The Tennessee Titans open the regular season this Sunday at noon at LP Field against the New England Patriots in a game that will be shown to much of the country on CBS. As the Patriots are playing, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, CBS's designated Patriots crew/pseudo no. 1 team, will be on the call. I'll be on mute at least some of the time.
Since it's the first game of the year, there's no Enemy Intelligence post per se. Then again, the Patriots are probably the team in the league for which rewatching the prior game is least useful. More than any other coach, Bill Belichick puts together very opponent-specific gameplans. Whatever the Patriots will do on Sunday will be what they think will be the best thing to beat the Tennessee Titans and what they think Mike Munchak, Chris Palmer, and Jerry Gray will try to do. I watched some of all four of their preseason games, but even more than most teams the Patriots were exceptionally vanilla in the preseason. That said, I can talk about what the Patriots were.
In 2011, the Patriots were a really good team thanks almost exclusively to an exceptionally efficient passing offense that formed the basis for everything else they did. The Patriots weren't a garden-variety pass offense though but were instead a fairly unusual one. They were a horizontal stretch offense, rarely throwing the ball deep downfield but instead using as much of the 53 yards from sideline to sideline as they could to create space. A big part of their attack was two particularly good tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. One of the several very good writers covering the Patriots, Greg Bedard, recently wrote a very good piece on those two tight ends, what the Patriots were looking for, and how they represent the offensive change from the 2007 16-0 team, so I'll commend that to you. Their big offseason addition was Brandon Lloyd, a much better intermediate to vertical threat than any receiver the Patriots had last season.
With the addition of Lloyd, there's been speculation the Patriots could reassume more of the downfield strike capability that formed the basis of the 2007 team's offense. A young(er) Randy Moss that cared was the greatest deep threat in recent NFL history, though, and while Lloyd is a credible player, he's not in the same category. Tom Brady, while an exceptional quarterback, does not throw a very good deep ball, and even most Patriots homers will acknowledge that. In lieu of better information, I would expect the Patriots to be the same sort of horizontal stretch offense and let Tom Brady pick which windows he wants to throw into. It would not surprise me to see a similar gameplan to the one the Steelers used quite successfully with Ben Roethlisberger last season.
My other big concern about the Patriots when they have the ball is what the two tight ends and the matchup threats they pose allow them to do on the ground. The Titans may react by playing nickel, dime, or Ruby personnel, in which case the Patriots have shown the willingness to simply run the ball down the opponents' threat. The Texans in their blowout win at LP Field last year did similar things to the Titans' nickel package with 2-TE sets.
The biggest reason for optimism I've seen among the Titans is the preseason struggles of the Patriots' offensive line. From what I've seen, though, it's not really that much of a concern. Brady has exceptional pocket presence, and bringing him down is not easy. With all the tight ends on their roster, the Patriots could easily leave extra players in. Positionally, the only position I really see as a question mark is right tackle, where regular starter Sebastian Vollmer is, fittingly, questionable for Sunday's game with a back injury that held him out of much of the preseason. Backup Marcus Cannon isn't nearly as good. If Vollmer can't go, or even if he can, the onus is on Derrick Morgan to fulfill at least some of the hopes the Titans have on him. Whether it's Vollmer or Cannon, the Patriots may choose to keep an extra player in, and that alone would be a win for the Titans. Then again, if they throw a lot of quick passes like the Steelers it may not matter as much.
Defensively, the Patriots last year were mediocre against the run and lousy against the pass. Teams threw the ball against them a lot, and with a lot of success. They've thrown a ton of draft resources at that side of the ball the last half-decade and have relatively modest results to show for it. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is capable of wrecking the interior of the offensive line. They added inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower and end Chandler Jones in the draft. I didn't like Hightower much as a fit for the Titans, but he should be a very solid run-stuffer at inside linebacker. Jason McCourty's twin brother Devin drew a lot of praise when he had a few interceptions in 2010 but was kind of lousy last year and got moved to safety in nickel. Strong safety Patrick Chung is the best player in the secondary.
Unlike on offense, I'm not going to even pretend like I know what the Patriots are going to do, and there's a similarly wide range in what I think the Titans could do on offense. They could score 6 points or 38 and not surprise me that much. The Patriots were a slow team on defense a couple years ago, when the Dolphins had all that success with the Wildcat against them, but are faster now. I'm not expecting Chris Johnson to have a good day. That means more of the game likely rests in Jake Locker's hands, and, well, I've already written I'm not confident in Locker's ability to win the game there.
It's Week 1, and strange, surprising, unusual things can happen. I think the Patriots can and will move the ball on the Titans. I think the Titans can move the ball on the Patriots, though likely not as much as the Patriots will move the ball on the Titans. Last I saw, the Patriots were favored by about 6 points; that's about where I thought the line should be. It's far from inconceivable for me that the Titans win this game, but I'm certainly not expecting it. They'll have to play near-perfect defense, tackle well, hope for a few breaks on defense, and make just enough plays on offense. It's a tall order, but we shall see.