Each perfectly-timed screen pass or successful quarterback sneak is a step in the right direction as Matt Casselcontinues to learn the ropes in his new role as a full-time NFL starter.
Getting knocked on your rear-end helps, too.
]()"As soon as he got popped last weekend early in the game, it kind of reminded him that's the way it's going to go," Patriots' offensive coordinator Josh McDanielssaid Friday in reference to the hit by Jets' linebacker Bryan Thomas that left Cassel with a slight limp before the end of the first half.
"That actually probably makes you feel more comfortable as a quarterback once you get hit. If you go too long without getting hit in the pocket or in the passing game, I think you get lulled into a false sense of what's really going to happen. Go out, get banged around a little bit like he did – I think that's part of the process."
That's probably easy for McDaniels to say since he's not the one who has to absorb the punishment, but it's already clear – even this early in the season – that Cassel is learning something new each week. Against the Jets, he managed the game wisely and took what the defense gave him, completing 11 of his 16 passes to Wes Welkerand Kevin Faulkon screens and underneath routes.
With the Miami Dolphins in town Sunday, Cassel is expecting to see a whole different look from what head coach Bill Belichickdescribes as a "bigger and more physical" defense that particularly thrives in the red zone, where the Patriots struggled offensively against New York.
"They are a physical team and they're very aggressive," Cassel said. "We have to do the same on our side of the ball. We have to go out there, match their intensity both physically and aggressively and try to execute."
Here are five keys to Sunday's game as the Patriots look to improve to 3-0:
1. Stop the groundswell
The Dolphins' only chance to move the ball rests on the shoulders of running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. So far, they haven't done the job. Through two games, Miami is ranked 30th in the league in rushing, averaging just 60.5 yards per game.
At some point, Williams and Brown will snap out of it, but this shouldn't be the week. The Patriots need to keep the Dolphins from establishing the run. Quarterback Chad Pennington doesn't have many weapons to work with in the passing game – certainly no deep threat akin to what he had in New York – and will be absolutely helpless against New England's pass rush if he's forced into long-yardage situations on third down.
Since the two running backs bring different styles to the table, the Patriots need to be ready for everything, including Williams' downhill approach on the inside and Brown's ability to cut back at the line of scrimmage and find an opening in the coverage.
2. Hand the keys to Cassel
The Patriots haven't aired it out too often since Tom Brady's injury, but this might be the week to take a few chances down the field. The Dolphins are currently ranked dead last in pass defense after giving up three touchdowns last week against Arizona's Kurt Warner, including a 79-yard bomb to Anquan Bolden. The carnage also featured a 75-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald in which the crafty, 6-3 receiver leaped over cornerback Will Allen on a lob from Warner and faked out safety Chris Crocker before racing downfield to the Miami 4.
Allen – a first-round pick in 2001 – has struggled mightily in newly-hired defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni's system and no one else seems capable of executing the fundamentals, which is a major reason why Miami is 0-2 heading into Sunday.
]()Cassel and Randy Mossneed to hook up early and often this week. All Cassel needs to do is wait for Moss to outrun his defender and chuck the ball downfield. Moss will take care of the rest. The emphasis on the passing game may be a necessity more so than just a option with running back LaMont Jordanlisted as doubtful with a foot injury and Laurence Maroneyquestionable with a shoulder sustained in last week's victory.
3. Roll out the welcome mat
There's a potential mismatch at the line of scrimmage with rookie left tackle Jake Long facing Patriots' defensive end Richard Seymour. Not to suggest Long is a bad player, which would be inaccurate since he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, but he's making just his third career NFL start while Seymour is playing in his 98th regular-season game since 2001.
The experience factor alone gives Seymour the edge, but the reality is the five-time Pro Bowl end is off to his best start in years now that he's finally healthy and has a chance to continue the momentum against a raw rookie left tackle.
Seymour could make Pennington's life miserable on Sunday if Long can't handle the pressure. Pennington has enough to worry about with a shaky offensive line and no big-play receivers at his disposal. Having even less time to throw the ball would make it virtually impossible for the Dolphins to get into rhythm offensively.
4. Keep up the good work
Football is all about teamwork and the Patriots pieced together the ultimate team victory last weekend in New York. Among the heroes was kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who finished 4-for-4 on field goals and also kicked five touchbacks.
Gostkowski's leg prevented the Jets from using their return game to establish field position. They never started a drive beyond their own 25-yard line, putting way too much pressure on Brett Favre to march the length of the field against New England's defense.
More of the same would be a nice lift Sunday for the Patriots. Keep return specialist Davone Bess from running wild and you've got a pretty good chance to stop Miami's offense. The Dolphins have scored only three touchdowns this season. One was on the tail end of an 89-yard drive, though it occurred in garbage time last weekend against the Cardinals to make the final score 31-10.
With a struggling running game and no legitimate threats at wide receiver, the Dolphins won't sustain a lot of long drives this season, so the Patriots can't afford to put them on a short field. Gostkowski needs to be great again on Sunday.
5. Avoid the unthinkable
Last week's victory drew a raucous reaction from the players as they walked off the field at the Meadowlands. Underdogs against the Jets in the aftermath of Brady's injury, the Patriots took pride in proving the doubters wrong by dominating on both sides of the ball.
Sunday's game doesn't pack as much punch off the field, outside of the semi-controversial comments from Dolphins' linebacker Joey Porter, who all but guaranteed a victory at Gillette Stadium. Miami is awful and the Patriots are favored by almost two touchdowns. There is no "us against the world" mantra to fall back on this week, which means the Patriots must skirt a potential letdown and continue to play as if the collective football universe is counting them out.
Letdowns do occur – even against bad teams. Four years ago, the Patriots collapsed down the stretch in a 29-28 loss in Miami. They were 12-1 at the time; the Dolphins were 2-11. The odds say this won't be one of those rare upsets, but the truth is it's still too early to know for sure what we will get from each team as the season progresses. The Patriots need this win as another confidence-booster heading into the bye week.