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Thursday, September 6, 2012
Opener will be won or lost on edges

By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week is Sunday's season opener against the host Tennessee Titans at LP Field (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Mike: The Patriots have the longest winning streak in season-opening games in the NFL with eight straight. Their last season-opening loss came in 2003 in Buffalo. Of those eight games, two have been on the road (Jets in 2007 and Dolphins in 2011), so this will be a third. It should be a challenging environment against a team they aren't too familiar with compared to others.

Tedy: First of all, thanks for reminding me of that humiliating 31-0 loss, Reiss. But I guess we still did OK that year. When I first saw this opener, it wasn't an automatic victory for the Patriots. I was thinking Matthew Hasselbeck is a solid veteran quarterback that will be able to decipher any types of schemes that coach Bill Belichick breaks out. You have Kenny Britt, who at receiver is the guy who you can just throw it up there and he'll go get it -- that's been a Patriots weak point, defensive backs losing the battle for the ball. But now we get closer to game time and Hasselbeck isn't expected to play because Jake Locker won the job, and Britt is suspended for the game. The dynamics have changed drastically.

Mike: As for the Patriots, you watched closely this preseason. A few quick thoughts: Concern along the offensive line is reasonable, and there is promise for the defense, most notably with Chandler Jones as a difference-making defensive end. I do think it's dangerous to read too much into the preseason, but your impressions?

Tedy: I don't have any great impressions of the Patriots from what I've seen. It's been preseason football. During the preseason, if you watch closely in these games, you could almost tell the themes the team was thinking about to work on. Maybe it was a game to send some pressures at an offense, or a game to work on the screen pass. You might have finished watching the game and thought, "The Patriots are going to be screening a lot this year." But that's not necessarily the case. It's just what they decided to work on that week. I think the biggest thing you can take out of preseason is that your team is basically intact and healthy.

Mike: One of the big takeaways from watching the Titans is that they are mostly intact as well (they did lose starting center Eugene Amano for the year), with running back Chris Johnson the key piece. While his numbers weren't off the charts in the preseason, he showed some of his old explosiveness. That wasn't always on display in 2011, and he told reporters in Tennessee that he never felt in tip-top shape until late November as a result of his contract holdout.

Tedy: There are three goals that Coach Belichick usually gives to the offense, defense and special teams. When you have a runner like Johnson, it's always "set the edge." In this case, it's not just "set the edge" but also "keep the edge." As you set the edge in the running game on that tight end or offensive tackle, and the running back sees it and has to cut it back, if you peek inside, Johnson is the type of player who will go back outside, or the back door. The whole field has to be defended against a player like that.

Chandler Jones
Tedy Bruschi expects the Titans to test Patriots rookie Chandler Jones in the early going.

Mike: You mention setting the edge and one of those edge-setters is Jones, the Patriots' top draft choice. He looks like a difference-maker.

Tedy: What I was impressed with in the preseason was that it didn't look like he was feeling anything out. Rushing the passer, setting the edge on those offensive tackles, it all was aggressive and fast. If he was going to make a mistake, it was going to be overcome from effort and his physicality. He didn't look like he was putting his toe in the water; he was diving in and going full speed and seeing what happens. That can be a good attitude to have. I think they'll attack him to see what he really has. He has the ability, but he's still young. You always want to test a rookie early in the season. I think that's something to watch early.

Mike: That's one of the matchups that figures to be fun to watch: Solid Titans left tackle Michael Roos against Jones. Roos entered the league as a second-round draft choice in 2005 and has started every game for the Titans since. Big guy at 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds; Patriots ends have called him a physical player. Jones is long and athletic at 6-6 and 260 pounds, so it makes sense that the Titans would focus on that area to run the ball -- try to get to the outside.

Tedy: They need to stay away from the middle of the line, because the Patriots have an advantage there with Vince Wilfork and Brandon Spikes up the middle. I think they'll try to test the edges of the Patriots' defense. When you have an athletic quarterback like Locker, he can bootleg out the other way, and get on the edge with his athletic ability. He can hold that defender back because he's checking for that bootleg or quarterback run. That can open up some running lanes. So Locker is another aspect in the running game that the Patriots will have to account for.

Mike: That seems like the right place to start when looking at the Titans' offense: Johnson and Locker. As for the defense, how about right defensive end Kamerion Wimbley?

Tedy: He was screaming off the edge in the preseason. With the Browns and Raiders, he's been an outside linebacker/defensive end type -- Do I rush? Do I cover? -- and he's had to think so much. But going into Tennessee, he's going to be a defensive end and get up the field. That's similar to what he did at Florida State when he came out, so this is what he's used to and this is what he was raised doing in college. When it's made simple like that for a player after a few years of thinking so much, and you can just put your hand in the dirt and get after it, it's almost like a new birth, and you're refreshed. It shows with him.

Mike: The Titans come at you with a lot of options along that defensive line. Karl Klug, a second-year interior backup out of Iowa, led the team with seven sacks last season. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, a 2011 third-round pick out of Southern Cal, is also a highly regarded player. So for a Patriots offensive line that looked shaky at times in the preseason, a big challenge awaits.

Tedy: Tom Brady on the ground with the ball somewhere else and his eyes looking around thinking, "Where did that come from?" is not a good sign, and that's what we saw in the preseason. It looks like Brian Waters isn't coming back. When the team gives out your jersey number, you pretty much know that is where it stands. You have Dan Connolly in there, along with Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell and Donald Thomas. Then at left tackle, you're without Matt Light, one of your bookends who was just really savvy. Nate Solder, his replacement, might have more natural ability, but Light's experience and savvy will be missed. Breaking in a new left tackle can be a problem. It's possible Wimbley breaks free, or someone later in the season, and there may be that moment where all Patriots fans are watching and jaws are open as they're saying, "Get up Tom, Please get up."

Nate Solder
Will Nate Solder be able to fill Matt Light's shoes as Tom Brady's most important protector?

Mike: Overall, this is a young Titans team. The defense plays fast and the unit is quarterbacked by middle linebacker Colin McCarthy. I see some matchups the Patriots can exploit in the secondary if Brady has time. That's the big "if" in this game: Will Brady have the time?

Tedy: Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray has that mentality where he wants his guys to win one-on-one battles without getting too complex on schemes. He wants guys that refuse to get blocked. That's the type of game this is going to be: McCarthy vs. an offensive guard, Jason McCourty vs. Brandon Lloyd, Wimbley vs. Solder.

Mike: One more thought on the season opener: The temperature is projected to be in the mid-70s with moderate humidity, which means the Patriots might have caught a break. The Titans were hoping for a little warmer as they have the advantage of practicing in those elements to be prepared. Look for almost every player on the 46-man game-day roster -- outside of quarterback Ryan Mallett -- to see some time in this one. Belichick has rotated in this game in the past.

Tedy: It will be the most live action every one of these players has seen. It's an entirely different tempo going from preseason to regular-season tempo. It's fast, and with that, Coach Belichick knows you get fatigued. He'll be pumping the idea of hydration all week, and we'll look for that type of liberal substituting on the defensive line in particular. It was clear in the season opener on Wednesday night. Both the Cowboys and the Giants looked fatigued at the end of the game.

Mike: Let's make some predictions here. I think this is a game the Patriots should win. The Titans are the type of team that can sneak up on someone that takes them lightly and I don't see these Patriots doing that. It might be tougher than some people think. Patriots 24, Titans 17.

Tedy: Last year this team exploded in the opener against the Dolphins. I see the same thing happening. I like what Mike Munchak is doing with this team, but with a quarterback who's getting his first NFL start and missing your No. 1 wideout, this will be a long day for the Titans. Patriots 38, Titans 20.