Commentary

Front seven stands out for Patriots

There was a lot to like from the linebackers and defensive linemen on Sunday

Updated: September 11, 2012, 8:47 AM ET
By Tedy Bruschi | ESPNBoston.com

Join my weekly chat every Monday to have your question considered for the weekly Bruschi on Tap Q&A. Here we go with some thoughts on the Patriots' impressive Week 1 victory over the Titans ...

Q. How well did Dont'a Hightower really do in his first game? Curious to see how he was in everything else if you take away the fumble return. -- Scot (Texas)

[+] EnlargeDonta Hightower
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesTedy Bruschi liked what he saw from Dont'a Hightower, who scored a touchdown in his first NFL game.

A. Scot, it's always great to see the No. 54 in the end zone. That was a huge play. Hightower is doing very well for a rookie. He has some early strides to make, just like Brandon Spikes had. Spikes had early problems with play-action passes. Early developmental things for young linebackers -- like recognizing the play-action pass and recognizing route combinations -- are a couple examples of things Hightower has to go through.

Q. Tedy, I am so sorry that the Pats gave your number away. That is such a crime. You gave the team and us fans your all for 13 years. Yes, you got paid well. But that number should have retired with you. I work in TV myself, with CBS in fact. I could be placing myself in harm's way for speaking my mind on this topic, since Mr. Kraft has strong CBS ties, but I will roll the dice on this. You are the only 54 to ever play in New England and that is my view. -- Kevin (New York City)

A. I appreciate the sentiment, Kevin. But the No. 54 needs to be worn and it needs to be worn by a 'backer. The Patriots contacted me before they gave Dont'a Hightower No. 54. They didn't have to do that, but they did. I appreciated that. The No. 54 was great to me, and what I told them was that I wish Hightower a long career wearing it, and I hope it brings him the same great fortune it brought me.

Q. What did you think of the front seven, especially the linebackers? They looked like they were flying all over field and very tough to run on. Are you concerned there is no depth behind the starting linebackers? -- Dan

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What were you the most impressed by in the Pats' win over the Titans?

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A. I'm really starting to like these 'backers. One of the most entertaining things for me to watch is Brandon Spikes attack the line of scrimmage. He is their thumper. Hightower is starting to come into his own, and then you have Jerod Mayo, who can do it all. This linebacker unit has great potential.

Q. The way the Patriots played Sunday reminded me of the three-in-four-years championship heyday. I know it's one game but did you see any similarity? -- Angel (Florida)

A. When we won championships, there was one similar characteristic to all those defenses -- big plays that resulted in points. Sometimes just turnovers, sometimes scoring on defense. That's exactly what this defense did on opening day. If they can keep this up, they're on their way.

Q. It seemed we gave up a few too many third-and-long opportunities. They did an amazing job stopping Chris Johnson, but got burned a few times on long third-down completions. Do you see Bill Belichick going over that this week, and what could possibly be the answer? -- T.J. (Melbourne, Fla.)

A. That's a great point. Third-down defense has been a nemesis in the past (28th last year, 32nd in 2010). It was a great win yesterday but let's remember, it was Jake Locker's first career start and wide receiver Kenny Britt was suspended. Let's take this victory with a grain of salt. The pass defense is the area that all offenses will attack this defensive unit. Are you going to try to run up the middle on Vince Wilfork? Not a good idea.

Q. Do you think Jermaine Cunningham deserves to get more snaps? Rob Ninkovich was very ineffective yesterday. Is there any way he gets more of his snaps at defensive end next week? -- Nick (Boston)

A. Nick, watching Cunningham play against the guard reminded me of the Giants' NASCAR package. I think that's a great role for him. He can utilize his quickness on the guard and make plays just like he did. Early on in my career, I did the same thing.

Q. If the Pats' defense can make teams one-dimensional like they did to the Titans on Sunday, can you see them making yet another run toward the Super Bowl? -- Justin (Providence, R.I.)

A. I already see them making a strong run to the Super Bowl. But if they continue to hold quality runners like Chris Johnson to just four yards, and more importantly make big plays -- like scoring early on defense -- this team will be off and running.

Q. Great team win. Came away happier with that win than I expected I would. What was your take on the play of the top three corners? One thing I'm curious about is why they never turn around and face the ball. Seems like they miss opportunities to make a play on the ball and run the risk of getting a pass interference call. Is this poor execution or something they are coached to do to avoid big plays? -- Tron (Waltham, Mass.)

A. That's a technical question, Tron. There were some calls that the replacement officials missed, but that's just the way it is right now. Young corners like Ras-I Dowling are going to be counted on, and if these officials are going to continue to call the games like this, you can bet the coaching staff will coach accordingly. Right now, I see this league reverting back to the way it was five years ago, or even further. I watched every game yesterday, and defenders across the league are starting to be more aggressive, seeing what they can get away with. If that is the case, that plays into the Patriots' hands. Coach Belichick will have them play more physical in the 5-yard area and beyond. Something to watch.

Q. How important was it for the Patriots and Stevan Ridley to come out and have establish the run like they did? If Ridley can keep this up, teams will have to honor the run and not put all their guys in coverage. -- Matt (Chicago)

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
AP Photo/Joe HowellIf Stevan Ridley can reproduce what he did Sunday (125 rushing yards) on a consistent basis, it could open up all kinds of good things in the passing game.

A. It's a huge problem for defenses if Ridley can continue this production. When the Patriots come out in a two-tight end set, and they are in the huddle with obvious running personnel, defenses have to respect it with Ridley back there. If they do, by the way, those two tight ends are Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez. You have an incredible amount of offensive options with that. I'm keeping a close eye on Ridley. He did some good things, but I'm just not 100 percent sold yet.

Q. Wes Welker was close to nonexistent, do you think this could have been a scheme to open the offense for him more in weeks to come, or was it a case of him just not getting open? -- Smitty (Marblehead, Mass.)

A. Let's remember, Smitty, this is a game-plan team and things will change from week to week based on what defenses they see. Part of this week's game plan was to re-establish a physical ground game. They did that, but the effects of that will be fewer opportunities for receivers. As you get fewer balls thrown to you, you have to catch them. Wes can't let balls bounce off his face mask. He knows that.

Q. What did you think of Randy Moss' return? Did he look explosive to you? -- Sam (Nashua, N.H.)

A. When you get Randy Moss a touchdown early in the season, he can get rolling. He didn't look like his old explosive self and the Packers didn't seem to be overplaying him -- having him single-covered. He's going to help that team, but don't expect 23 touchdowns again.

Q. The offensive line was the biggest story heading into Week 1. It performed well enough, though Kamerion Wimbley slipped by Nate Solder virtually untouched at least twice that I saw. One resulted in Tennessee's single sack for the day, and the other flushed Tom Brady out of the pocket and he airmailed his throw over Aaron Hernandez all alone in the end zone. The Pats have some elite pass rush defenses on the schedule. How do they respond? -- Tyler (Peterborough, N.H.)

A. Solder has to get better and he will as the season progresses. You just have to hope, as he's getting better, he doesn't give up a blindside shot on Tom Brady that puts Brady out for an extended period of time. The hits that Brady takes will have a cumulative effect on his play late in the year. Tom's tough, so he's going to get up. But those big hits don't go away in a day or two. Sometimes they can linger. These hits must be minimized.

Q. Just wondering if you can comment on Nate Ebner, who led the team in special teams tackles yesterday in his first NFL game. Somebody (maybe your old pal Mike Vrabel) must have seen something in the ex-rugby player to warrant a draft pick, let alone a spot on the roster. Do you think he can ever be more than just a special teams guy? -- George (Providence, R.I.)

A. The longer that Coach Belichick's tenure goes in the NFL, the more resources he will have in both the collegiate and professional ranks. And Coach Belichick absolutely loves that, because what he loves to do is collect information. Having Vrabel at Ohio State is a definite resource and there is no one who knew Ebner better. I am sure that resource was tapped.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

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