- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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They’ve got a lot of young talent, headlined by a young and unproven quarterback.
And on opening day at LP Field, the Tennessee Titans have the ultimate measuring stick: The New England Patriots are the defending AFC champions and the franchise that’s been the model for consistently contending in the conference.
Titans general manager Ruston Webster and coach Mike Munchak are in their first and second years, respectively, in their posts. They seek to establish a pathway to finding and fielding talent and a team culture the way Bill Belichick has in New England.
A Titans upset Sunday would do a lot for the early stages of the process. It won’t come easily, as the Patriots will bring an eight-game opening-day winning streak to Music City.
In advance of the game, I invited Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com to banter about it.
Paul Kuharsky: The popular thinking during the Titans’ quarterback battle was that veteran Matt Hasselbeck would be better able to handle a team like New England than Jake Locker would. But it’s Locker who will be under center Sunday, making his first start against the defending AFC champs.
New England might not be a defensive football team, Mike, but I feel pretty confident that the Patriots will have a laundry list of things intended to overwhelm a young quarterback making his first NFL start.
Mike Reiss: Part of me wonders if Belichick would have preferred seeing Hasselbeck in there, just because there is more NFL background on him to study. Belichick often talks about how the opening game of a season is so unpredictable, and this adds another layer to the preparation. The main thing Belichick has been stressing with Locker is how athletic he is, so keeping him in the pocket with good rush-lane integrity figures to be a focus for the revamped Patriots defensive front. Belichick figures to make limiting running back Chris Johnson a No. 1 priority, with the idea of putting the game in Locker's hands to see how he responds. It seems that's the place to start with the Titans' offense -- Johnson and Locker.
PK: The interior run blocking and Johnson's effort were huge questions in Munchak's first season as head coach. Johnson has admitted his holdout affected his game more than he expected it would. Tennessee looked at a bunch of free-agent centers, including Dan Koppen, before sticking with the status quo. Then center Eugene Amano suffered a season-ending torn triceps early in camp. So Fernando Velasco is the guy now. While new left guard Steve Hutchinson will do all he can to help, I figure the Patriots will be hoping to get Velasco and the Titans' lesser guard, Leroy Harris, in bad spots against Vince Wilfork. As for Johnson, no less an authority than Eddie George said the speedster got into a bad habit last season when he stopped moving his feet upon initial contact. We'll be watching for that Sunday at LP Field. Does he make a quick lateral move and give himself a chance to keep going when the first guy gets to him? Or does he stall? If it's the second option, he'll be doomed.
How about running back the other way? BenJarvus Green-Ellis is gone now, so what's the Patriots' pecking order at the position? The Titans seem pretty solid up the middle if they are at full strength with Sen'Derrick Marks and Jurrell Casey. Isn't New England's group of backs mostly littler than you?
MR: I see what you did there, Paul. Very clever. But as Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, Kevin Faulk and others have shown us over the years, sometimes the smallest dog in the fight has the biggest bite. The Patriots have really turned over their running back position from just two years ago. What was once the oldest position on the roster is now defined by youth -- second-year backs Stevan Ridley (third round, LSU) and Shane Vereen (second round, Cal) top the depth chart, with the 5-foot-8, 200-pound Woodhead (fifth year) the change-of-pace back who plays a lot because of how much the offense is in the shotgun. Rookie Brandon Bolden, who took the same path as Green-Ellis to make the roster as an undrafted free agent out of Mississippi, is the fourth option. Ridley and Bolden are both 5-11 and 220 pounds. They run with power. Vereen (5-9, 205) brings more of a speed element, although it is unlikely we will see him after he hobbled off in the team's third preseason game and hasn't practiced since. There is more big-play potential with this group that they had last year with Green-Ellis leading all running backs by playing 34 percent of the snaps. Don't sleep on this group, although it's safe to say the Patriots are an attack that will lean more heavily toward the pass. So protection for Tom Brady figures to be key, and they had a shaky preseason in that area.
PK: In my view, for the Titans to have a chance to pull an upset here, they'll need to really harass Brady. I think making New England use Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as help in pass protection will wind up their best chance to defend those tight ends. Rookie linebacker Zach Brown was drafted because he can keep up with guys like that, but in his first game – while I expect him to have some sort of nickel role -- I think it'd be awfully hard to be a successful part of slowing them. Tennessee's pass rush looks to be operating inside out -- Casey may be their best defensive lineman -- so it will be interesting to see how effectively Brady can slide or step up, and if a second guy will arrive to get to him.
One matchup I think can be better than most think is Alterraun Verner against Welker. Certainly there are some plays where you cannot stop what Brady and Welker are doing. But Verner had a real knack for disrupting the quick stuff that gets fed to slot receivers. I look for him to make a couple plays.
MR: Watching the Patriots this preseason, it's fair to say pass protection is a concern. Brady took some big hits, fumbling against the Saints and Buccaneers. This has been a successful formula for teams that can pull it off -- disrupt the passing game by getting to Brady early. The problem is that not all teams can do that. Here are a few things to keep in mind: 2011 first-round draft choice Nate Solder is now the team's permanent left tackle, stepping in for the retired Matt Light. There have been some growing pains, so if we're talking matchups to watch, how about Solder against Kamerion Wimbley? Also, there is some uncertainty as to who will start at center, as the team's longtime option there, Koppen, was released at the final cutdown. Add in that left guard Logan Mankins (coming back from a torn ACL) played just 11 snaps this preseason and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (returning from a back injury) played just nine snaps in the preseason, and this is a unit that bears watching on Sunday. The Titans have a chance to control the line of scrimmage.
PK: That's good work in terms of talking me out of feeling like we're going to watch a blowout unfold. (Yes, 2009 is ancient history, but it's hard to forget 59-0 at Gillette Stadium.) I remained convinced the Patriots will find their points. Heck, they scored 30 or more 12 times last season, topping 40 twice. Add Brandon Lloyd to the mix on offense, and I expect Brady to help them post a crooked number. To pull an upset, I think Locker will have to manage the same.
That's as close as I'll come to picking it -- I hate putting myself in position to root for a result to make myself look smart. You know what a challenge that is for me even without making a pick.
MR: I think this is a game the Patriots should win. The Titans are a team that if you sleep on them, they will beat you, but that usually isn't a problem for the Patriots, because Belichick doesn't allow for complacency. The Titans probably hoped for higher temperatures than the predicted mid-70s. Still, look for Belichick to rotate a lot of his personnel as a way of keeping them fresh. The one position that won't be in play is quarterback, and I think it's fair to say that's the big difference in this game -- Brady. Big advantage there for the Patriots.
PK: Impossible to argue that point, so this looks like our ending.