NASHVILLE -- It was a nine-second span in a 60-minute game.
Yet, for nine seconds early in the second quarter, the Patriots showed that some things are not the same. Remember the defense that last season featured a mish-mash of also-rans and off-the-pile veterans? A unit that allowed an endless amount of passing yards, even while the team reached the Super Bowl? A unit that seemed, well, slow?
It's not that way this year. Credit goes to a much-needed youth movement that has imbued coach Bill Belichick's group with some speed and some nastiness. And it all was wrapped in a little bow when, during that nine-second period, first-round draft pick Chandler Jones strip-sacked Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker, allowing fellow first-round pick Dont'a Hightower to scoop the ball up and scamper into the end zone.
"I had a lot of fun," Jones said quietly after the game.
Two potential star rookies, two instant starters, two reasons to believe the Patriots' defense is in good hands. One play.
Suddenly, just 20 minutes into the game, the score was 14-3, and the Pats were off.
"Those seven-point swings, defensive scores, are always enormous plays in the National Football League," Belichick said. "When you get bonus points like that, it normally tips the scale."
The D didn't quite undergo a facelift, just a remodeling. LP Field was its showroom.
"Playing aggressive, getting to the ball, high tempo, high energy on the defense, that's what we're trying to play right now," defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick said. "We did what we're supposed to do. To give the offense the ball back -- better yet, put points on the board; you can never replace that. Three-and-outs, turn the ball over, strip-sacks, interceptions; that's something we've been working on."
They did it. A new identity is on its way to Foxboro in the form of the renewed unit. It was as if the Patriots decided they are sick of being a finesse team on offense, done being pushed around on defense.
The blood fit perfectly, actually. This team is a little grimier than it's been.
Nowhere was the change more evident than on coordinator Matt Patricia's defense. Of course, Vince Wilfork was a beast in the middle, a (very) large reason that Titans star running back Chris Johnson was held to a measly four yards on 11 carries. Linebacker Jerod Mayo was his usual tackling-machine self, collecting 13 stops, and corner Devin McCourty provided significant contributions of his own.
With 11:16 to go in the second, the Titans were facing third-and-13 with the ball on their 7. Jones, the Syracuse product who was drafted 21st overall, took an outside speed move against Titans left tackle Michael Roos, beating him around the edge and finding himself behind Locker. Jones wrapped Locker up with his left hand and swiped with his right hand, causing the ball to pop out.
It landed at the feet of Hightower, the Alabama product who was taken 25th. He secured it, dodged a would-be tackler in guard Leroy Harris and scrambled across the goal line.
When he found his feet, Hightower posed with his arms crossed. Everyone was watching.
After that nine-second episode, the Patriots' rookie class was on display for all to see. Don't be surprised if we're watching them for 15 more games and beyond.
"That's why they're here," Ninkovich said.
What else went down on Sunday? Here's a rundown:
The Houston Texans got off to a slow start, creeping and crawling to a first-quarter deficit in their matchup with the lowly Miami Dolphins. But man, can Houston turn it on. With the game tied at 3-3 and 1:58 left in the first half, the Texans put on a sick scoring display that could be considered a warning shot for anyone doubting their electric and balanced offense.
One minute, 46 seconds, two forced turnovers, 21 points. How can anyone consider a lead safe against these guys?
"We just kept playing and then all of a sudden it takes one play and we get really explosive as a team," coach Gary Kubiak said. "I always tell the guys, 'You're going to get down 10 in this league, so you better be ready to come back and play.' I like the way we were able to work through our uneasiness early in the game and be a darn good football team there in the second quarter."
The 28-year-old rookie from pass-happy Oklahoma State was woefully woeful in the Browns' 17-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Cringe while I wheel out the numbers: 12 of 35 for 118 yards and -- wait for it -- a 5.1 passer rating. The Eagles have a stout defense, but it's not that stout.
"I put our team in difficult situations," Weeden said. "Our defense gave us chances to win and our offense -- me included -- took away from that."
Running the football is still cool
The Patriots, traditionally a passing team, displayed some refreshing balance, as I mentioned earlier, with Ridley pounding the ball for 125 yards. As Brady said, "The toughness of your team is built around running the ball and stopping the run." The fact that the NFL is now a passing league hasn't changed that.
Real football still reigns. Houston's offense took its lead with Foster's legs. The Minnesota Vikings outlasted the Jacksonville Jaguars thanks to the rehabilitated Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 84 yards and two scores. The Washington Redskins controlled the New Orleans Saints in part because Robert Griffin III and somebody named Alfred Morris combined to contribute 138 yards on the ground. Promising rookie Doug Martin ground out 95 yards for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their victory over the Carolina Panthers. And the San Francisco 49ers poured it on the Green Bay Packers, getting 112 yards from the still-beastly Frank Gore.
See, pounding the rock isn't dead. Those who ignore this truth might regret it in January.
Forte forced to share in Chicago
The Chicago Bears bruised the Indianapolis Colts, winning, 41-21, thanks in part to three rushing touchdowns (along with some aerial fireworks). But it was interesting to me how they got those scores. Matt Forte, the do-it-all bell cow, gained 80 yards on 16 carries, punching it in from six yards out to give Chicago a 31-14 lead in the third quarter. But twice before that, he was replaced by Michael Bush inside the 5.
Down 7-0, after Forte took the ball to the 1 on a 15-yard run, Bush earned the touchdown, plunging it in. Bush got the ball again on the 1 after a pass-interference penalty, scoring to put the Bears up, 24-14.
This brings me back to a conversation I had with Forte a few weeks ago. He was talking about the Bush signing, how he liked competition and how, if anything, it made him more competitive. This was refreshing to hear.
"If you don't have competition, you can get complacent, you think you already made it," Forte told me. "I'm used to it, bro. They do it every year. Every year since I've been here, they've signed another running back, so it's nothing different for me."
But when we came to the specific topic of being taken out on the goal line, Forte grew short. "It's not my call," he said.
Forte insisted that it "doesn't matter to me" if he takes the team down to the red zone and another player makes it count. But in the next breath, he said he knows he can be a goal-line back.
It makes one wonder if he'll use this to grumble or use this as motivation. My guess is on the latter, which should make for a productive back.
"If they don't know (that I can run on the goal line) by now, I mean, what is there to prove?" Forte said. "I've been in in goal-line situations, it's not like I'm a small back. It's just a team's decision. The last couple years, when Chester Taylor was here, he was the goal-line back. He's smaller than me. Marion Barber, he was the goal-line back last year. It's what the team chooses to do."
Some rapid-fire takes...
» There are two things to take out of Michael Vick's woeful -- yet victorious -- day for the Eagles: 1) Vick needs to take a deep breath and play smarter; and 2) the Browns' defense has the potential to be nasty. It's crazy how tough they are in the trenches -- on both sides -- and at running back with Trent Richardson. Imagine if they got some skill-position help.
» The Kansas City Chiefs aren't made for shootouts. They can win, and I think they will. But not if quarterback Matt Cassel is throwing the ball 33 times. They should stick to what they do best, which is stopping people and pounding it on offense. On the other hand, who is going to be able to cover Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones this year?
» A splash of cold water for the New York Jets. Even with all this talk about the offense, the Jets are still a defensive team. That's what will drive them. Of the 48 points they scored in their win over the Buffalo Bills, 17 resulted directly from turnovers. Fourteen points came with the offense watching, thanks to a punt return and an interception return. Two touchdowns came on short fields, off drives of 48 and 49 yards. No touchdown drive began deeper than the Jets' own 39. They all count. But this offense was opportunistic, not dynamic.