Shhhh: Matt Cassel Silences Joey Porter, Dolphins

Will NortonCorrespondent INovember 23, 2008

These are not the New England Patriots of old. 

Not this year at least.

Watch New England circa 2008 and you won't see stifling pressure on the quarterback, opportunistic interceptions, big plays on special teams, and a grinding running game that gets it done between the tackles.

The title teams of 2003-04 that thrived on defense-first football are long gone.

It's tough to fathom, but the Patriots are simply not a dangerous defensive team.

Despite the reputation of Bill Belichick, this New England team, and arguably the ones of the last two years as well, are simply not going to win games defensively. They couldn't do it against the San Diego Chargers in Week 6, the Indianapolis Colts in Week 9, last Thursday against the New York Jets, and they wern't going to do it Sunday in a massive divisional battle with the Miami Dolphins.

To me, this realization is the result of two critical weaknesses: first, the Patriots and their 3-4 defensive scheme don't stress sacks and get consistent pressure on the QB.

Second, the Patriots don't have the corners, safeties, and linebackers to mask what is a non-existent pass rush, nor do they have the necessary speed at the second level to cover the flats and seams—levels of coverage that are exposed when a quarterback has four or five seconds to throw the ball.

But don't worry, this Patriots team can still put up points, and the emergence of Matt Cassel as a legitimate NFL asset has become the backdrop for what is becoming an increasingly intriguing regular season for the Pats.

All Cassel and the Patriots did was head down to Miami (their personal house of horrors in years past) and put up 48 points and 530 yards in a 20 point beatdown of Joey Porter's fish.

Silencing that loud-mouth is something that never gets old to this Pats fan.

Once again, Cassel did it with his arm and legs. His progression in recent weeks has been startling and impressive. He's not Tom Brady, but he's a good deal better than half of the QBs in the NFL.

Unlike Tom Terrific, Cassel is not adept at moving laterally in the pocket to avoid pressure and buy time. He doesn't have that sixth sense that makes Brady almost unbeatable.

And given the regression and injuries present on the New England O-line this season, Cassel's inability to buy time created critical protection problems early in the year for the Patsies.

Cassel was holding the ball too long, not moving into protection pockets in between the tackles, and looked confused often.

But as we head into Week 13, Cassel has rounded into form by doing something even Brady doesn't do well: running with the ball and taking yards that are given to him.

Cassel has become extremely effective at recognizing soft spots in zone defenses, stepping up into the middle of the pocket, and scrambling for the five, eight, or sometimes even 20-yards that defenses give him.

Yet again against Miami, Cassel made the defense pay for not recognizing his scrambling ability, rushing for an eight-yard score in the second quarter.

But he isn't all turkey legs, he's got some meat on his arm too.

After throwing for 400 yards and three scores against Favre and the Jets last Thursday, Cassel loaded up for 415 yards and another three touchdowns against the Fish, with his only interception coming on a tipped ball. That gives him 13 TDs and eight INTs on the season.

The degree to which Josh McDaniels and the offensive scheme have begun to trust Cassel is reflected in his increasing pass attempts per game as the season has progressed.

Most analysts thought that with Brady down, the Pats would use Laurence Maroney, Lamont Jordan, and Sammy Morris, along with game management throws from Cassel, to dictate tempo. That would be the offense: run first, pass later.

But Cassel's attempts have risen consistently, going from 18 and 23 in Weeks one and two respectively, to 24 in Week seven vs. the Denver Broncos, to as many as 51 last week, and 43 this week.

The trust in Cassel's arm, and decision making, is clearly there. Cassel has rewarded that trust by morphing into an elite quarterback at times.

What does the future hold for Patriot Matt? Who knows. It's safe to say that he is going to command a decent contract from a number of teams this offseason who are in dire need of a NFL-ready quarterback who has shown progress in a good system.

Cassel is the best free-agent option out there, and I could see the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, among others, comin' a sniffin' Cassel's way this off-season.

Will the Patriots make an effort to pony up significant cash for a guy who is clearly a backup in New England as soon as Brady gets healthy?

Not likely, unless skepticism continues to grow regarding Brady's recovery.

For now, however, Matt Cassel is the replacement QB for Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady. That won't change over the course of the next five weeks and (maybe) into the playoffs. 

And as long as Cassel continues to patch up the significant holes in the Patriots defense, this New England team will be a fun, albeit different, one to watch.


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