Commentary

Patriots have new difference-makers

Rookies Jones, Hightower combine for game-turning play in win over Titans

Updated: September 9, 2012, 10:57 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

NASHVILLE -- New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones was making his first career NFL regular-season start. For Tennessee Titans left tackle Michael Roos, it was career regular-season start No. 113.

In the battle of youth versus experience, score one for the kid.

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There were many positives for the visiting Patriots in their convincing 34-13 season-opening victory over the Titans at LP Field, but Jones' second-quarter strip sack of quarterback Jake Locker that was returned six yards for a touchdown by fellow rookie Dont'a Hightower topped the charts.

The play changed the game. It also served notice that after years of searching for more difference-makers on defense, Pats coach Bill Belichick might have finally struck gold this year -- not once, but twice.

"Obviously, they got their money's worth for a first-round player," Titans center Fernando Velasco said. "I know statistically they struggled on defense last year, they had bad numbers, but they have a great group of guys over there."

Great might be a bit strong, but Velasco's comparison between the 2011 unit that surrendered too many yards (31st in the NFL) despite being stingier with points allowed (15th) and the current defense hits at the heart of arguably the Patriots' biggest question: What is going to make this year's D any better than what we saw last year?

Jones and Hightower, whom Belichick thought enough of to aggressively trade up to select (21st and 25th respectfully), are a good place to start. One game into the season and their impact is already being felt.

[+] EnlargeChandler Jones
AP Photo/Wade PayneEven Bill Belichick acknowledged Chandler Jones' strip sack of Jake Locker, which was recovered and returned for a TD by Dont'a Hightower, was huge.

The Patriots led 7-3 when Jones delivered the strip sack on a veteran-like outside rush off the right side, as he expertly used his hands by first striking with his right into the retreating Roos, gaining an angle, before coming over the top with his left arm and brushing off Ross' recovery attempt as he closed quickly on Locker. After Hightower scooped up the loose football and rumbled six yards for a touchdown, the Patriots led 14-3 and never looked back.

Roos, a 2008 All-Pro who grew impressed with Jones in recent days after studying his work in the preseason, looked like the rookie on the play.

"Huge play in the game," Belichick said. "Those seven-point swings, defensive scores, are always enormous plays in the National Football League. When you get bonus points like that it normally tips the scale."

After watching the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jones on Sunday, one couldn't help but wonder if his presence might tip the scale to the Patriots becoming a more feared defense.

It's been a quick rise for Jones after opening training camp in late July as the second-unit right end behind Rob Ninkovich. But when Ninkovich missed a few days of camp with an oblique injury, Jones got his chance and he's held the spot since, with Ninkovich moved to the left side (replacing Trevor Scott) upon his return. Not exactly Wally Pipp-like, but an indication that this immediate explosion wasn't part of the Patriots' original script.

One part of the script that hasn't changed is that rookies should remain outside of the spotlight, as the team seemed to take extra effort in shielding Jones and Hightower from any added attention after Sunday's win. Initially, Jones declined interview requests after his five-tackle, one-sack effort, saying he preferred to let veterans do the talking. He eventually relented but said little, his answers clipped and void of the infectious personality that teammates say makes him a fun guy to be around.

Meanwhile, Hightower, who has been described as an "old soul" by captain Jerod Mayo, walked past reporters without saying a word.

That type of approach figures to score big points with teammates, who have praised both first-rounders for their humble approach and tireless work ethic.

Belichick, in his typically understated way, said, "They have both done a good job for us and if they keep working hard, I think they will have a chance to be good players."

They look pretty good already, Coach.

Velasco, the Titans' center, noted Jones' unusual arm length and athleticism that can give opposing tackles trouble. He also highlighted the power of the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Hightower.

"I think he fits their scheme well, especially when they're playing the 4-3, and he's at the [strongside linebacker spot]. He's definitely got some pop," Velasco said of Hightower. "He's definitely strong, stout at the point of attack and does a real good job, especially in the run game."

Run defense and sound fundamental tackling were signature aspects of the Patriots' victory, as the stout unit limited dangerous Chris Johnson to four yards on 11 carries (no, that's not a misprint).

The secondary, on the other hand, was a bit shaky at times although safety Tavon Wilson, the widely scrutinized second-round pick, had an interception early in the second quarter on a tipped long pass in the end zone.

So between Jones, Hightower and Wilson, the Patriots received some immediate return for their significant draft-day investment. It was a difference-making performance, with the Jones strip sack and Hightower recovery for a touchdown the defining play.

"They made their NFL debut, they're going to make 'SportsCenter,' so congratulations to them," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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