6. Patriots must work all three of their active running backs into the offensive gameplan
The Rams are currently ranked tenth in rushing yards per game allowed; New England must find more success than St. Louis’ previous opponents on the ground in order to control the clock and establish a balanced offense. Stevan Ridley rushed for 65 yards last week, while Shane Vereen saw his first extensive playing time of the season and added 59 yards on nine total touches. Danny Woodhead received ten touches as well and gained 46 yards. Another similar performance from these three could put the game out of reach for St. Louis. Considering the Rams’ size inside, McDaniels may opt to focus on stretch plays to the outside; such an emphasis would increase the possibility of major roles for Vereen and Woodhead.
Ridley’s primary value will come as a closer; he must convert late-game fourth-downs in order to prevent St. Louis’ offense from having too many opportunities. The Patriots should use some of their “Ace” personnel, or maybe even line up their three active tight ends simultaneously to get a push on the ground.
7. Wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker must win against physical man coverage
Brandon Lloyd caught just one of seven passes intended for him last week against the Jets, with two early drops; his struggles against Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie forced Tom Brady to look for Wes Welker on an increasing basis, and Welker ended up with six catches for 66 yards. Both Lloyd and Welker must increase their production against Jeff Fisher’s revamped Rams secondary.
Luring Cortland Finnegan away from Tennessee was one of Fisher’s first orders of business, and Finnegan has not disappointed; Finnegan has recorded three interceptions on the season without allowing a single touchdown. His primary coverage responsibility will likely be against Welker; that leaves rookie second-round pick Janoris Jenkins to cover Brandon Lloyd. Jenkins was considered one of the premier man coverage cornerbacks in last year’s draft and is known for his instincts, ball skills, and fluidity; he was victimized by Ryan Tannehill and Aaron Rodgers over the past two weeks, allowing 17 completions and two touchdowns on 19 targets, but New England must not underestimate his playmaking ability.
Third cornerback Bradley Fletcher has been a success as well, allowing only one touchdown on the season with a 57.0 quarterback rating against.
8. Aaron Hernandez’s absence increases the pressure on Rob Gronkowski and Daniel Fells
Tight end Aaron Hernandez played 38 snaps in week six against Seattle and saw his role increased to 57 snaps last week after returning from a week two ankle injury, but he has already been ruled out for this week’s game against St. Louis. That means New England’s three tight ends in week eight will be Rob Gronkowski, Daniel Fells, and Michael Hoomanawanui. Gronkowski figures to be a major factor as both a blocker and a receiver; he has caught 71.4% of his targets with five touchdowns on the season and should be able to get open even against Rams strongside linebacker JoLonn Dunbar and strong safety Quintin Mikell.
Both Fells and Hoomanawanui are former Rams players; Fells spent three seasons in St. Louis (2008-2010), while Hoomanawanui was a member of the Rams for 2010 and 2011. The two reserves are primarily blockers, but Fells made an impressive 35-yard grab in week six and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels may attempt to give both players opportunities against their former team.
9. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer must protect Brady from Chris Long and Robert Quinn
Rams defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn are perhaps the best pass-rushing duo in the league; Long has four sacks on the season thus far, while Quinn has seven. The two have also combined for 44 hurries, putting the pressure on Patriots bookends Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer to prevent Quinn and Long, respectively, from disrupting Tom Brady in the pocket. Solder and Vollmer have played well thus far in 2012, surrendering just three sacks combined while being flagged only once each.
The Patriots are nearly unstoppable when Tom Brady feels comfortable in the pocket, and marginalizing the impacts of Long and Quinn early in the game could lead to an offensive explosion; otherwise, New England may be forced to chip St. Louis’ edge rushers with tight ends and focus on the short-to-intermediate passing game without enough time to test the Rams’ deep secondary. St. Louis will also rotate in defensive ends Eugene Sims and William Hayes intermittently, which may provide some deep opportunities for the Patriots.
10. St. Louis’ defensive tackles could cause problems for New England’s interior offensive line
After trading down twice in the 2012 NFL Draft, St. Louis selected Louisiana State nose tackle Michael Brockers to anchor the middle of their defensive line; the 6’5”, 320-pound Brockers was considered a potential fit in New England thanks to his size and length. Brockers will be joined by Kendall Langford, who left Miami for St. Louis and a four-year, $24 million contract this past offseason; Langford’s transition from Miami’s 3-4 defense to St. Louis’ attacking 4-3 defense has been somewhat slow thus far but he recorded six quarterback pressures and one hit on Tom Brady last season with the Dolphins.
Patriots left guard Logan Mankins missed last week’s contest with calf and hip injuries; he is listed as questionable for this week’s game with the same injuries. Mankins’ return would certainly make Tom Brady more comfortable against the interior pass rush. Center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly have had some trouble in pass protection against oversized defensive tackles, so that may be an area the Rams target. Effective swing reserve Donald Thomas could receive some playing time if Mankins is inactive or if Connolly struggles.