On a few plays Sunday, it almost looked like Tom Bradywas back.
His understudy, Matt Cassel – now thrust in the starting role – has certainly absorbed his share of hits, both from opposing defenses (28 sacks in 7 games) and from countless critics in the press box and in the stands.
But a funny is happening to Cassel. He's not shying away from either onslaught, and he appears to be improving in spite of them. Or perhaps because of them.
Take the most recent game versus St. Louis, for example.
A number of times, when he saw an opening, Cassel did tuck the ball and run with it, but he was more particular about when he did, and his scrambling gained positive yards for the Patriots on those occasions.
On at least a handful of other pass plays, however, the pocket began to collapse on Cassel. Yet, instead of tucking and running, Cassel gently stepped forward, eyes still focused downfield, and delivered a perfect strike to one of his intended receivers.
Buying himself that extra time in the pocket is something he wasn't necessarily doing with any consistency earlier this season. That extra ounce of patience is something Patriots fans are used to seeing from Brady, the NFL's reigning MVP who's out for the season with a left knee injury.
It also helped Cassel's cause that he had more time to throw, which he credited to his offensive line.
"They did a great job," he proclaimed in his post-game press conference. "I had great protection all day. I was able to step up, go through my reads – go through one, two, even get to three at times … that was huge for our passing game."
Such subtle changes are helping Cassel make significant improvements in his play under center.
"I think that's fair to say," said head coach Bill Belichickafter reviewing the most recent game footage. "Matt's progressing in all areas. His decision-making, his reading of coverages, his pocket presence … going to secondary receivers, reminding guys offensively about their splits or their depths, things like that. Just the overall operation of the offense is better than it was two months ago."
"He played really well today," wide receiver Wes Welkerremarked after the game, quickly accepting some of the blame for Cassel's incompletions and interceptions.
"He made all the right reads and was seeing the defense really well. I think there were some plays that we need to be better on that he was good on and we weren't. And we need to put those things together. But he definitely did a great job out there."
While more work needs to be done (i.e., reducing the number of sacks per game), Cassel and his offense appear to be developing a rhythm with each other.
"There are definitely times when taking a sack is a better play than doing something else and trying to make a play when something is not there," Cassel reasoned. "Then there are also times when I'm trying to run around and make a play and I'm sure a lot of those sacks aren't even on the offensive line. They've been doing a great job all year.
"Sometimes I feel like I can make a play outside the pocket and I'll try to scamper and I'll run and it will be a one-yard loss and it ends up being a sack because we were throwing the ball on that play. That happens."
"For the first three quarters, we did a better job of blocking and holding up the pocket better," Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankinsnoted. "We had a few pressures in the fourth quarter and took a couple of sacks, but we did a better job and he did a better job."
"He's getting better week-to-week," left tackle Matt Light asserted. "That's one of the things we've talked about and I think he's handled the whole situation really well."
"[Matt] was making good downfield throws and we were moving the ball. I thought we moved the ball well all game, except for a few situations. We have to win some of those situations in the red area."
Even opponents are taking note of Cassel's marked improvement.
"He is poised and does a great job of running that offense," said Rams corner Ron Bartell. "He has got a great ability to escape and was able to get away from our rush a couple of times. He does a good job of not putting them in bad situations. We got a couple of picks on him, but I think they were just greats plays by our defense. He does a good job of controlling the offense and I think they can win with him."
And as linebacker Will Witherspoonpointed out, "In the second half, we did a great job getting at him. He still made some great throws. You can't do anything else about it. "
"I think for any QB, if you play with confidence, you play well because you're confident in what you're doing; you're confident in where you're going with the ball," Cassel continued. "It's a big part of my game and I played with a lot of confidence [against the Rams]. I felt good about the game plan and it showed out there."
That confidence is starting to rub off on his teammates.
"I'm not saying that the division is already won or anything like that, but we are heading in the right direction and that's a good thing," said defensive lineman Ty Warren, adding, "We are having fun doing it. We're having fun coming to work every week and blocking out all the speculations and criticism of guys like Cassel ... he's emerging fine as a leader as you see out there on the field."
"Absolutely," Welker agreed. "He's a tough guy and he understands that you have to hold on to [the ball] and let us get open and take that hit every once in a while. But other than that, he's always popping up and ready to go."
No matter where, or from whom, the hits are coming, apparently.