Jon Scott: Matt Cassel, judged by the numbers, is a better quarterback today than he was in Week 3 of the season. But it's not stats that tell you how far Cassel has progressed, it's his decision-making. Cassel is taking fewer sacks now because he knows fairly quickly once the ball is snapped, where it's going to go. Cassel has the arm strength to make the quick out pattern, and he can throw it deep.
What he hasn't been able to do is to find a rhythm on the deep pass with any of his receivers. Cassel will either loft the ball too high, or overthrow the receiver. He can get it to the right spot, but typically not as well as Brady. Still, with all that said, Cassel is better than a lot of other quarterbacks who have started in the NFL previously. Considering he will be starting for just the 11th time as a pro, that's a lot of improvement in a short amount of time.
Q: How much consistency has there been in the running game with all the injuries there?
JS: Surprisingly, the Patriots maintained a solid rushing average per game even without their primary running backs. Longtime veteran Kevin Faulk turned it on for one game, while undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis helped out on two others. The Patriots were averaging over 130 yards on he ground prior to their game against the Jets.
Still, you can tell New England is efforting to break runs for positive yards without Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan or Laurence Maroney (who is now on IR). Kevin Faulk turned in a 60-yard game against the Rams, but he also compiled 47 more through the air. The following week in Indianapolis Faulk ran for 60 while Green-Ellis contributed 57. The week after that, Green-Ellis broke the 100 yard mark on his own.
Running back by committee has served the Patriots well this season a year after their former First round pick Laurence Maroney turned in a dismal beginning of the season after his career-best year in 2007. With Morris and Jordan healthy, the Patriots had no trouble rushing for over 4 yards per carry. Since then they've struggled except for Faulk who manages over 5 yards per carry on Draws and off-tackle plays.
Q: Wes Welker is catching a lot of passes again, but is he really making a big difference for the Patriots?
JS: Welker is the grease in the gears of the Patriots receiving corps. Without him as a safety valve for Cassel, New England drives would stall repeatedly. When teams try to take Welker away, it opens up other parts of the defense. Most defensive coordinators aren't willing to test single coverage on Randy Moss, so Welker usually benefits. Through 10 games, Welker's caught 72 passes, breaking the old NFL record for most games to start a season with at least six catches (8).
The damage Welker does is convert first downs. Typically New England has turned to Faulk or the tight end ot make those third-and-long plays, but Welker is so good at finding holes in the zone defense that he's become Cassel's favorite target just a year after Tom Brady threw 112 completions to Welker for a franchise record. Welker is set to tie that mark with Cassel.
Q: How has Randy Moss adjusted to life without Tom Brady?
JS: The Welker question naturally gives reason to wonder if he can have a similar season to last year, why can't Randy Moss? Simple, teams have game-planned against Moss. It's not original, but the over and under coverages Moss is seeing this year prove that no one wants a repeat of the 2007 version of Randy Moss. Defensive coordinators press Moss close off the line, then cover him over the top with a safety. The Patriots showed that they can exploit that coverage by throwing to other targets: Jabar Gaffney and Ben Watson.
Moss, in the meantime, has become a reliable presence in the locker room despite the Brady-less offense. He's not sounding off, despite having reasons to be discouraged at his numbers. He's in the game plan, but Cassel hasn't quite developed the chemistry Brady had with Moss.
You're seeing more of that connection evolve each week, with the Cassel-to-Moss TD pass that tied the Jets game.
Q: How good would you consider the Patriots offense these days?
JS: Good? I'm not sure I would call it that yet. They're not converting enough third downs on a consistent basis, mostly because the third-down situations tend to be third-and-long. Cassel hasn't been able to convert in the red zone as well as expected, so games are a lot closer, or turn into blowouts when they could be close.
If Cassel gets Morris and Jordan back and healthy, expect the offense to kick things up a notch. The Patriots currently rank 10th overall with the 8th-best rushing attack. If New England gains just 7 yards more per game they'll be on par with teams that have elite backs like Adrian Peterson and Clinton Portis or teams with highly promoted duos like Tennessee and Carolina. Considering the team didn't get the starting right guard back till Week 8, lost the starting right tackle for weeks, and doesn't have its starting QB or running back, that's pretty solid production from a bunch of backups.