Patriots Pulse is a weekly review of the New England Patriots. Last week we covered the match-up between the Patriots and the Rams. This week we'll consider the results of last week's game, preview this week's match-up against the Indianapolis Colts, and update New England's injury status.
The numbers aren't as pretty, but New England's 23-16 Week Eight victory against the Rams has to be considered another step forward for quarterback Matt Cassel. Cassel threw for 267 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, but those numbers are deceiving.
Neither of Cassel's picks were his fault—one came on a ball tipped high into the air by receiver Randy Moss, the other when Cassel's target, Wes Welker, fell down while running his route. Moreover, at one point Cassel placed a pass perfectly into Randy Moss' hands in the end zone, only to see his star receiver drop the ball. On a luckier day Cassel might have thrown for 300 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Perhaps most importantly, Cassel looked calmer under pressure, avoiding sacks by scrambling (he rushed for 22 yards) and throwing the ball away. The Rams only got to Cassel three times during the game, an improvement for New England's offensive line, which allowed six sacks against Denver in Week Seven of the season.
The running game may have helped keep the Rams defense off-balance. With Laurence Maroney out for the season, and Sammy Morris and Lamont Jordan out for the game, rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis was expected to take up the mantle as the Patriots featured back.
While BGE did score an early touchdown, New England played much of what was a close game in passing sets, shifting most of rushing touches to 10th year player Kevin Faulk (Faulk is the Patriots' preferred running back in passing downs).
Faulk responded with 107 total yards, 60 coming on rushing plays, and made a key scoring reception late in the game. His presence in the backfield during passing plays kept the Rams guessing, and the savvy veteran was a surprisingly effective pass blocker given his diminutive size (5' 8").
On the defensive side, New England rose to the occasion as the Rams approached the end zone, holding St. Louis to field goals on several drives that started out in promising fashion. Adalius Thomas sacked Rams quarterback Marc Bulger twice, and Deltha O'Neal returned a crucial interception for 44 yards in the final minutes of the game.
New England will travel to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis to face the Colts on Sunday night. This game was slotted for Sunday Night Football at a time when it was assumed that Patriots versus Colts, and specifically, Brady versus Manning, would be a premier match-up.
While both teams are still in the playoff picture, Tom Brady has been lost for the season with a knee injury, and Peyton Manning has not been his usual dominating self this season, after undergoing surgery for a staph infection last July.
Still, this game should prove quite competitive, as the slight regression of each team leaves them fairly evenly matched. Both teams have scored around 21 points and gained nearly 320 yards per game this season. The Patriots have featured a more balanced attack, while the Colts have compiled most of their yardage (242 of their 315 yards-per-game) through the air.
Indianapolis' penchant for the pass can be partially attributed to their loss of starting running back Joseph Addai due to a hamstring injury for nearly all of three games so far this season. Still, Addai did not top 17 rushing attempts or 78 yards in any game this year, as the Colts have found themselves playing from behind even in their victories this season.
An important challenge for New England this week will be to hold Manning in check despite a secondary that has been prone to allowing big plays (like the 69-yard touchdown strike from Bulger to Donnie Avery last week) and has lost key elements, such as Rodney Harrison, to injury this season.
If the defense can hold the Colts to 19 points on Sunday (its season average for points allowed thus far), the offense, improving as Cassel's game matures, stand an excellent chance of winning the game against a mediocre Colts defense that has given up more than 23 points per game this year, and lost another starter when cornerback Marlin Jackson tore his ACL in practice this week.
Look for Faulk to once again play an integral role, as Indianapolis has been especially soft against the run, allowing opposing teams almost 150 rushing yards per game.
For the Colts the important story is Addai's return, which is still questionable. A strong initial showing by Addai, who is a far more dynamic runner than back-up Dominic Rhodes (also questionable for the game with an ankle ailment), could set up Manning for deep strikes to the ever dangerous Reggie Wayne against the shaky Patriots pass defense.
Even if Addai does suit up, however, his effectiveness may still be limited, as hamstring injuries often linger, sapping speed and agility. At the very least, the Colts will have an ally in their home field, whose crazed fans and deafening acoustics will trouble the inexperienced New England play-caller.
This game will be the first true challenge for the ascending Patriots and a bounce-back opportunity for the reeling Colts.
The Patriots are again stretched thin at the running back position. Morris remains doubtful with a knee injury, and won't return until Week 10 at the earliest. Jordan has been upgraded to questionable, but would likely be limited by his ailing calf even if he is cleared to play.
Update (11-1-08, 7:28 p.m.): Jordan has been ruled out of this week's game. Faulk and Green-Ellis will split the rushing load, with Faulk getting the call on passing downs. Given how often the Patriots line up in passing formations, I would expect Faulk to lead the team in rushing again this week.
Tackle Nick Kaczur is still questionable this week, with an ankle injury, but receiver Randy Moss has been removed from the injury report after being listed earlier this week.
On the defensive side, the Patriots will be without cornerback Lewis Sanders (hamstring), who did not participate in practice this week. Linebacker Eric Alexander (hamstring) also may not play. Cornerback and kick returner Ellis Hobbs is questionable with a shoulder injury, but has vowed that he will play, and has participated in parts of practice this week.
With safety Harrison out for the season, and Sanders out for this game, Hobbs' ability to play (and play effectively) is especially important for the New England secondary's chances against Manning.
The Colts also come into the game at far less than 100 percent health. In addition to Addai, Rhodes, and Wayne, starting defenders linebacker Freddy Keiaho (knee), cornerback Kelvin Hayden (knee/hamstring), and safety Bob Sanders (knee) are all questionable. Hayden's back-up Dante Hughes (ankle) is also questionable. Cornerback Marlin Jackson tore his ACL in practice this week and is out for the season.
On the offense, Wayne and Rhodes practiced on Friday and are expected to play. Addai, also practiced, but is looking like a game-time decision.
For the defense, Sanders and Hayden practiced on Friday and are expected to play. Hughes and Keiaho did not practice, and are game-time decisions at best.
Because of the loss of Jackson, and the questionable status of Hughes and Keiaho, the Colts defense is suspect, even with the likely return of Sanders and Hayden this week.
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