There isn’t more that a coach could ask for than starting out the regular season with a win. Unless the head coach is Bill Belichick and the team is the New England Patriots. In which case, a win is expected.
During the press conference after the Patriots dominating 38-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Bill Belichick wasn’t afraid to admit on the job well done by, “I'm proud of them.” Not to bask in the glory for too long, Belichick pointed out, “There are certainly a lot of things we need to work on [and] things we can do better, but I thought the team really did a good job today all the way around.”
The Patriots had plenty of weaknesses entering their first game in the regular season. Questions of the strength of the young defense and whether or not quarterback Tom Brady would be getting enough protection from the offensive line were some of the team’s biggest problem areas. The contract hold out of Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins has raised concerns for the level of protection that Tom Brady would have in the pocket.
Sunday’s performance by the Patriots in all facets of the game proved that they are more than just a young team with a Super Bowl caliber quarterback.
Defense Makes Statement
The Patriots defense had plenty of doubters prior to the home opener against the Bengals. Some worried that the defense was too young and wouldn’t be able to cover the passing and running game of the Bengals. With recievers like Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens and Jordan Shipley and running back Cedric Benson on the offense, quarterback Carson Palmer had plenty of weapons to choose from.
Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty earned the starting spot opposite second year standout Darius Butler. Butler, who is looking to improve on a mediocre rookie season, recorded eight total tackles. Another player looking to have a better second year is safety Patrick Chung. Chung amassed a team high of 16 total tackles during the matchup against the Bengals. It must be noted that Chung was the sole every-down safety on Sunday and could be highly effective for the remainder of the season.
One of many bright spots for the Patriots defense was in the second quarter by linebacker Gary Guyton. Georgia Tech alum was carefully watching Carson Palmer’s would-be pass to rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham. With a quick cut, Guyton intercepted the ball and outran the entire Bengals’ offense right into the endzone for his first ever defensive touchdown.
Fresh Faces Making Plays
Several players on the Patriots roster had very little experience in the NFL. Some have experience, but due to injury, has struggled to get substantial playing time. The home opener against the Bengals was the perfect opportunity for those players to make a statement.
Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty had a productive training camp and preseason showing. All eyes were on the first round pick and McCourty delivered against some of the best receivers in the league. McCourty successfully covered Terrell Owens to prevent a catch deep in open field. The coverage was tight and McCourty recorded four total tackles for the night, one of which was in special teams coverage.
Another one of the Patriots’ top picks in the 2010 Draft was tight end Rob Gronkowski. In fact, both tight ends that were drafted by the Patriots made plays in their official NFL debut. Gronkowski has become skilled at using his size to be a dominating presence on the field. Standing at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Gronkowski showed versatility during Welker’s first scoring drive as he was responsible for a key block that opened up a path for number 83. Gronkowski only had one catch for one yard during the game. It should also be noted that the singular catch was in the endzone for a touchdown.
Florida’s Aaron Hernandez (the other rookie TE) made quite the impression in his first regular season game in the NFL. On the first offensive drive, Hernandez was Brady’s target for a 45 yard catch. This, of course paved for the Welker scoring drive. Hernandez had the majority of the snaps at tight end with veteran Alge Crumpler for most of the game against the Bengals.
If there was ever a doubt that wide receiver Brandon Tate deserved a spot on the Patriots’ roster, it was erased when Tate turned in a score with a run back. Not just any scoring run, but the longest kick off return since Ellis Hobb returned a kickoff for 95 yards in 2008 against the Oakland Raiders. Tate ran four kickoff returns for 184 total yards against the Bengals.
Welker Starts Off on the Right Foot
Wide receiver Wes Welker’s story is an unbelievable one. Welker recovered from a torn ACL in record time, participated in the majority of training camp sessions, made catched (and took some brutal hits) in the preseason and now starting in the familiar slot position for the first game of the regular season. All of which occurred within eight months of the injury.
Welker completed the game against the Bengals leading the Patriots in receptions with eight for 64 yards and two touchdowns. One of those touchdowns was scored on the first offensive drive by New England. In 2009, Welker recorded 12 receptions for 93 yards and no touchdowns in the home opener against the Buffalo Bills. In comparison, Welker’s performance post ACL injury, ironically, was more productive.
When asked about whether or not he knew he would be playing in the season opener in February, Welker discussed, “There [were] different scenarios kind of talked about, like P.U.P. and ‘save my body' and different things like that. But that's just not in me.” Welker continued, “I can't sit there and watch my team out there playing.... I was sick of it and I was ready to get out there and play.”
Even with the remarkable performance, Welker assured that he is far from being 100%.
“I still have a ways to go. We're not all the way there yet. And, I still have this stupid knee brace that I hate and I can't wait to burn it and everything else. But, we're getting there, slowly but surely..”
The regular season has begun and the Patriots offense and defense will be tested every week. By having one of the toughest schedules in the league, the Patriots will be forced to maintain the high level of explosiveness and toughness all the way through the regular season to have any chance of being a postseason threat.
The Patriots face the New York Jets on Sunday, September 19 in the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Kickoff is set for 4:15 PM.
Kisha Tapangan is a contributing writer for PatriotsInsider.com She also maintains her personal blog Necessary Roughness and can be found on Twitter @KishaT. Be sure to check in all camp long for regular updates by Kisha