Both the Rams and Patriots enter Sunday afternoon's battle in Foxborough looking to continue to build some positive momentum.
St. Louis (2-4) has been seemingly reborn under interim coach Jim Hasletthas won two in a row, including last week's dominating 34-14 upset of the Cowboys. For the first time in a long time – the Rams went 3-13 last season – a team from the Show Me State is feeling pretty good about itself. And a road win over the Patriots to extend the mini winning streak would only bring more joy.
The Patriots (4-2), a team carrying far more expectations than the Rams even without Tom Brady, are also looking to build some positive consistency. New England's feeling pretty good after Monday night's blowout of the Broncos. But for the last month-plus the team has been riding a rollercoaster of inconsistency on both sides of the ball and in overall performance. Up with a big win in New York in Matt Cassel'sfirst start. Down with a dismal debacle of a loss at home against the Dolphins. Up with a pretty dominant victory out west in beating San Francisco. Down with an embarrassing big-play beat-down in front of a national TV audience in San Diego. Up with a surprisingly lopsided undressing of the Broncos on Monday Night Football.
So through the first two months these two teams have seen the extremes of NFL action, especially in this parity-filled 2008 season. The Patriots have alternated between the highs and lows on a weekly basis. The Rams stunk things up through the first month only to turn things around, in theory anyway, over the last couple weeks.
What does that mean for Sunday afternoon as both teams look to continue short streaks of success, looking to build consistency in the midst of an NFL season that seems to be producing anything but consistency at this point? Here's a look at some of the offensive and defensive keys that should lead to another Patriots victory as the team looks to try and keep pace with the upstart Bills in the AFC East while putting together the first winning streak of Cassel's career as a starter.
Pats offensive keys to victory:
1—Control the LOS
The Rams have a speed-based front seven. Sometimes the best way to attack that type of front is to run right at it. Understanding the New England backfield is a bit banged up right now, the Patriots still need to establish some form of running game. That may require Kevin Faulk, Heath Evans and BenJarvus Green-Ellis to all share the load. But the one thing that's a must is the offensive line must win the battle in the trenches. Stephen Neal working back into the lineup is a good thing for the running game and the line as a whole. This unit has been better of late and needs to continue to improve against a not-so-formidable St. Louis front.
2 – Cassel's clock improves Matt Cassel continues to take too many sacks. That has to slow down. So far they haven't been overly costly, but if they continue at a high rate it's only a matter of time before they lead to strip sacks, turnovers and touchdowns. And maybe even injury. The offensive line can do its part, but in the end Cassel needs to improve in his overall feel in the pocket as well as with his mental clock. He needs to throw the ball away more, as he did a bit better job of last week against Denver. This is one of the biggest areas that should improve with experience and that's what Cassel, entering his sixth career start, is getting each and every week.
3 – Mo' MossIt's pretty simple to say, but the New England offense is far more effective when Randy Moss is involved early and often. He's a playmaker. He affects everything a defense does. The Patriots need to take advantage of that. Moss showed last week that he doesn't necessarily need the deep bombs to help out. He can be valuable in all areas of the field. It's up to Josh McDaniels to keep Moss as active as possible and find ways to get him into the action. St. Louis corners Ron Bartelland Fakhir Brown aren't exactly Champ Bailey so Moss should have his chances to makes plays in this one.
Pats defensive keys to victory:
1 – Pressure BulgerNew England's pass rush has been too inconsistent. This is a chance for the guys up front to let loose and get after it, especially if Steven Jackson is out of action or at the very least limited. Marc Bulgerhas been sacked 18 times in five starts. The St. Louis offensive line has been questionable and dealt with injuries. As was the case in San Francisco there is every reason to believe the Patriots should be able to get pressure on Bulger in this one, just as they ended up doing with J.T. O'Sullivan a couple weeks back. Doing so would take some pressure off a secondary that remains a work in progress and will be in its first game without Rodney Harrison.
2 – Be aware of the backIf Jackson does play, he's the heart of the offense. He's been out most of the week with a thigh injury. He could play, he could be inactive or he could be limited on Sunday. Only time will tell. If he plays he's a guy the defense needs to be aware of on every snap. If he can't, the defense will have to adjust to a modified Rams attack that will include backups Travis Minor, Kenneth Darby and Antonio Pittman. Minor is the only one in the group with much experience, although he's always been a reserve and change-of-pace guy. Jackson is a scary opponent and the Patriots benefit greatly if he can't go, but sometimes the unknown can give a defense problems during the adjustment period.
3 – Don't let Avery deep
The once-proud Rams passing attack is anything but dangerous these days. Jackson is the team's leading receiver. Torry Holt is off to a slow start. But rookie Donnie Avery is coming on lately and has given the passing game a boost. He's had receptions of 40 yards or longer in each of the last two weeks, a pair of St. Louis victories. So he clearly has the ability to get deep. New England is only a week removed from the big-play debacle on defense against the Chargers. The pass defensive will continue to have to prove itself, especially moving on without secondary leader and its veteran calming presence in Harrison. While Holt is still the key force to be reckoned with in the Rams passing game, Avery is coming on and if he gets lost in the shuffle on any one play he and Bulger will make the Patriots defense pay dearly, and deeply.
A view from practiceThose not seen during the media-view portion of practice included Lewis Sanders, LaMont Jordan, Sammy Morrisand Shawn Crable.
Those making a return to the practice field included Nick Kaczur, Eric Alexanderand Jarvis Green.
The practice was held on the outdoor practice fields with the players wearing shells, helmets and sweatpants under sunny skies.
The team's Friday practice participation and injury report listed Alexander (hamstring), Crable (shin), Jordan (calf), Morris (knee) and Sanders (hamstring) as doubtful for Sunday's game against the Rams. Green, Kaczur and Matthew Slater are all listed as questionable with ankle injuries.
NotesPatriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said in his morning press conference that tackle Oliver Rosshas responded well to two weeks of practice action, his first real football in a year. "I think he is getting really close." … Belichick, who early in the year said he expected most teams to defer after winning the coin toss under the new NFL rule that allows the option, said Friday that he's noticed that it hasn't played out that way through the early part of the season. "It is probably just a question of preference so I think a lot of coaches in the National Football League have been used to taking the ball at the start of the game. … I do think there is a certain comfort level in the National Football League with just taking the ball. But I bet you in ten years if this rule stayed the same and a bunch of college coaches came into the NFL I bet they would feel more comfortable deferring. It is interesting." Belichick had said early in the year that most college coaches defer after winning the coin toss, where that option has always been in place. … In discussing the success of the running game in recent weeks offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels mentioned Friday that the team has had just three negative plays in the last three games. He also had praise for the running style of rookie free agent Green-Ellis. "He has good vision and gets the ball downhill. He knows what he is and he knows what he is not. I think that is really a tribute to him. He is a downhill guy that weighs 225 pounds. He is going to go ahead and duck his head and try and make some yards with his thighs and physicality. He is not a dancer and that is kind of what we like about him. He knows where the hole is at, he finds it, he hits it and he is not going to try to do much sideline-to-sideline running."