Matt Cassel and the Defense Need to Step Up for the New England Patriots

Andrew TirrellCorrespondent IOctober 16, 2008

If Matt Cassel is capable of putting up big offensive numbers, now is the time to show it. Patriots fans have to be a little concerned after Cassel's pathetic performance last week against the San Diego Chargers, one of the worst pass defenses in the league.

Cassel threw for 203 yards while hoisting up more passes (38) than he has in any other game this season. He had no touchdowns, one interception, one fumble, and finished with an abysmal 61.2 passer rating.

This week, instead of just "managing" the offense enough to eke out a win, Cassel needs to show that he has the capability to drive the offense to victory. Anything less and he'll risk losing whatever confidence New England fans have in his untested arm.

Lucky for him, he gets a second bite at the bad defense apple when the Patriots face the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. The Broncos have given up more yards through the air than any time in the league, with 255.5 per game—even more than the lowly Chargers.

Cassel has an excellent offensive line, gifted receivers, and a playbook designed by an ingenious coaching staff. If he struggles again this week, there will be nowhere to lay the blame but at his feet.

In fairness, Cassel isn't the only one to blame for the Patriots' stumbles this year. Everyone will remember 2007 as the year that the Patriots put up record-breaking offensive numbers. Lost in all of those Brady-to-Moss touchdown highlight reels is the phenomenal defensive play of the 2007 Patriots.

Those Patriots were fourth in the league in both points allowed per game (17.1) and yards allowed per game (288.2), and terrorized opposing quarterbacks for 47 sacks, good enough for a second-place finish in the league in that category.

This season has seen a dramatic fall from those heights for New England's veteran defense. Currently, the team ranks 17th in the league in points allowed (21.8) and 15th in the league in yards allowed per game (320.8). More disturbingly, New England has only sacked opposing quarterbacks seven times in its first five games, ranking 29th in the league in that respect.

For the defensive unit to be successful, veterans like Ty Warren, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Rodney Harrison have to be leaders, allowing young impact players like Brandon Meriweather and Jerod Mayo to comfortably step into supporting roles.

There is certainly enough talent in Foxboro for the Patriots to return to the NFL's defensive elite; it's just a matter of shedding the malaise that has dogged the entire team since Tom Brady was lost for the season and remembering how to win when dominance isn't a given.

We shouldn't underestimate the ripple effect the team suffered from losing its leader and best player. Tom Brady's demise is a big part not only in the failure of New England's passing game (which is averaging an anemic 186.2 yards per game), but also of its rushing attack, which features a rag-tag committee that combines for a lackluster 111.6 yards every week.

It's just impossible to run when the opponent's defense has no fear of your passing attack, and it's impossible to pass when your running game is impotent. 

On the defensive side, there's no doubt it was easier to play defense last year when the opposing offense was forced into a one-dimensional playbook, desperately heaving up passes in an attempt to come from behind after being obliterated early on by the lethal combination of Brady, Moss, and Wes Welker. 

This year's defense must confront a balanced attack from its opponents and has to deal with the pressure of playing in hotly-contested games (that is, of course, when the Pats aren't being blown out).

Clearly, the loss of Tom Terrific has had a devastating effect on both sides of the ball for New England.

At some point, though, it doesn't matter why things are going badly. All that matters now is whether New England, and, more importantly, specific Patriots players, can find a way to overcome the adversity of losing the one guy all of them depended on (even if they didn't realize at the time just how desperately they did rely on him).

Cassel has to show up Monday night, ready to put some big numbers on the board against a soft secondary. The Patriots' defense needs to make sure that those numbers are good enough to get a win. It’s that simple.

Game by game. Win by win. Now's the time for a new style of New England football.