NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
One week after being taken to overtime by the New York Jets, the Patriots travel to London for a matchup against Jeff Fisher’s competitive St. Louis Rams squad.
The Rams are 3-4 on the season but have a physical, aggressive defense which has led them to victories over the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals; New England must dispatch St. Louis in order to avoid entering their bye week with a .500 record.
Read on for ten keys to this weekend’s game.
1. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford could be limited to operating the short passing game
Former first overall pick Sam Bradford has developed into an efficient short yardage passer; on the season, he is 98/136 (72%) for 838 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception on throws of less than 10 yards. However, his attempts to throw the ball downfield have been inconsistent at best; on longer throws, he is 33/68 (48.5%) for 754 yards, with four touchdowns and five interceptions. The Patriots have been tormented by deep passes all season – most notably Devin McCourty’s defensive pass interference call downfield against the Ravens and Russell Wilson’s 5/9, 200 yard, two touchdown performance on throws of more than 20 yards – so it would be convenient if Bradford focused more on a conservative passing game.
The Rams may be able to move the ball downfield on extended drives, but need enough possessions to match New England’s offensive output. St. Louis has lost their previous two games, but Bradford is averaging 285 yards through the air over those two contests – at Miami and vs. Green Bay; he may finally be acclimating himself to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s scheme. Schottenheimer is familiar with New England based on his tenure as offensive coordinator of the New York Jets from 2006-2011.
2. Steven Jackson joined by impressive seventh-round pick Daryl Richardson in Rams’ backfield
Before trading for running back Corey Dillon, the Patriots were frequently linked with Steven Jackson leading up to the 2004 NFL Draft. Head coach Bill Belichick praised Jackson’s well-rounded skillset this week – particularly Jackson’s value in the passing game as both a blocker and as a receiver – and revealed that he had visited with Jackson prior to the draft.
Although he has rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the last seven seasons, Jackson does not appear likely to break the 1,000 yard mark in 2012; he averaging just 54.3 yards per game and on pace for 869 yards, while his yards per attempt has dropped from 4.4 last season to 3.8 this year. Seventh-round draft pick Daryl Richardson will split time with Jackson and has played well in his first season; Richardson is averaging 5.1 yards per carry on the year and has surpassed second-round pick Isaiah Pead on St. Louis’ depth chart.
Richardson lacks Jackson’s strength but is an explosive player who has seen an increased role in recent weeks and may challenge the edges of New England’s rush defense.
3. Patriots’ defensive back depth will be tested by St. Louis’ diverse collection of wide receivers
To call New England’s secondary depleted for this weekend’s matchup would be an understatement; the Patriots recently placed cornerback Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve for the second straight year with a thigh injury, and will be without starting safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory as well. Their absences leave the Patriots extremely thin in the secondary, with only six players on the active roster. Devin McCourty will likely line up at free safety for the second consecutive week, joining strong safety Tavon Wilson; rookie Nate Ebner will function as New England’s third safety.
That leaves five cornerbacks on roster: Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, Sterling Moore, Marquice Cole, and second-year player Malcolm Williams. Of those five, Dennard is the only cornerback who has succeeded in coverage this season; Arrington and Moore have struggled all year, while Cole and Williams are special teams players. St. Louis may opt to spread the ball around to a deep wide receiver corps: Brandon Gibson, Steve Smith, Austin Pettis, and Brian Quick may be joined by Danny Amendola, who recovered quickly from a collarbone injury sustained earlier this month; Amendola is expected to be a game-time decision.
4. New England’s pass rushers have an opportunity to capitalize on patchwork offensive line
Protecting Sam Bradford has never been one of St. Louis’ strong suits; the former first overall draft pick has been sacked 91 times in his three-year career and is on pace to go down a career-high 48 times this season. To compound matters, St. Louis will be without starting left tackle Rodger Saffold, while replacement Wayne Hunter is questionable with a back injury; Hunter may be familiar to Patriots fans as the New York Jets’ starting right tackle last season. The rest of the Rams’ offensive line is composed of replacement-level players: 2008 sixth-round pick Barry Richardson mans the right tackle spot and has struggled in pass protection, 2011 third-round draft bust Joseph Barksdale, already on his second pro team, may line up at left tackle if Hunter misses the game, and Shelley Smith replaced former Patriots reserve Quinn Ojinnaka at left guard last week.
One of St. Louis’ major free agent signings last year, center Scott Wells, is out for the season and has been replaced by Robert Turner. The lone bright spot on the Rams’ front is right guard Harvey Dahl, one of the most physical and aggressive players in the league; his nastiness on the field recalls Logan Mankins.
5. Josh McDaniels looking to rehabilitate his image against his former team
Josh McDaniels spent just one season as the St. Louis Rams’ offensive coordinator, a dismal 2-14 campaign in which the Rams finished last in points per game and 31st in yards per game. His return to New England has been considerably more successful; the Patriots rank first in points per game, first in yards per game, fifth in passing yards, and fifth in rushing yards. However, McDaniels has faced criticism for his playcalling this season; Patriots fans are all-too-familiar with McDaniels’ propensity for head-scratching playcalling, including a disturbing amount of draws in third-and-long situations and an inability to consistently close out teams with late-game offensive playcalling.
McDaniels must focus on getting the ball to New England’s playmakers this week; he must establish the run with Stevan Ridley, get the ball to Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, and figure out how to integrate Brandon Lloyd into the offense more effectively. Most importantly, McDaniels cannot allow the offense to fizzle out after two or three quarters; the Patriots will need to remain aggressive for four quarters to prevent their defense from having to make late-game stops.