Football is back this weekend, and while there are still many unknowns about the Pats and Titans we’re going to take a crack at some of the key places where the game will likely be won or lost for our beloved Patriots.
1. Stop Chris Johnson - You probably saw this one coming, didn’t you? There’s no secret Johnson remains the top weapon on the Titan offense, and the critical piece that the Pats must stop. The good news is that the Patriots defense has generally been pretty good against the run in recent years, but they’ll be put to the test if the continue with the base defense having Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones as their defensive ends. Part of me wonders if they might swap out one of those two for Brandon Deaderick to get some more beef up front. Perhaps even more interesting will be to see how the Pats deal with Johnson when the Titans split Johnson out wide. I’d expect Jerod Mayo to be on him but you can’t rule out Patrick Chung.
2. Protect Brady - If the Pats just protected Brady every week they’d win close to 90% of their games, but now with some turnover along the line it’s no longer a given that the protection will be solid. Kamerion Wimbley should pose a significant challenge to the Patriots tackles, but the real question is how the middle of the line holds up with a still-recovering Logan Mankins, new starting center Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly sliding to right guard after spending last season at center. We’ve seen so many different combinations along the line this preseason no one even knows for sure who will be where, nor if they’ll even be there for the entire game. If this group can’t keep Brady clean things could get really interesting, and I don’t like when that happens.
3. Eliminate Bad Football - Opening games almost always have an element of fluke to them. The timing isn’t quite there, nor is the game conditioning quite where it needs to be, thus it often results in sloppy football in general. If the Patriots can just keep the turnovers and penalties to a minimum they’ll have a very good chance to win the game. That’s easier said than done, especially on the road. At least it sounds like the heat won’t be a major factor with forecasts projecting mid-70s. The Pats don’t need to be dominating, they just need to play methodically and clean and the rest should take care of itself.
4. Force continued execution by Jake Locker - I’m really expecting the Titans to throw the ball early and often regardless of how Johnson is doing. We’ve all seen the Pats pass defense over the past few years, and until they prove otherwise the Titans should take everything the bend-don’t-break gives them. Against a first-time starter like Locker I’m actually okay with this tactic of focusing on not giving up the big play, and force him to put together 10-play-plus drives. As we noted in number three execution isn’t always razor sharp in opening games, so let’s put the Titans offensive execution to the test.
5. Win - Ultimately this is the only thing that matters. Opening a season with a quality road win would really get the 2012 campaign off on the right foot. I don’t care about style points, and I don’t care that no one is going to be overly impressed that we beat the Titans. A win is a win, and it will mean a one game lead already over the Jets or Bills.