First impressions: Pats 38, Bengals 24

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – First impressions following the Patriots’ 38-24 victory over the Bengals:

Reports of the team’s demise have been premature. It was an offseason full of questions, and while one performance doesn’t answer them all, things couldn’t have unfolded much better for the team. While the defense ran into some issues in the second half, it had created enough margin for error with some big plays earlier in the game. Overall, this was a solid performance for a season opener.

Wes Welker’s return a highlight. With a large cheering contingent of family members on hand to celebrate his return to the field, Welker delivered. He had a 5-yard reception on the Patriots’ first offensive play and then had two touchdown catches, in the first quarter and second quarter.

Patrick Chung explodes onto the scene. The second-year safety was arguably the team’s most impressive defensive player. He had been credited with nine tackles at the half and showed the speed and instincts to close on plays with authority. The Patriots traded quarterback Matt Cassel and outside linebacker Mike Vrabel for the pick used to select Chung, and it will be a solid swap if Chung plays like he did against the Bengals.

Brandon Tate’s dynamic kickoff return. One of the buzzwords for the Patriots this offseason was “playmakers” and whether the Patriots had enough of them. Second-year receiver Brandon Tate showed he is one of them with an impressive 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at the start of the third quarter. Tate, the career NCAA leader in combined kick return yards, burst up the middle and outran the Bengals’ coverage team.

Young defensive backs are competitive. A top storyline entering the game was how rookie cornerback Devin McCourty and second-year cornerback Darius Butler would fare in matchups against veteran receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. McCourty was solid, while Butler had some ups and downs. Overall, it seems a fair analysis to say they were competitive in a big season-opening challenge.

Tight ends playing a big role. All three tight ends – Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez – came up with big catches. A three-receiver team for the majority of snaps in 2009, the Patriots ran quite a few plays with multiple tight ends on the field as the position opens more options with offensive play-calling. The running game was also effective, particularly when it came to situational running (e.g. short-yardage).

More to come...