Cassel Chronicles – Patriots vs 49ers

We've looked at most of Matt Cassel's really good games, but it's important to remember that 2008 wasn't all easy sailing for the quarterback. Most notably, he struggled in some early season games when the Patriots were still figuring out just what he could do well consistently.

In our eighth Cassel Chronicle, we'll take a look at Cassel's visit to San Francisco, where New England beat the 49ers 30-21. On paper, the Patriots probably should have blown out the 49ers, but five sacks and two interceptions kept the game close.

There was still plenty to like from Cassel in this game, however. Most notably, he hooked up deep with Randy Moss, and brought his team back from early 7-0 and 14-7 deficits.

Final Stat line: 22-32, 259 YDS, 1 TD, 2 INT


POSITIVES

1st quarter – 7:44 – 3rd-and-8

It's third and long, the Patriots trail by a touchdown and haven't done a thing on offense so far. They need a big play and Matt Cassel delivers big time. The 49ers blitz two defenders off the weakside and one comes free because Kevin Faulk can only pick up one, obviously. But Cassel doesn't panic, and doesn't look at the rush.

Instead, he calmly rolls away from the pressure, surveying the secondary as he moves. He locks on to Randy Moss, steps up and makes a picture-perfect throw for a 66-yard touchdown. Moss catches the ball in stride and glides easily into the end zone. There's no need for a superhuman catch.

The nice part of this play is that Cassel didn't even attempt to throw in the direction the blitz came from, as quarterbacks are often coached to do. Nor did he look for a short receiver coming open quickly because of the blitz. He kept his eyes downfield and there never appeared to be a hint of confusion or any hesitation. It looked easy.

The replay also indicates that Cassel released the ball well before Moss had beaten Nate Clements down the field. In fact, Moss was only 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. Cassel anticipated the throw and knew he could throw to a spot Moss would reach before Clements. That's practice and preparation coming into play.

2nd quarter – 1:04 – 1st-and-10

When Matt Cassel puts the ball in a breadbox, it's fun to watch, and it's even more fun to watch when he does everything else right. On this play, the Patriots are in the middle of their two-minute drill, and Cassel quickly recognizes that San Francisco's coverage has the middle of the field bottled up. So he looks to his left and finds Moss open again, running an out pattern about 13 yards up the left sideline.

With a defender closing in from the blindside, Cassel coolly flicks his right arm and fires the ball accurately, so that Moss doesn't even have to break stride as he taps his feet down and gets out of bounds. The ball is released on time so the corner trailing has no chance to undercut the play, and it's a fairly long throw, too – Cassel is standing on the right hash mark and throwing all the way to the opposite side of the field.

3rd quarter – 6:37 – 1st-and-goal

The 49ers are blitzing from the outside, and center Dan Koppen has to come all the way from his position to pick it up. It's a difficult play and the pressure gets to Cassel, but fortunately he handles it quite well, unlike previous plays in this game.


Cassel to Moss, touchdown.
Jeff Chiu - AP

With his first read covered, Cassel stands tall as Takeo Spikes smacks him in the head and delivers a dart to his outlet receiver, Kevin Faulk. Despite the illegal hit, Cassel's pass is right on target, affording Faulk the opportunity to pick up eight yards after the catch. In the booth, Dan Fouts calls Cassel a "maturing quarterback."

3rd quarter – 2:01 – 3rd-and-10

The 49ers desperately need a stop, so they go back to the muddled pre-snap look that confused Cassel earlier in the game (noted in our negatives section). There are only two down linemen, but six defenders rush, with a late man coming from the secondary. However, this time Cassel exploits the blitz for an important first down.

As soon as his back foot hits the ground and he completes his drop, it's obvious where Cassel is going with the ball. Confidently, he plants his front foot and throws a strike to Jabar Gaffney, who is running a slant into the window in San Franciso's zone. The ball is a tight, accurate spiral, over the defender dropping out into a zone, right into the receiver's chest.

Cassel anticipates this throw, as his arm is cocked right as Gaffney makes his break. It's a throw that requires timing and accuracy, because when the ball is actually caught there are three defenders surrounding the receiver. A half-second late or a half yard to the right or left, and maybe someone bats it away, or worse.

4th quarter – 8:06 – 3rd-and-2

The Patriots, leading by only six, need a first down near midfield to keep San Francisco's offense off the field. The 49ers don't blitz, however, dropping seven in coverage and blanketing Cassel's initial read (Wes Welker) down the middle of the field on this play. Quickly, he looks to a secondary target – Randy Moss.

Moss has been chucked slightly, and there's a corner right on his hip as he runs a short out pattern. But Cassel's pinpoint throw gives the defender no chance to make a play on the ball. It's thrown out in front of Moss, right on target, so he has enough room to dance up the sidelines for an extra five yards.

It's only a three-yard pattern, but Cassel, standing on the left hash mark, has to throw the ball all way out to the right sideline. This is a long throw to pick up two yards, that is also thrown at the right angle to avoid the outstretched arms of a defensive lineman. The Patriots burn another four minutes off the clock after this important completion and kick the clinching field goal.


NEGATIVES

1st quarter – 13:02- 1st-and-10

Disaster strikes early for Cassel as his lack of pocket awareness contributes to an interception. The Patriots line up in four-wide and fake a handoff, and Cassel looks deep and appears to have Wes Welker open on a crossing route. He steps up, ready to fire, but as he goes to make the throw he steps right into one of his offensive linemen.

The impact causes the pass to come out awkwardly, and it flutters into the hands of a linebacker for an easy interception. This play probably could have been avoided had Cassel felt his lineman being pushed into his path. It's really no different than feeling a pass rusher closing in on you.

On the positive side, we should note that this is yet another one of Cassel's interceptions that really wasn't caused by a poor decision or a bad read. Fortunately New England's defense comes up with a turnover on the next snap, negating this interception.

1st quarter – 1:30 – 3rd-and-4

It's rare to see Matt Cassel get confused, so when it happens, it stands out as a definite negative. On this play the 49ers present a muddled defensive front, with only one lineman placing a hand on the ground. But they rush four at the snap, and when Cassel's primary receiver is covered he looks unsure of what to do next.

Instead of turning his head to the left and spotting a wide open Wes Welker, he starts thinking about the pass rush and the play is instantly dead. Cassel is sacked for a five-yard loss and the Patrots are forced to punt, still trailing by a touchdown.

2nd quarter – 13:22 – 1st-and-10

It's taken awhile, but finally we've witnessed a truly awful, bottom-of-the-barrel throw from Matt Cassel. This play features a bad read, a bad decision, and a terrible throw which, not surprisingly, results in another interception.


Cassel's second deep attempt wasn't so fortunate.
Jeff Chiu - AP

After another play fake, Cassel has a nice, clean pocket to step up into. With Wes Welker's short curl covered up, Cassel takes a look at Randy Moss and despite double coverage, he chucks a bomb way down the field, banking on his receiver making a big play. The only problem is the ball is horribly underthrown. Moss has no chance at making a play with his athletic ability because the corner and safety give him no room to make a leaping stab at the ball. Instead, Nate Clements easily runs underneath the ball and picks it off.

The awful part of this play really isn't the throw. It's the decision. Moss was well-covered by two defenders, and with both LaMont Jordan and Benjamin Watson wide open on short routes, it made sense to dump the ball off.

2nd quarter – 6:04 – 3rd-and-6

You have a chance for a touchdown, and it turns into a sack? No question this is another awful play, especially with the Patriots near the goal line and trailing by seven points. New England puts five receivers in the pattern and the 49ers only rush four, but the pressure comes quickly.

Cassel has a chance to look at his first read off to the left before that pressure arrives up the middle. Once it does, everything breaks down. He runs to his right, right into an offensive lineman, and takes his eyes off his progressions. Had he not started looking at the pass rush, Cassel would have found a wide open Randy Moss crossing the middle of the field for an easy score. Instead it's a sack, and New England settles for three.

2nd quarter – 0:20 – 3rd-and-6

With a chance to take the lead before halftime, the Patriots are denied on third down because of another bad decision from Cassel. Everyone looks covered initially, but Kevin Faulk slips out of the backfield and is definitely open. If he gets the ball, he has a chance to get a first down.

But Cassel never sees Faulk. After looking at his initial read out to the right, despite the fact there is no real pressure, he inexplicably attempts to bulldoze his way up the middle in order to scramble for a first down. He meets a wall and is sacked, instead. However, luckily for the Patriots a facemask penalty extends their drive and they score a touchdown.

Previous Cassel Chronicles:
Patriots vs Jets
Patriots vs Dolphins
Patriots vs Steelers
Patriots vs Chiefs
Patriots vs Seahawks
Patriots vs Broncos
Patriots vs Colts

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