FOXBOROUGH – About two hours before kickoff, St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jacksonwas seen limping noticeably back to the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium, with several team trainers chasing after him.
Shortly thereafter, the Rams announced that Jackson would be inactive against the Patriots. It appeared as if New England had dodged a bullet from St. Louis' most potent offensive weapon.
"When one of their best players isn't in there, then you don't know exactly what [to expect]," linebacker Adalius Thomasnoted afterward. "They stayed true to what they like to do, but at the same time their running game wasn't going to be exactly the same because Jackson was out. "
Which is why the Rams went airborne with rookie wide receiver Donnie Avery, who torched the Pats defense with just six catches totaling 163 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown reception at the start of the second quarer.
Safety James Sanderscame across the field to help cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who'd been beaten on the play, but the two teammates ended up knocking each other down, allowing Avery to waltz into the end zone unmolested.
That play punctuated the fact that New England's secondary was banged up – already without veteran safety Rodney Harrison(injured last week vs. Denver) and starting cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who left early in the first quarter Sunday with a head injury.
The injuries forced into service several of New England's young players in the secondary, including Antwain Spannand Mike Richardson, along with rookies Terrence Wheatleyand Jonathan Wilhite.
They certainly gave up their fair share of plays to the Rams offense, Avery in particular. But when the Pats needed to close out the win, the defense came through.
O'Neal, who returned to action in the fourth quarter after Hobbs exited with a shoulder injury, came up with turned out to be a game-saving interception.
"He pulled a Paul Pierceon us," Sanders joked, referring to the Boston Celtics forward's heroics in this year's NBA Finals. All kidding aside, the play helped boost the confidence on New England's suddenly young, inexperienced defensive backfield.
"Anytime somebody in the back makes a big play…we are a young group so that gives us confidence," Spann observed. "Of course, we are going to go through our bad plays because we are young. When we get the opportunity to make plays, most of the time we do."
"You've gotta go out there, look each other in the face and say, 'You know, we can do this,'" Wheatley added. "You've got to go out there with some confidence that you're going to win this game and do whatever it takes.
"Today was one of those games. After they got down there in that 2-minute drive, we looked at each other and thought, 'OK, two minutes. Let's gut this one out. We can do it.'"
Helping the secondary's cause was the front seven, which came away with four sacks of Rams QB Marc Bulger. Two of them came with the Pats trailing 10-7 and St. Louis driving toward what seemed like another score midway through the second quarter.
Thomas got the first one, which pushed the Rams out of field goal range. Defensive lineman Richard Seymourscored the next one, two plays later no third-and-long. St. Louis was forced to punt; New England then drove down for the tying field goal.
After another Thomas sacked forced the Rams to punt again on their next possession, the Pats were able to kick another 3-pointer to go into the half with a 13-10 lead. New England's defensive line and linebackers were able to get fairly consistent pressure on Bulger throughout the afternoon – something that's been lacking too often this year from the Pats' defensive arsenal.
"We just said in the huddle, 'Somebody has to make a play.' Try to get some kind of momentum swing the other way," Thomas explained. "It was a momentum shifter, my sack. And Richard's sack knocked them out of field goal range. That was big, considering we stopped them from scoring at the end of the half, [then] going into halftime with the lead."
"Obviously it helps tremendously," Sanders said of the front-seven's contributions, "because it shortens the time we have to cover the receivers. By them getting to the quarterback, it rushes him and doesn't allow him to make all the reads, which is a vital part of a defensive pass rush."
"To see guys flying around and making plays it gets us energized and we play at a higher level. "
The Patriots not only overcame Avery's offensive output, but also some potentially costly miscues by the New England offense (two Matt Casselinterceptions) and a little special teams trickery by the Rams, who on-side kicked to start the third quarter.
"We were scrambling in the third quarter," head coach Bill Belichickadmitted. "We had about four turnovers offensively as a team: the onside kick, getting stopped on fourth and one [in Rams territory in the third quarter] and the interceptions. We were hanging on. At times defensively I thought we played pretty consistently and then we had some big plays that marred that a little bit. But that was good in the third quarter and it was great the way the offense came back in the second quarter and got back on top going into the half."
Coping with the myriad injuries on defense may have been the most impressive aspect of the defense's performance Sunday, as Belichick detailed in his post-game press conference.
"When Deltha went out and then when Ellis went out. Then Mike [Richardson] got hurt on that last kickoff and then they put the four wide receivers in the game, which is their two-minute offense, so we expected that. But we were down on defensive backs. Brandon [Meriweather] had to move up to corner [from safety], Antwain came in at safety. We took that time out there after the kickoff to get organized because we were trying to find bodies to put out there."
"When guys go down, a lot of things happen, but Bill Belichick is the king of moving people around and putting us in a position to make plays," added Sanders. "When guys go down others step in and we try not to miss a beat and for the most part, we didn't."