Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals is drawing nearer, and the New England Patriots look poised for another win after easily turning down the Tennessee Titans 34-10 to open things up in the 2012 season. It’s time to take stock of the Pats this Friday afternoon and look at five players who could be in for big days against the Cardinals.
1. DE Chandler Jones
In my mind, the most impressive thing about Chandler Jones’s performance against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday wasn’t his pass rushing; it was his work in run defense. He did an excellent job redirecting runs and making stops on his own and was a big reason why the Patriots were able to hold down Chris Johnson to just four rushing yards. Jones was also solid as a pass rusher with a strip-sack and a few other hurries, but his best work was against the run. To have this kind of a two-way rookie at end makes losing Andre Carter a gain, if that makes any sense.
In any case, D’Anthony Batiste is starting for the Cardinals, which means Jones is going to be in for a huge day. He played well against Michael Roos in his debut, so imagine the type of production he will have against a journeyman left tackle who isn’t nearly a starting caliber player. Jones will have a big day, and he is going to make Kevin Kolb look extremely uncomfortable back there. The Pats secondary, which will have to face the great Larry Fitzgerald, will surely thank their rookie end for it.
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2. Dont’a Hightower
While Jones played at a high level against the Titans, it was Dont’a Hightower who proved to be the best rookie on the field. He was simply all over the place and made some big plays against the run and also contributed nicely as a pass rusher. He gave David Stewart more than he could handle in helping the Patriots defense shut down CJ2K. Hightower has all the tools and the early production to be the next great linebacker in New England. He, Brandon Spikes, and Jerod Mayo make up arguably the best group of 4-3 LBs in the NFL, and Hightower and Jones are the two favorites to win Rookie of the Year early on. Hightower was simply fantastic.
Hightower should be able to have a big game against Cardinals right tackle Bobby Massie, who is a rookie thrown into a starting role due to injuries. Massie is going to get beat badly in this game as well.
3. C Ryan Wendell
I was thoroughly impressed with the job that Wendell did on Sunday against Tennessee, as he looked comfortable against a solid Titans triangle of Jurrell Casey, Karl Klug, and Colin McCarthy. Wendell was close to being perfect, and he will need to maintain that level of play against Arizona.
Dan Williams still hasn’t put it together, but inside linebacker Daryl Washington has. He’s one of the best pass rushing ILB/MLBs in the NFL, and he had five sacks last year to prove it. His 107 tackles in 2011 combined with a big contract extension help to prove that he is one of the best young linebackers in this league, one of the most important players on the team, and an absolute beast against the run. Wendell will need to be at the top of his game again in order to help ensure more success for running back Stevan Ridley, who will be facing a stauncher test against the Cards.
4. TE Rob Gronkowski
Although Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson form the NFL’s best pass rushing and covering safety duo in the league, one of either Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, or Rob Gronkowski is bound to have a big day. The Cardinals linebackers are not good in coverage at all, and Rhodes is more of a deep cover safety. Wilson and Rhodes will also be blitzing, with Wilson playing close to the LOS as well.
Two of those three guys could be in line for big days, with Brandon Lloyd seemingly being used to draw coverage away from them and focus Rhodes’s attention on bracketing him to help out young CB Patrick Peterson. Gronkowski is my pick to have the biggest day of those guys, simply because he’s going to be the guy commanding the most matchups against those linebackers. I would also be sure to key on running back Shane Vereen, who is a top pass-catching option out of the backfield and is now healthy. It will be interesting to see how much the Patriots involve him, mainly with regards to his utilization in the passing game.
5. FS Tavon Wilson
After a good game against the Titans, Tavon Wilson is establishing himself as the best coverage safety on the Patriots. While Steve Gregory and, especially, Patrick Chung make more of a difference against the run, Wilson could very well be better than both of them in coverage already. He can cover tight ends as a “money” linebacker, and Wilson is also adept in deep coverage.
Devin McCourty will be the guy getting the most action against Fitzgerald, but it is important for the Patriots to be able to effectively bracket him. Gregory was poor in deep coverage against the Titans, while Chung doesn’t fit that role. Wilson can bracket Fitzgerald, but they could also use him in other line-ups. The main thing here is to see what the Patriots do with Wilson and if they use him as a traditional safety, a nickel safety, or a money linebacker.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.