Michael Lombardo: What are the flaws in Matt Cassel's game? What can the Chargers do to attack him that wouldn't work against Tom Brady?
Jon Scott: Cassel struggles by taking far too long to make his reads and throw the ball. Cassel will drop back, and by the time he's figured out his first and possibly second target aren't going to get open, the defense is on him. He can make the throws when he has time or when he makes a quick decision on where to put the ball. Teams have tried to mix up the coverage and that seems to be working.
Remember, Cassel may be in his fourth year in this New England system, but he's only started three games in his career. If the Chargers disguise their coverages and bring pressure from unusual angles, they'll force Cassel into either making a mistake (interception) or holding the ball too long (sack).
ML: Talk about the impact of former Chargers receiver Wes Welker. Has he become more valuable to the offense than Randy Moss?
WR Wes Welker
Welker has lined up in the slot, out on the end and even at flanker. He can run the reverse, go deep, go over the middle or split the coverage down the deep middle. New England figured out early on that getting the ball into Welker's hands fast meant that he had more time to gain yardage after the catch. Pat Kirwan of Sirius NFL Radio said this week that Welker is among the League leaders in YAC, coming in ahead of T.O. in Dallas. Last season, when teams rolled their coverage toward Randy Moss, Welker stepped up his game, often leading the offense. He set a career and franchise record last season with 112 catches for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns. He may not be more important than Randy Moss, but he certainly is Moss' equal in this system.
ML: The Patriots have three running backs with at least 24 carries. What kind of rotation will they deploy against the Chargers?
JS: The talk in New England is about why the running game is averaging far less than they did in 2007. Laurence Maroney has a 3.3 ypc, as does Sammy Morris. Part of the problem is lack of imagination in the New England running game and the offensive line's inability to open holes. Morris and LaMont Jordan have both shown they can take a hit and still gain yardage after contact, unlike what is happening with Maroney. Kevin Faulk has joined the mix as the team's change-of-pace back, taking carries away from Maroney.
San Diego can expect to see another mix of the backs with Morris and Jordan getting the bulk of the carries. When Miami won, they stuffed the box with nine guys. The Patriots mistakenly tried to run through that without calling misdirection or screen plays to take the pressure off the line. Faulk joined the mix last week in the San Francisco game, offering the Patriots significant formation flexibility because of Faulk's skills. More of that will be on order for this week.
ML: The Chargers released Rodney Harrison after the 2002 season because they felt he had lost a step. Six years later, the Chargers still have safety problems and Harrison could be New England's defensive MVP. What have the Patriots done to disguise his flaws while maximizing on his immense talents?
SS Rodney Harrison
Harrison isn't asked to cover big, fast targets at his safety position; he's asked to stuff the run or cover the middle ground underneath while James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather and other defensive backs are charged with covering fast receivers on deep patterns. If it's an obvious passing situation, Harrison typically plays middle field acting as the robber in the secondary. If teams use a spread formation with four viable targets, Harrison can be exposed against a quicker target like a tight end or a back. Fortunately for the Patriots, they seem to minimize the damage teams do against them in those cases.
ML: The perception is that New England's secondary is the chink in its defensive armor, yet the Patriots rank No. 8 against the pass. What's the real story with the secondary?
JS: There are serious problems with the secondary, which will be exposed by teams with a high-powered passing attack. What the Patriots do to cover that is dial up the pressure up front. You saw what the Dolphins did against New England. That wasn't as much Ronnie Brown as it was Chad Pennington's ability to find holes everywhere in the secondary. Pennington's ability to pick apart a soft zone can be mimicked to take advantage of the New England defense.
One thing the Patriots did against the 49ers to minimize those holes was to mix the coverage into 3-3-5 nickel formation and other variations including a 4-2-5 look. On passing downs, the team brought in six defensive backs using a 2-3-6 or 1-4-6 dime package. It seems contrary to what New England did in the past by having their four defensive linemen apply pressure (as Jacksonville and Indy recall in previous playoffs). It will be interesting to see which defensive scheme shows up against a team like San Diego with a back who can really run the ball.
ML: What's the scoop on New England's special teams? Do they have what it takes to keep Darren Sproles in check? Who are the Patriots' top players in kick coverage?
JS: Sproles is a dangerous kickoff return man and that's a big concern for New England's special teams, which has had an inconsistent performance against the return. The Patriots have a pair of special-teams stars who weren't with the team last year in WR San Aiken and LB Gary Guyton. Guyton has been a special find as an UDFA who beat out some other talented players on special teams. Aiken is special teams ace from Buffalo and his contributions can't be credited enough. Both players have shored up some of the gaps in coverage along with veteran FB Heath Evans, who continues to play well on special teams, and long-time special teams captain Larry Izzo.
Jon Scott has covered the NFL since 1995, and is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider and Comcast SportsNet New England. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA), Jon has been a guest analyst on the NFL Network, Sporting News Radio, ESPN Radio and other outlets around the web.