NASHVILLE — For one day at least, the kids were all right. More than all right, really.
First-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower combined for a game-turning play in the first half, second-round pick Tavon Wilson snagged his first interception, and second-year running back Stevan Ridley had the best day of his young career as New England began the 2012 season with a 34-13 win over Tennessee Sunday at LP Field.
And those four youngsters weren’t the only ones to get in on the party. With an eye-opening 31 of 46 players on the opening-day roster coming in at 26 or younger — the youngest team of coach Bill Belichick’s New England tenure — it was hard to find a bambino who didn’t play a role in the outcome of the game.
The “old” guys got involved too, of course.
“That was quite a good win by our players,” Belichick said. “Those guys did a really good job. We did a good job running the ball offensively . . . made some big plays, turned the ball over and had good field position, so it was a good team win. All three units contributed.
“We had a lot of guys step up and if we can play that way [every game] we’ll be all right, but it was good to see everyone contribute and all the units do a good job for us.”
As the Patriots won their ninth straight season opener, Tom Brady completed 23 of 31 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. The offensive line, which had been a concern for weeks, held up fairly well despite several changes during the course of the game; Brady was sacked just once, hit four times, and the line also did a good job blocking for Ridley.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer started, but he played just two series in the first quarter and two series in the third quarter, for a total of 28 snaps. When he came off, Marcus Cannon came on.
Also, Dan Connolly, who started at right guard, left the game in the second half after suffering what the team called a head injury playing fullback on a goal-line play. Donald Thomas replaced him.
“I am extremely comfortable and confident in those guys and they work their butt off,” Brady said of the line. “I just have to stand there and make those throws because that’s what this team really counts on me for.”
On the one sack Brady did suffer, early in the second quarter, he took a shot to his nose. Kamerion Wimbley hit Brady hard, and as he went down, Brady’s chinstrap loosened and his helmet moved. As Wimbley was getting up, his shin went through Brady’s facemask and hit his nose hard.
Brady was on the sideline bloodied, and after the game, while wearing a bandage over the bridge of his nose, said he didn’t mind a little blood. NFL.com reported that he did not have a broken nose.
“It was a fun game and a big win,” said Brady. “The defense, we see them in practice every day; they’re very competitive, they’re competitive on the outside, they rush the quarterback, get turnovers. There was a lot of team defense out there, and I thought the special teams really complemented what we were doing. It was very much a team win.”
It didn’t take long for the youngsters to start asserting themselves. Two plays into the second quarter, with the Titans just inside New England territory, quarterback Jake Locker threw a wobbly pass for Nate Washington near the goal line. Kyle Arrington batted the ball up and Wilson made the diving catch in the end zone for the pick.
The Patriots’ offense wasn’t able to convert the turnover into points, but there was no issue getting a score on the defense’s second turnover. On Tennessee’s next possession, it started at its 10-yard line and a first-down pass from Locker to Washington, a catchable ball, went right through the receiver’s hands.
On second down, Locker handed off to Chris Johnson, who looked nothing like the electric running back he was in 2010, and Hightower came up quickly, dropping him for a 3-yard loss.
For the day, Johnson had 11 carries for just four yards, though he did have six catches for 47 yards.
“Effort,” Kyle Love said of the defense stymying Johnson. “It was nothing special; everybody was where they were supposed to be. It was just a lot of effort.”
On the next snap, Jones beat left tackle Michael Roos for a strip sack, and Hightower was right there to pick it up and go the short 6 yards for a touchdown.
The rookies enjoyed their celebration, with Jones doing what looked to be a hula dance in the end zone.
The score put the Patriots up, 14-3, and they never looked back.
“I feel like it was a good play; we saw an opportunity and we took it,” Jones said. “I had an outside move, beat him with an outside move, capitalized on what they gave me. My thing was to get out there, execute, that was my main goal, to go out there and do what I was supposed to do.”
“Love it,” Rob Ninkovich said of the play. “It was just a good play, an overall play. I was trying to peel back and I saw the ball come out, I saw Dont’a pick it up; I tried to throw him into the end zone.”
Tennessee got on the board on its first drive, settling for a field goal after what clearly looked like pass interference on Devin McCourty in the end zone on third down was not called. The Titans took the 3 points.
That drive included a gutsy fourth-and-1 call at the Patriots 37 by coach Mike Munchak, who let Locker, making his first NFL start, pass instead of trying a sneak. Locker floated a pass to Washington on the left sideline, and he came down with a 24-yard catch.
“Every team comes out and they are going to have their best plays that they are going to run,” Ninkovich said. “You just have to settle down and understand what they are trying to attack on us, and go from there. I think we did a good job of taking the first drive for what it was, adjusting to it, and playing the rest of the game.”
New England punted on its first possession, but then settled in on its second, with a 28-yard reception from Rob Gronkowski, 17-yard run by Ridley, and a 23-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez making short work of a 67-yard drive.
The Patriots scored again in the second quarter, on a short pass to Gronkowski in the back right corner of the end zone, and took a 21-3 lead into halftime.
Ridley made his mark on the Patriots’ fourth scoring drive when he picked up 35 of the 48 yards, including the 1-yard touchdown, putting New England ahead, 28-10.
A third-round pick last year, Ridley finished with 125 yards on 21 carries, a 6-yard average.
“He ran the ball extremely well,” Brady said. “We have to continue to do that — it was balanced in terms of running and passing, and that’s what makes it tough to defend.”
The Patriots knocked both Washington and Locker out of the game when the young QB, who threw several high passes, did so again, and Washington was clobbered by Jerod Mayo and Wilson.
Washington let go of the ball, which Patrick Chung picked up, believing it was a fumble. Locker injured his left shoulder tackling Chung. After the play was reviewed, it was ruled an incomplete pass.