The Patriots will travel to Nashville on Saturday in preparation for their regular-season opener against the Titans. Expectations are high for the defending AFC champs, who enter the season with what looks to be an improved defense to complement its already potent offensive attack.
The first step is a matchup against a Titans squad that has turned over the keys to second-year quarterback Jake Locker, a promising young player who can do damage with both his arm and his legs.
With kickoff drawing near, here are five aspects of Sunday's game we’ll be keeping an eye on:
1. Impact of Jones and Hightower. Perhaps no player has generated more buzz defensively this preseason for the Patriots than top draft choice Chandler Jones, but he's not the only rookie expected to make his first NFL start. Fellow first-rounder Dont'a Hightower projects to play extensive reps as a strongside linebacker. These two are primary reasons behind the optimism surrounding the Patriots' defense, as each already appeared comfortable during preseason action. In the case of Jones, the question is how quickly he can become a productive pass-rusher. He has displayed an arsenal of moves that suggests he could be the young sack master the Patriots have been without for quite some time. Hightower's game might not be as flashy, but he'll play a pivotal role in the linebacking corps. Sunday is the first true test for these two, and the defense as a whole.
2. Can Lloyd provide perimeter threat? Offensively, the Patriots' biggest acquisition this offseason was receiver Brandon Lloyd, who flourished while working previously with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. He looks ready to provide the Patriots with the perimeter threat it lacked in 2011, and has developed an early rapport with Tom Brady throughout training camp. Lloyd, wideout Wes Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez look prepared to be the featured receiving quartet. That might mean curtailed individual production compared with recent statistical success, but defenses will be hard-pressed to account for each player. Lloyd could be staring down a seemingly familiar face Sunday, as the Titans may look to match up cornerback Jason McCourty (the identical twin of Patriots cornerback Devin) against Lloyd to try to neutralize his impact.
3. Containing the Titans' speed. One of the biggest challenges will be containing the Titans' speed on both sides of the football. Brady has alluded to it, as has linebacker Jerod Mayo and a host of other Patriots defenders. From an offensive perspective, it means that the Patriots' line must be sturdy in pass protection, and also quick to get to the second level in the running game to impede the path of Tennessee linebackers. Defensively, it means keeping up with such speedsters as tight end Jared Cook, Locker, and especially running back Chris Johnson.
4. 11-man defense on Johnson. Speaking of the former 2,000-yard back, few players have drawn as much praise from the Patriots as Johnson, an elite running back who, despite having a down season in 2011, eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark. Mayo succinctly described Johnson's game on Thursday: "He can break tackles, he's fast. Super fast," he said. "He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He just does it all. There's not too many guys out there like that." Coach Bill Belichick talked at length about playing 11-man defense against Johnson, as he can hurt an opponent from anywhere at any time. Keep an eye on the Patriots' defenders and whether they can stay disciplined in their assignments and pursue Johnson, regardless of where he is on the field.
5. Protection plan. All eyes remain on the Patriots' offensive line, which projects to feature four players at new positions in the post-Matt Light era. The onus is on second-year man Nate Solder to hunker down on Brady's blindside, and he'll have to show that the protection slips he made in preseason will not be a recurring theme. We'll also find out who has emerged in the center competition, with all indications pointing to Ryan Wendell getting the nod. The Patriots' offense is based on precise passing from Brady to his litany of targets, but it starts with dependable protection. The Titans plucked speedy edge-rusher Kamerion Wimbley in free agency this offseason and also feature a front that Brady described as "disruptive." Protecting Brady, both on Sunday and throughout the season, is a critical component to the Patriots' success.