The Patriots were playing nearly flawless on the defensive line at the end of last season.
Despite some new faces and a switch back from the 3-4 to the 4-3, it picked up right where it left off with stellar play in the Patriots’ 34-13 victory against the Titans Sunday.
The Patriots had much to worry about with a mobile quarterback in Jake Locker looking for any opportunity to run, and the fastest running back in the league, Chris Johnson, able to break a huge run given the smallest crease.
But the Patriots never cracked in their two-gap 4-3 scheme as the Titans rushed for just 20 yards on 16 carries. Sure, the linebackers mostly played well and have to fit properly for the run defense to work, but everything is predicated on the line doing its job.
Some teams want their linemen to shoot gaps to cause disruption in the backfield, especially those in 4-3 schemes. Even though the Patriots have moved from the 3-4 to the 4-3, they have carried over the two-gap responsibilities for the linemen.
The “A” gaps are between the centers and guards. The “B” gaps are between the guards and tackles. The “C” gaps are between the tackles and tight ends, and the “D” gaps are on the outside shoulder of a tight end, should he be there.
The Patriots want the defensive tackles, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, to patrol both the A and B gaps, on either sides of the guards. The ends are responsible for the C and D gaps.
That might seem impossible, and it almost is. But that’s how good the Patriots are. When they are single blocked, the Patriots are to stand the lineman up, read the running back, and then shed the block one way for the other to make or force a play.
Even if the tackles have two blockers pushing against them, they are supposed to anchor and not be moved. The strength it takes is incredible. Yet they do it time and time again.
A perfect example came with 59 seconds left in the third quarter. The Titans spread the field with four receivers, and Johnson next to Locker in the shotgun. The play, an inside zone run behind a pulling guard, should have hit big against a defense with five defensive backs and just two linebackers.
But instead of flowing with the run blockers, the entire line — from right end Chandler Jones, tackles Love and Wilfork, and left end Jermaine Cunningham — stayed perfectly in their gaps.
Johnson found no room to run as Love and Wilfork closed off the middle, Cunningham correctly forced Johnson more to the outside, and cornerback Devin McCourty finished off the play for no gain.
The other part of proper run discipline is for the linebackers to fit the run properly.
The outside linebackers will fill between the ends and the tackles. The middle linebacker is responsible for the area between the two defensive tackles.
When it works perfectly, the running back should see a wall with no breaks and be forced to spill the run outside. That’s what Johnson and the Titans saw all day.
Here are the positional ratings against the Titans:
Quarterback (rating: 3 out of 5)
Not one of Tom Brady’s better games, mostly because the game plan seemed more keen on him not holding the ball behind a new offensive line, instead of pushing it down the field. Brady missed some throws he usually makes, even though he was blitzed just twice and was pressured eight times. It still seems as though this new offense is a little uncomfortable and he’s still adjusting to it. That will change. Brady needs to make a better pass on the play-action fake reverse to Brandon Lloyd. He should have led Lloyd a little bit. In many ways it wasn’t all that different than the throw to Wes Welker in the Super Bowl. Each time Brady saw a safety threat that wasn’t there.
Running backs (rating: 4.5 out of 5)
Stevan Ridley was outstanding, with six broken tackles. Danny Woodhead was solid in just 14 snaps, but Lex Hilliard, understandably, looked lost.
Receivers (rating: 4 out of 5)
There was a lot of good play out of this group, but some shoddy blocking that was uncharacteristic. Rob Gronkowski had three great catches and five of his usual outstanding run blocks. But he also gave up two stuffed runs, and had two other poor run blocks. That’s very unlike him. Aaron Hernandez and Lloyd also had more good plays than bad in the run game, but it can be better. Hernandez played 30 percent of his snaps on or near the line of scrimmage. That’s high, and likely had to because the Titans played just one snap of base defense before the game was out of reach. That’s why the Patriots ran so much. They took what the defense gave them (they haven’t always done that in the past).
Of the snaps Welker didn’t play, nine went to a third tight end or another running back. That’s going to happen in this new offense where the team finally has a legit X receiver in Lloyd. Sure looked like Welker got benched for Julian Edelman after Welker’s drop when he didn’t play a snap on the second series. But outside of that, it appeared the Patriots are trying to steal some rest for Welker (he slowed down last season), and give some well-earned snaps to Edelman. It bears watching.
Offensive line (rating: 3.5 out of 5)
A fairly good showing, even higher if you grade on a curve. Nate Solder (sack, two hurries, two poor runs) and Logan Mankins (three hurries, knockdown, poor run) were inconsistent, though they played very well in the run game at times. Center Ryan Wendell was the best lineman. Both right tackles, Sebastian Vollmer (34 snaps) and Marcus Cannon (38), were solid.
Defensive line (rating: 5 out of 5)
Just terrific, led by Jones (sack, hurry, knockdown, three stuffed runs), who looks like he’s in his fifth year. Cunningham (sack, two stuffs) was physical. Why wasn’t Rob Ninkovich more effective? The Patriots wanted to make Locker beat them from his pocket, not with his feet. It’s fine for Jones to be more aggressive in his rush; he’s coming from Locker’s blind side. It’s more important for Ninkovich to be controlled in front of Locker, because that’s where he wants to run.
Linebackers (rating: 4 out of 5)
Jerod Mayo (two passes defensed, one total stuff) and Dont’a Hightower (tackle for a loss, two hurries, fumble recovery/touchdown) are going to be some duo. That was some play by Hightower on the 3-yard tackle for a loss right before his fumble return for a touchdown. The Patriots were actually in a 3-4 (played a few snaps), with Hightower and Jones the outside linebackers. Hightower took on the pulling guard and fullback, then tackled Johnson with a few fingers.
Secondary (rating: 3 out of 5)
Against a more accurate quarterback with more weapons, this might have been trouble. The fourth-down play to Nate Washington against Kyle Arrington was just a good play. Devin McCourty (two breakups) absolutely should have been flagged for pass interference against Damian Williams in the end zone. Important pass tackle against Williams by Tavon Wilson 47 seconds before halftime. The 35-yard pass to tight end Jared Cook was just a good play against the right coverage. The Patriots were in Cover 3 so the seams are open. With experience, Wilson will react quicker. The 29-yard touchdown to Washington was on safety Steve Gregory. He can’t get a bad angle on Washington in two-deep coverage.
Special teams (rating: 3 out of 5)
Disappointing opening for Zoltan Mesko (33.5 net), who should be bidding for a Pro Bowl berth. Stephen Gostkowski continues to be great on kickoffs. Nate Ebner stood out with two tackles in his first game. Should be a constant threat.