FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots defense received some heavy praise this preseason. We’ll find out right off the bat whether the praise was warranted.
The Patriots open the regular season Sunday night against the Arizona Cardinals, who boast an offensive attack that’s as deep and dangerous as any in the NFL.
Led by second-team All-Pro quarterback Carson Palmer, fantasy darling David Johnson and a trio of talented wide receivers, the Cardinals lit up the scoreboard last season, leading the NFL in yards per game while ranking second in both points per game and passing yardage.
Arizona’s greatest weapon: the big play. Its 66 plays of more than 20 yards and 15 of 40-plus both ranked third in the league in 2015. That production helped propel the Cardinals to a franchise-best 13-3 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game.
“This is an impressive team,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in his Tuesday news conference. “I think they do a lot of things well. They’re obviously well-coached. They have a good organization. They’ve done a great job of building the team. A lot of strengths — a lot of things we’ll have to deal with.
“Offensively, it’s probably as good a group of skill players as we’ve seen in a long time. They have great receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterback. A lot of playmakers. A lot of players that can make big plays, and they make a lot of them.”
Johnson burst onto the scene as a rookie late last season after injuries to running backs Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington thrust him into the spotlight. The Northern Iowa product amassed 120 all-purpose yards in Week 13 — his first NFL start — then ran wild over the Philadelphia Eagles two weeks later, rushing for 187 yards and three touchdowns and adding another 42 yards on four receptions.
At wideout, Michael Floyd, John Brown and the ageless Larry Fitzgerald all return. The 33-year-old Fitzgerald reinvented himself as a slot receiver last season, catching a career-high 109 passes for 1,215 yards (his highest total since 2008) and nine touchdowns.
“Obviously, we have a huge challenge in front of us this week,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Sunday in a conference call. “We will have a very explosive offense that we’re facing. It’s all going to start with their head coach and his offensive system. (Cardinals coach Bruce) Arians does a great job of incorporating the position players and skill players that he has into the system that he runs. It’s a very productive offense. …
“One missed tackle, and you have a problem.”
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images