The New England Patriots kicked off the season in grand fashion with a resounding 34-13 win over the Tennessee Titans.
With that performance we begin to get answers to two of the biggest questions that haunted Patriots fans in the off-season.
Off-season Question No. 1 – Will the offensive line, which lost key longtime members such as Matt Light and Dan Koppen, have the horses to control the line of scrimmage, run the ball and protect Tom Brady?
Off-season Question No. 2 – Will the investment in young defensive talent pay off in the form of a championship-caliber defense?
The offensive line responded with an emphatic, Yes! They dominated the line of scrimmage and kept running at full throttle, much like Patriots fans have come to expect out of this unit in recent years.
The performance of the defense is a little more complex. It was stellar at first sight. The team looked younger, faster and dominated the Tennessee ground game.
But if we dig a little deeper into the stats, the data, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, we find that the unit still has steps to take before Patriots fans can be confident that it's a Super Bowl-caliber unit.
The Patriots' Offensive Line
We measure each offensive line at ColdHardFootballFacts.com with our Offensive Hog Index.
It tracks how each unit performs across the board in key measures of OL play: how well a team runs the ball, how well they protect the passer and how well the team controls the clock on third downs.
The Patriots have been an offensive line juggernaut in recent years. They are consistently near the top of our Offensive Hog Index.
So far, so good in 2012. The Patriots enter Week 2 No. 1 – tops in the league – on the Offensive Hog Index.
- They ran the ball effectively, with an average of 4.63 YPA. That's good enough for No. 6 in the NFL after Week 1.
- They suffered just one Negative Pass Play (a sack) in 32 dropbacks by Brady, a rate of 3.13 percent (we define any sack or INT as a Negative Pass Play). The Patriots are tied for No. 2 in that indicator after Week 1.
- They converted 50 percent of third downs. The Patriots are tied for No. 6 in that indicator after Week 1.
It all adds up to No. 1 across the board, the best OL in football through Week 1. We told listeners last week on the Cold, Hard Football Facts radio show on Patriots.com that fans simply should not worry about the offensive line.
The team's track record is too good in this area for too long to worry much about it. And even if the unit took a step back, it would still be good enough to perform at a high level.
So far, so good.
The Patriots Defense
The Patriots, now famously, embarrassed Chris Johnson and the once-vaunted Titans ground game on Sunday. It was a great sign for a team that has had a number of question marks on defense in recent years.
Tennessee ran the ball 16 times for just 20 yards. Johnson, who set the NFL record for yards from scrimmage in 2009 (2,509), was held to 4 yards on 11 rush attempts – the worst game of his career.
The performance on Sunday was actually one of the best in the entire history of the Patriots franchise, dating back to the team's founding in 1960.
Here's a list of the fewest rushing yards against the Patriots in franchise history:
- San Diego (1961): 16 attempts, 2 yards
- Kansas City (1998): 11 attempts, 14 yards
- Buffalo (2005): 12 attempts, 14 yards
- Houston Oilers (1963): 12 attempts, 19 yards
- Seattle (1998): 19 attempts, 20 yards.
- Tennessee (2012): 16 attempts, 20 yards
It was a great effort by the New England defense. But not all is perfect.
The reality is that the ground game is merely a sideshow in the NFL. Games are won by dominating the battle of passing efficiency.
We track the Correlation to Victory of key indicators each week at Cold, Hard Football Facts Insider. It tells us how often teams win games when they win given statistical battles.
And this Correlation to Victory proves, year after year, that winning in the NFL is all about the passing game.
And in this respect, the Patriots still have work to do. Jake Locker, before he left the game with a separated shoulder, was fairly effective against the Patriots in his first NFL start.
Not a good sign for New England, especially for a player known for his inaccuracy in college.
Locker completed 23 of 32 passes (71.9%) for 229 yards, 7.2 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT and an 89.2 passer rating.
Put another way, New England's Defensive Passer Rating – a key measure of team success throughout all of NFL history – was 89.2 when Locker was in the game. The defense looked much better against back-up Matt Hasselbeck.
But even then, the Patriots enter Week 2 in the middle of the pack in all our critical measures of pass defense:
- Defensive Passer Rating – 82.7 (13th)
- Defensive Real QB Rating – 70.79 (13th)
- Defensive Passing Yards Per Attempt – 5.87 (11th)
- Defensive Negative Pass Plays – 6.67% (23rd)
Those are not Super Bowl-caliber numbers. Champions typically rank in the Top 5 in most of all of these indicators. In fact, when it comes to pass defense, those numbers are not much different than what we've seen out of the Patriots in recent years.
Of course, it's only Week 1. There is still room to improve, and time to get it done.