Patriots in perfect coordination on defense
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Almost as entertaining as the game itself was seeing and (if you listened hard enough) hearing Oakland owner Al Davis' demonstrative reactions to the Raiders' mistakes. And they were frequent in Thursday night's 30-20 loss to the Patriots.
In each of the past two years, Davis has made some of the offseason's major acquisitions: Prior to the 2004 season he signed defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Ted Washington and quarterback Kerry Collins, and this year he brought in LaMont Jordan and Randy Moss.
A little more than a year ago what was then a lesser-known name turned down the opportunity to work for Davis and the riches that would have come with it. (Oakland got a pretty good consolation prize in former Patriots outside linebackers coach Rob Ryan, son of Buddy, despite last year's ranking -- 30th -- and Thursday night's showing, particularly against the pass.) You've probably heard a lot about the guy who got away over the last six months. His name is Eric Mangini.
Mangini is New England's new defensive coordinator, though he isn't new to the Patriots. Which is part of the reason why on the first night of the new season and despite several new faces, it was the same ol' Patriots defense.
One of the major questions heading into the season was if, and if so, how well, New England would adapt to life without its offensive and defensive coordinators, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, respectively. It's always dangerous to draw conclusions after one game, but this much is certain: Had the Raiders, with their fantasy-football-league offense, lit up the Patriots, there would have been widespread panic throughout New England. Since they didn't, we'll go ahead and say there's no reason to lose any more sleep over the loss of Crennel at the least. It's easy to see why in the past two offseasons the Raiders, Dolphins and Browns all have gone hard after Mangini, the Patriots' secondary coach since 2000.
After their first possession (a 72-yard touchdown drive), the Raiders' offense, with the exception of a 73-yard touchdown from Collins to Moss, had a hard time moving the ball. Collins was 7-for-13 for 159 yards and two touchdowns at halftime; he finished 18-for-40 and got his team into the end zone once more, off a blocked punt with Oakland down 16. Randy Moss had a fairly quiet 130-yard, five-catch night as he struggled to free himself from New England's high-low double team.
The Patriots denied a request to interview Mangini on Thursday night. But his players, in universally acknowledging that the defense has plenty upon which to improve, had plenty of good things to say about him.
"We're used to Eric," Rodney Harrison said. "He was the defensive backs coach, but he had a lot of input. The great thing about this staff is everybody's open to suggestions."
"We're not used to him calling the plays, so it's new, but it's not new," linebacker Matt Chatham said. "We're running most of the same stuff. Other than him being the guy with the final says, there's not that much of a difference."
The Patriots did something different to start the second quarter -- they switched from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 front. The move clearly befuddled the Raiders. Jordan had far less room to run than he did early on, and Collins often had less time to pass.
Monty Beisel wears Ted Johnson's old No. 52 now, and playing behind four down linemen he looked a lot like the recently retired inside linebacker; the four-man line meant fewer "bubbles", or situations where the linebackers faced uncovered offensive linemen. Defensive tackle Richard Seymour was the best player on the field Thursday night, and fellow tackle Vince Wilfork came up with the biggest play of the game. It was his third-quarter interception (end Jarvis Green hit Collins' arm as a threw with Seymour about to throw center Jake Grove into the QB) that set up the touchdown (Corey Dillon, 8-yard run) that put the Patriots in control, 23-14.
Many have wondered how New England would fare without its coordinators around to make in-game adjustments. What they may not have realized, as Chatham pointed out, is that the Patriots' defense adjusts from the secondary inward. Mangini coached the secondary. Any schematic Crennel made, Mangini was right there, not to mention all the input he had in game plans. Same on offense with the departed Weis and his young replacements, QB coach Josh McDaniels and receivers coach Brian Daboll. Tom Brady didn't look anything like someone suffering from withdrawal (306 yards, two touchdowns).
And face it: It certainly doesn't hurt to have so many holdovers on defense, not to mention a mentor like Bill Belichick. Guys like the aforementioned Harrison, Seymour, Wilfork, Green, Ty Warren, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest. Vrabel and McGinest did a masterful job of "setting the edge", or keeping containment on Jordan, who is a far better outside runner than he is between the tackles. The secondary survived the loss of veteran corners Tyrone Poole and Chad Scott, and other than Moss' acrobatic touchdown catch (despite good coverage by Poole, he made a great play and tipped Collins' pass to himself before cutting inside Harrison on his way to the end zone), kept what's no doubt going to be a high-flying offense grounded.
Johnson is retired. Tedy Bruschi is out of the year; he watched from the sideline. Looking back, it's a good thing the Patriots at least kept their coordinator-in-waiting, whose players view him as anything but a rookie.
"We don't look at Eric as a rookie coach," Harrison said. "He's smart, he's committed, he knows the game, and he's serious about it. That's to be commended."
So was the defense's performance in his debut.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.