That's a sign he has the ability to avoid forcing the ball when nothing is there. While you never want to see your quarterback get knocked down that much, when you're up by three touchdowns and no one's open, eating the ball is never a bad thing. A less judicious young passer might have let the Broncos back into the game with a turnover.
In fact, because there wasn't a huge amount of production from New England's passing game this week, we'll focus on Cassel's ability to make smart, conservative decisions this time.
Final Stat line: 18-24, 185 YDS, 3 TD, 0 INT
1st quarter – 7:10 – 2nd-and-5
The Patriots fake a handoff with the intention of hitting Randy Moss on a deep post. Cassel has a clean, comfortable pocket to step up into and every reason to take a shot down the field against Denver's poor secondary – except the coverage, of course.
The Broncos have Moss bracketed by Champ Bailey and a safety, deep. A big play is possible, but not probable. Showing patience rarely exhibited in first-year starters, Cassel comes off his initial read and finds tight end Benjamin Watson running a shallow cross over the middle of the field.
Because of the way Denver has reacted to New England's route combination, and because Cassel hits Watson in stride before he breaks a tackle, the play results in a 29-yard gain. Sometimes it really pays to be patient.
1st quarter – 5:24 – 3rd-and-16
After a sack, the Patriots find themselves in a long-yardage situation just short of the red zone. They line up with three receivers to the right and clearly have designs on picking up a first down. When the Broncos' blitz breaks down protection, however, there's really no time for Matt Cassel to wait for anything to develop downfield. He could hold the ball and make something happen, but he's just taken a sack, and doesn't risk another one.
Cassel's mobility came in handy against Denver.
Mary Schwalm - AP
2nd quarter – 10:09 – 1st-and-10
Sometimes NFL receivers are only open for a fraction of a second on a given play before the zone tightens up, a defensive back recovers, etc. Good quarterbacks take advantage of those miniscule windows, and that's what we see Cassel do on this play.
The Patriots line up with three receivers and Cassel takes a quick three-step drop. His first read is covered on the left side of the field, so he quickly snaps his head to the right and looks at Randy Moss, who is entering a tiny hole in Denver's zone.
There's no hesitation as Cassel flicks a dart right between Louis Green and DJ Williams and into the hands of Moss. It's a bang-bang play and a lot of information processed quickly by a young quarterback, and Green shows a little frustration after the play, because there was just no way he could make a play on the ball. The play sets up third-and-short and the Patriots go on to score later.
2nd quarter – 8:12 – 2nd-and-8
When things break down, usually Matt Cassel doesn't make a mistake, and we see that on this play again. The Broncos only rush three and drop eight in coverage near the goal line, so everything is covered up. As the rush closes in, Cassel keeps his eyes down the field, however, and improvises wonderfully.
First he has the presence of mind to avoid Ebenezer Ekuban, coming in from his blindside. As he rolls out, he runs up the field slightly to avoid Jarvis Moss, still looking for a receiver, and releases the ball as he's hit.
Surprisingly, the pass is an absolute laser thrown about as accurately as possible under the circumstances. It's intended for Randy Moss and only a great play – or perhaps a drop by Moss – from Champ Bailey results in an incompletion instead of a touchdown pass. But either way, it's a great example of Cassel's ability to extend a play and make a smart decision under pressure.
2nd quarter – 3:58 – 3rd-and-17
We penalize Cassel for holding onto the football in our negatives section, so it's only fair to recognize that one play later, he does the exact opposite and it results in a huge, momentum-turning play for the Patriots. Facing immediate pressure on third-and-long, Cassel doesn't hesitate to roll out and throw the ball away.
Interestingly, he waits until the last second possible to get rid of the ball, with a Broncos defender right on top of him. Of course, that defender, Jamie Winborn, just happens to reach out and hook Cassel's facemask, dragging him to the ground and resulting in a late hit penalty, which is a first down for the Patriots. If you don't think this is a huge play, just consider the fact that the penalty-extended drive goes on to result in a touchdown.
2nd quarter – 0:51 – 1st-and-10
Moss hooked up with Cassel for two more touchdowns.
Jim Rogash - Getty
The Patriots line up with three receivers to the right and run a rollout play. As he rolls with his offensive line, Cassel reads the defense and, really, everyone appears to be covered. But he sets his feet and makes a picture-perfect back shoulder throw to Moss for the score.
The remarkable part of this throw is that Moss is actually running a corner route, which is covered well by Dre Bly. But because the rest of his receivers were blanketed short, Cassel quickly found an area of the field he could unload the ball to in order to give his receiver a chance. Not only does he do that, he throws the ball decisively with zip and accuracy, over the outstretched hands of a closing safety, in a spot where Moss just has to reach back a little to bring it in for six points.
1st quarter – 2:17- 3rd-and-10
If you're going to challenge Champ Bailey, you'd better be perfect. On this snap, Cassel takes a risk by throwing Bailey's way a little late, and it comes close to costing New England a score.
The Patriots run three receivers to the left side of their formation, but Denver's zone has them covered well initially. Given time in the pocket, Cassel goes through his reads and finds Jabar Gaffney running a comeback near the sideline, but he appears to hesitate, staring down his receiver for perhaps just a half-second too long.
Cassel makes an accurate throw, but because he doesn't have the greatest arm in the world, that half second is enough for Bailey to close on Gaffney and undercut the route. Bailey slaps the ball away and could have made a diving grab at an interception, which would have robbed the Patriots of three points on the next play.
2nd quarter – 4:34 – 2nd-and-10
When you see plays like this one, you don't wonder why the Patriots gave up 47 sacks a year ago. This is a classic example of a quarterback holding the ball too long, and it's so obvious ESPN's Ron Jaworski starts playing quarterbacks coach from his spot in the booth at Gillette Stadium.
After a bootleg, Cassel looks deep for Randy Moss, but he's covered. At this point, with Elvis Dumervil closing quicky, Cassel really has two options – throw the ball away (he's outside the tackle box), or run. Instead, he steps up in the pocket, and really becomes even more of a sitting duck. He's brought down easily for a sack, placing the Patriots in a third-and-long situation near their goal line.
3rd quarter – 2:58 – 1st-and-10
We've seen it before, and we'll see it again most likely – sometimes Cassel just flat misses a throw. On this play he rolls out after play action and has Kevin Faulk open on an improvised route. But he throws off his back foot as a defender hits him, so we shouldn't be surprised the pass is a duck well out of Faulk's reach.
It almost results in an interception, and in fact, two defenders have a chance at the ball. More importantly, we ought to question why this pass was even thrown. It was first down, the Patriots were ahead by 27 points, and Cassel was forced to throw awkwardly. Why take that risk?
Next Time: Cassel takes on Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in a tight road game.
Previous Cassel Chronicles:
Patriots vs Jets
Patriots vs Dolphins
Patriots vs Steelers
Patriots vs Chiefs
Patriots vs Seahawks