Patriots Pulse is a weekly review of the New England Patriots. This week we'll consider last week's game against the Denver Broncos, preview this week's match-up against the St. Louis Rams, and update the status of the growing number of injured Pats.
Last week I wrote about the need for Matt Cassel to have a big game against Denver's consistently overmatched defense. Cassel came through for the Patriots, and then some.
Although he only passed for 185 yards (teams had averaged 255 yards per game against the Broncos up to that point), that low total was mostly due to the fact that the Patriots were in command for the entire game, and thus handed the ball to their running backs often and with great effect.
Sammy Morris, filling in for Laurence Maroney, who has been placed on the Injured Reserve list with a shoulder injury, rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown, but in turn went down with a knee injury during the game. Rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis (is there any way this guy doesn't get nicknamed BGE?) stepped up, running for a robust 65 yards and a score in just 13 attempts.
Cassel completed 75 percent of his passes, and tossed three touchdown strikes, two of them to the previously all-too-quiet Randy Moss, all while allowing no interceptions. He seemed poised and in control of the passing game, except on the six occasions when he was sacked.
Cassel still needs to develop a better sense of the pass rush, and must learn to throw the ball away when a sack is imminent. Perhaps he was learning these skills during the game (he was only sacked once), and seemed to get rid of the ball when necessary, during the second half.
The other key to the Patriot victory was the defense. As poor as Denver's defense had been all season, its offense had been fairly potent. New England's defense, however, was more than up to the task, holding the Broncos to seven points, and causing five turnovers in the process.
Of course, the task was made easier by the fact that Denver's quarterback Jay Cutler injured his thumb on the first play of the game, and never looked the same afterwards.
Still, New England's young defensive stars showcased their abilities. Linebacker Jered Mayo had eight tackles and recovered a fumble, and Safety Brandon Meriweather had his team-high third pick of the season. The only defensive negative that came out of the game was the loss of Rodney Harrison for the season due to an ugly-looking injury.
New England faces the St. Louis Rams at home on Sunday. The good news for the Patriots is that the Rams defense ranks 30th in the league in points allowed per game, surrendering 30 points per contest on average. It also ranks 29th in the league in yards allowed, yielding nearly 400 yards per game.
On the offensive side the Rams are equally inept. They have averaged a mere 16 points per game, ranking 29th in the NFL, and have gained only 252 yards per game, making them the second most futile team in the league on that account.
The bad news for New England is that after an 0-4 start, the Rams are coming off of two straight wins, and put up 34 points against one-time Super Bowl contender Dallas last weekend. In that game Steven Jackson, who is a gametime decision this week, burned the Dallas defense for 160 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries.
Dallas scored only 14 points, but was without its starting quarterback, Tony Romo, who was held out of play due to a finger injury. His replacement, Brad Johnson, completed only half of his pass attempts, and threw three interceptions in the game.
One of the keys to this week's game for New England is the continuing development of rapport between Matt Cassel and his receivers. If Cassel's passing game can threaten St. Louis' defense it will give the New England running game a chance to keep the Rams guessing. Of course, for this strategy to be effective, Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk must make good on whatever rushing opportunities present themselves.
For St. Louis the biggest variable is Jackson. If he is unable to play or is limited in effectiveness, this offense could quickly return to it's low-scoring form. Running back Antonio Pittman, who is probable with a calf injury, would likely start if Jackson is ruled out of the game.
Update: NFL.com is reporting that Jackson is inactive for today's game. Antonio Pittman should start the game. I believe that Jackson's absence will force the Rams into relying on Bulger to drive the offense. All in all, this turn of events makes the Patriots into real favorites to win the game in my book.
Even when putting up 34 points against the Cowboys, St. Louis' passing game was not overpowering. Quarterback Marc Bulger passed for only 173 yards and a touchdown, and was sacked five times in the game.
This game should provide a firm test for an injury-plagued Patriots team that nevertheless seemed to be coming together as a unit during last week's contest.
The Patriots are very thin right now at the running back position, which has seen Maroney, Morris, and Lamont Jordan all end up on the shelf in the last few weeks. As noted above, Maroney won't return until next season. Morris is doubtful for this week with a knee injury (the tight-lipped Patriots coaching staff won't elaborate on the nature of the injury), and likely won't return until Week 10. Jordan is also doubtful this week after aggravating his calf injury. It is unclear when he might take the field again.
This week the running game will likely consist of a two-headed monster of Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk, with Faulk getting most of the passing down work.
Tackle Nick Kaczur is questionable this week. The Patriots offensive line, which allowed six sacks last week, can hardly stand to lose him.
On the defensive side, the Patriots lost Rodney Harrison for the season when he was carted off of the field with a leg injury during the win against Denver. Harrison's career is thought to be in jeopardy due to the injury.
Also out for the Patriots' defense are linebacker Eric Alexander and cornerback Lewis Sanders, who had four tackles and forced a fumble in last week's game.
Key injuries for the Rams, in addition to Jackson and Pittman, are cornerback Tye Hill (questionable) and offensive lineman Orlando Pace (probable).
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