the fourth.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE DID WELL
Brady was hit four times (twice by Wimbley) and sacked once, that coming when he was bloodied by Wimbley. (Left tackle Nate Solder was beaten by Wimbley on the second-quarter sack.) As a group, the line deserves kudos for its work -- Brady had time to throw and Ridley ran for a career-best in terms of yardage.
“I think there were some good things, definitely, and we can build off of that -- and improve the bad things too,” Solder said. “I thought our run game was successful at times, and we were protecting pretty well most of the time, so as long as we keep getting better, we’ll be all right.”
Because of injuries and constantly shifting parts over the summer, the Patriots have been unable to build the sort of consistency and continuity that’s needed to help create a successful unit. But the group has the support of the quarterback.
“It hadn’t really come together until this week, with Logan [Mankins] being in there a lot, [Sebastian Vollmer] coming back,” Brady said. “The guys that were in there, and that really earned that spot -- [Nate Solder’s] been out there all camp, he continues to improve. I’m extremely comfortable and confident in those guys, and they’ve worked their butt off. You just got to stand there and make the throws, and that’s what this team really counts on me for.”
Two things that bear watching going forward: one, right tackle Vollmer started the game, but was relieved by Marcus Cannon. This is likely an attempt to get Vollmer -- who was hobbled by injury over the course of the offseason and only recently returned to the practice field -- up to speed slowly. And two, Cannon later slid inside to right guard after Dan Connolly left the game with a head injury in the second half. The loss of Connolly for a time would likely force the Patriots to turn to Donald Thomas or Nick McDonald for depth.
TAVON WILSON IS ALSO A ROOKIE OF CONSEQUENCE
Over the last month, when we’ve written stories about the potential greatness of New England’s rookie class, it’s been Jones, Hightower and everyone else. On Sunday, second-round pick Tavon Wilson was heard from. The defensive back out of Illinois played a very good game -- he had four tackles (three solo) and two passes defensed. He was also part of New England's biggest hit of the day, combining with Mayo for a crunching fourth-quarter hit on Tennessee wide receiver Nate Washington that knocked the ball loose for a fumble that was picked up by Pat Chung. (The play was later overturned.)
And while it probably wasn’t technically his best play of the day, his highlight was the first pick of his pro career. On the second play from scrimmage in the second quarter and with the Titans on the Patriots’ 48-yard line, Locker aired it out, going deep to the New England end zone. Only problem was, he threw a fluttering ball into double coverage. The ball knocked off Kyle Arrington’s helmet, and the quick-thinking Wilson scooped up the ball.