It has been more than a year since the New England Patriots prepared for an opponent while coming off a loss, but that's the case as they ready for their trip to St. Louis, where they will take on the Rams Sunday at 4:15 p.m. with an injury-depleted roster causing on-the-fly adjustments, the result of which will be critical to the team's success over the next few weeks.
New England will be without Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law, who has his left foot in a cast, and without his fellow starter, Tyrone Poole (knee), as they face the high-flying Rams passing attack. They may not be Greatest Show on Turf it was during it's Super Bowl season in 1999 and through 2001, but still can strike fear into an opposing secondary, especially one in disarray as New England's is.
With Law and Poole on the sideline, New England is left with four healthy defensive backs with fewer than two years experience along with 11-year veteran Rodney Harrison, who will try to keep the young group together and focused on stopping Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Dane Looker, Marshall Faulk and any other weapons Mike Martz unveils in his pass-happy attack.
Besides Harrison, rookie cornerback Randall Gay and rookie safety Dexter Reid join second-year men Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson, who earned significant playing time last year as rookies, but hardly classify as cagey veterans. As one might expect, the Patriots are hoping these young players can, to use a tired cliche, step up.
"It doesn't change anything," Harrison insisted. "We have to go out and play. That's the message we're sending to everyone. What's done is done. We're going to miss those guys, but we have to move on. You can't sulk. No one is going to feel sorry for you. You have to go out and do your job. Guys just have to step up. We all have to step up our game."
Samuel has been the nickel back for the last year-plus when Law and Poole have been healthy and has filled in for either as a starter when needed. He has shown a nose for the ball in both of his training camps, but that hasn't carried over into game action where he has been decent, but certainly not extraordinary.
He intercepted a pass for a touchdown in Week 3 of 2003, but has just one interception since and that came at the end of a game on a desperation throw. He will start this week in Law's place.
But with Poole also out of action, head coach Bill Belichick has a couple of different options, the most likely of which involves starting Gay, an undrafted rookie, at cornerback while keeping safeties Wilson and Harrison in their place. Reid would be the nickel safety in that scenario with Wilson becoming the third cover corner in the subpackages.
Belichick's other option would be to move Wilson to corner to start opposite Samuel and start Reid at safety with Gay coming in as the fifth defensive back. It may not matter which direction Belichick chooses to go because all five will see a heavy dose of playing time against the Rams, who will use multi-receiver sets throughout the game and force the Patriots' beat up secondary to match up.
"It's easier to change one guy than it is to shuffle two or three if you can do that, but you do what is best for your team even if that means moving two or three guys," Belichick said, clearly intending to leave his plan as vague as possible.
Wilson had a strong rookie season at safety, but has been up-and-down this season. He was the AFC Defensive Player of the Month in September, but struggled at times in October. He gave the Patriots a safety with adequate coverage skills that allowed the defensive coaches some flexibility in scheming for nickel situations when the run was still an option for opponents. His ability to cover from the safety spot allowed the defensive coaches to stay with four defensive backs in some nickel situations.
Wilson intercepted four passes last season while showing he could be a physical force at the back of the secondary, but it remains to be seen how he might perform in a full-time coverage situation as a corner out on an island. The Patriots coaches worked him at corner as well as safety during the preseason, but may see just how he holds up as a corner as soon as this week.
While Faulk is still the player the Patriots must stop first and foremost, the ability of the secondary to hold up against a strong passing game will undoubtedly be the determining factor in the game.
One way to account for a coverage liability is to blitz Rams quarterback Marc Bulger and force him to unload the ball early, but that is a risky proposition because it leaves the inexperienced defensive backs in vulnerable one-on-one situations with more talented receivers.
Gay was burned for a 47-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Plaxico Burress on such a blitz last week when the Patriots' seven-man rush didn't generate the needed pressure and Gay was exposed deep without safety help.
So Belichick will certainly have to earn his salary this week as he prepares an undermanned defense for a high-octane offense. It is a game in which he will need his playmakers - Harrison, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest - to step up and make a play that wins the game for the Patriots.
But even those players have to guard against trying to do too much to account for the losses.
"You can't feel that way," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "You have to focus on your own responsibility and have confidence that everyone will do his own job."
It'll be interesting to see that confidence grow or crash this Sunday in St. Louis.
10th meeting. Rams lead series 5-4. The Rams won four straight meetings between 1989 and 2001 before losing Super Bowl XXXVI to the Patriots in one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. New England won the first ever meeting in 1974, but lost in its only trip to play the Rams in St. Louis, falling 32-18 in 1998.
For the second consecutive week, the Patriots will go on the road to face a team coming off its bye week with two weeks to prepare for them. It didn't bode well for New England last week when it had its 21-game winning streak snapped in an ugly effort in Pittsburgh. And it won't get any easier this week since Mike Martz is 4-0 as the Rams head coach when coming off a bye.
"Mike just keeps throwing more logs on the fire," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "He'll have 10 logs in the fire and throw three more on. With two weeks, I'm sure he'll have some new stuff for us."
Belichick's logs-on-the-fire reference pertained to the amount of offensive weapons St. Louis has and is willing to use. From obvious stars like Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk to lesser knowns like Dane Looker, Kevin Curtis and Steven Jackson, Martz schemes to make a defense defend the whole field while never knowing what is coming based on personnel or formation.
"You'll never see the same look twice," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "That makes it a challenge to prepare, but you can't guess. You have to play your defense while understanding who they want to get the ball to."
--It's purely coincidence, but a neat scheduling note nonetheless that the Patriots play the Steelers and Rams in back-to-back games just as they did three years ago when they beat Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game and the Rams in the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately for New England, it lost last week in its first return to Pittsburgh since upsetting the Steelers for the 2001 AFC Championship and now hopes it doesn't drop one to the Rams in a complete reversal of fortune.
While Belichick certainly reviewed the tape of the Super Bowl, he spent most of his time checking out recent Rams games, diminishing the relevance of what New England did to slow the Rams attack back in Super Bowl XXXVI.
"Less than half the players from that game are on our team and less than half the players from that game are on their team," Belichick pointed out.
New England was a 14-point underdog when it met the Rams in the Super Bowl, but used a physical defensive effort and a power running game to post the championship game upset on the turf at New Orleans' Louisiana Superdome.
Ty Law, who won't play this week, returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown in that game and quarterback Tom Brady engineered a game-winning drive that ended with Adam Vinatieri kicking a 48-yard field goal as time expired for the 20-17 win over the 16-2 and heavily-favored Rams.
--This is the fourth straight week the Patriots will face a team that is at least tied for first place in its division. It beat 3-1 Seattle and the 5-0 Jets before losing to the 5-1 Steelers last week. The Rams are now tied with the Seahawks at 4-3 atop the NFC West. But despite New England's and St. Louis' place atop their respective divisions, they have a combined minus-8 turnover ratio with the Rams sitting at minus-6 and the Patriots at minus-2. New England finished last season at plus-17, but turned the ball over a season-high four times last week in Pittsburgh. Both teams are heavily penalized as well with New England averaging eight penalties for 61 yard per game and the Rams averaging eight penalties for 60 yards.
--The kickers in this week's game are among the all-time most accurate kickers in league history. In fact, both kickers - New England's Adam Vinatieri and the Rams' Jeff Wilkins - have connected on 81.3 percent of all field-goal attempts. Vinatieri is 226-for-278 while Wilkins is 213-for-262.
BY THE NUMBERS:
13-3 - The Patriots' record against NFC opponents since 2001; one of those three losses was to the Rams in Foxborough on Nov. 18, 2001.
QUOTE TO NOTE:
"I think people are probably wondering how we're going to react to some adversity. We didn't respond to it in the second half last week so you have to answer questions. It'll be good to see how we respond." -- Linebacker Mike Vrabel on New England recovering from its first loss in 13 months.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Bill Belichick didn't rule out a roster move to help his injury-depleted secondary, but said that nothing would happen before Thursday, which means that any player added likely wouldn't play this week against the Rams.
The Patriots do have cornerback Earthwind Moreland on the practice squad and added safety Scott Farley Wednesday to fill the last vacancy on the eight-man unit. Both of those players spent training camp with the Patriots, and Moreland has been with the club for most of the year.
If the Patriots elevate either of those defensive backs or sign a veteran free agent off the street, they will have to make room on the roster by either releasing a player or placing one of the injured players on IR.
As long as the team is in postseason contention as it figures to be for the rest of the season, barring a total collapse, it will not move cornerback Ty Law or wide receiver Deion Branch to IR because both players could return before the end of the season and be available for the postseason.
- OT Brandon Gorin played well on the right side last week while filling in
for the injured Tom Ashworth. With Ashworth still dealing with back troubles
that have plagued him since the summer, Gorin could get the start again this
week. Left tackle Matt Light was dinged last week, but is expected to play
in St. Louis. If Light is unable to stay in the game or gets dinged again,
Gorin will move to the left side where he struggled badly against Joey Porter
last week. "He's worked hard," coach Bill Belichick said. "When
he was on the right side, he did a solid job. He hasn't had much work on the
left side and we need to get him some work over there."
- OG Stephen Neal is next in line to play tackle as he did last week against
the Steelers when LT Matt Light left the game and Brandon Gorin moved to the
left side. Neal is a terrific athlete, but as a former wrestler, has very
little football background. He has spent all his time learning the guard spot
until recently when he has been forced to take a few practice reps at tackle
in preparation for the type of emergency situation that arose last week in
Pittsburgh. "I had some practice there," Neal said. "It's hard,
but you have to play with the cards your dealt. You just go out and do your
best." Whoever ends up at right tackle will have his hands full this
week with Rams pass rusher Leonard Little.
- --S Dexter Reid, a rookie out of North Carolina, will either start at safety
beside Rodney Harrison or enter the game as the nickel back. If he starts
and plays in the base defense, it could affect his availability on special
teams since he plays on every unit in the kicking game. The Patriots would
likely move the sure-tackling Randall Gay in as a gunner on the punt team
in Reid's place opposite Je'Rod Cherry in that scenario. If New England leaves
Reid in his gunner role, Gay might start the following series at cornerback
while Eugene Wilson works at safety. It remains possible, though, that Wilson
starts at corner. Coach Bill Belichick does not tip his hand in terms of personnel
- RB Corey Dillon, who was held out of last week's game in Pittsburgh, is
expected to be back in uniform this week. He is battling a thigh injury and
the team apparently held him out last week as a precaution to ensure his long-term
availability. The club pressed Tyrone Poole into action against Seattle on
Oct. 17 and he only played the first half of that game before leaving. He's
been out since. Dillon has been a huge part of the offense and the Patriots
do not want to risk losing him for any extended period. He is questionable
for the Rams game, and will test his leg during pre-game in St. Louis, but
the Patriots will need him as a big part of the game plan against the NFL's
27th ranked run defense.
- LB Rosevelt Colvin confirmed Wednesday that he felt his best since last year on Sunday in Pittsburgh. Colvin, who fractured his hip in Week 2 last season, is still working to get back to full speed and may not reach that point this season. But he said the Monday soreness has eased up the last couple of weeks and he treats the hip regularly by sitting in the cold tub to ice it down and reduce any possible inflammation. Colvin has 18 tackles and 1.5 sacks through seven games as part of the team's linebacker rotation.
Bill Belichick's hands are tied somewhat as he plans for the high-flying Rams offense, which he called, "one of the most explosive in the league." Typically, Belichick would turn to multiple defensive back looks to combat a team with the passing tendencies the Rams have. But with only five healthy defensive backs, Belichick will not be able to employ the six and seven DB looks he successfully threw at the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. He could turn to seldom-used safety Je'Rod Cherry as a sixth DB, but that's unlikely. So expect the defensive game plan to be linebacker oriented.
The Patriots linebackers will be assigned to punish any receiver that runs through their area as long as they are within the 5-yard legal zone. The outside linebackers may forgo any pass rush responsibilities at the snap to get a jam on a slot receiver. They will treat Marshall Faulk the same way because he is such a threat in the passing game, meaning a linebacker will try to bump him and be physical with him whenever there is an opportunity to do so.
New England's corners may not be so aggressive because they simply don't match up well with Pro Bowlers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. So behind those linebackers, look for the Patriots to throw some zone looks at St. Louis. The pass rush, which has been non-existent the last couple of weeks, will need a big game without the aid of constant blitzing. The Patriots simply may not be able to cover long enough to risk a blitz-heavy approach and will need to generate pressure with its four-man rush.
Offensively, the Patriots will try to play keep away for as long as Corey Dillon is capable of pounding out yards. If he is unable to play because of his thigh injury, the Patriots could be facing an uphill battle. But Dillon's presence will give New England some big play opportunities against a secondary that has struggled at times and has been in search of safety help for weeks. Look for New England to revert mostly to a short, ball control passing game to go along with its ground attack while keeping St. Louis honest with some shots downfield. Tight end Daniel Graham could see a bunch of passes thrown his way since the Rams have had trouble defending opposing tight ends. With New England's outside speed forcing the Rams safeties to protect against the deep ball, Graham could have some openings, especially off play action fakes that suck in the linebackers. The Patriots should be able to move the ball this week and will need to with its defense ailing. Of course, the offensive success could fringe on Dillon's availability as well as that of leading receiver David Givens, who popped up on the injury report unexpectedly with a knee injury.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Patriots RT Tom Ashworth or Brandon Gorin vs. Rams DE Leonard Little. Ashworth may miss his second straight game with a back injury, which will leave Gorin to face the Rams' best pass rusher. Little leads St. Louis with 4 sacks and his 38 tackles rank fourth on the team. The Patriots will need to help Gorin with a back or tight end, which could hamper how they would ideally like to attack the Rams defense. If Gorin can handle Little one-on-one, the Patriots will be able to open up their offense somewhat without worrying about Tom Brady taking regular hits from his front side.
Patriots OLBs Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel vs. Rams RB Marshall Faulk. The Patriots linebackers will be assigned to get physical with Faulk when he releases from the backfield. They will not be expected to cover Faulk man to man, but bump him on occasion and take him away as an outlet for Marc Bulger. When Faulk is split wide and lined up in space away from the traffic between the tackles, he could cause a thin defensive backfield some matchup problems. But the Patriots have to hit Faulk when he releases to make sure he does not catch passes in space where he can make defenders miss and gain big yards after the catch.
Patriots CBs Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Eugene Wilson vs. Rams WRs Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Dane Looker. The Patriots' young cornerbacks will be fighting for football survival this week against a talented receiving corps. Their ability to do that will go a long way in determining New England's defensive success. Samuel, Wilson and Gay have 63 games of collective NFL experience. Bruce and Holt have a combined 1,192 career receptions for 108 touchdowns and have been to seven combined Pro Bowls. Belichick will have to get creative to minimize that Rams advantage.
Starting cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and Ty Law are out with knee and foot injuries, respectively. Top wide receiver Deion Branch remains listed as doubtful for the Rams game, but isn't expected to play. The problem there is that fellow wideouts David Givens and Troy Brown are both listed as questionable as well.
Brown has a shoulder injury that forced him to miss almost all of the four games before last week's game in Pittsburgh, in which he returned and made five catches for 59 yards. Brown is expected to be back on the field Sunday.
Givens got up slowly after one catch along the sideline in Pittsburgh, but
did not leave the game. He apparently missed a portion of practice Wednesday
and his availability for Sunday is now up in the air. If Brown or Givens is
unable to go, the Patriots offense will once again be hampered and easier to
defend since both of those receivers would likely have a big role in the game
plan along with David Patten, the team's other experienced, proven wideout.
With Bethel Johnson remaining nothing more than a deep threat, the Patriots are thin with Branch on the shelf. Running back Corey Dillon remains questionable, and should be a game-time decision as he was last week. He will likely get a light workload and test his injured thigh full throttle in St. Louis.
Right tackle Tom Ashworth is questionable as well and has to be considered a long shot to play. Brandon Gorin will start at right tackle in his place. It should be noted that Matt Light did not appear on the injury report after being dinged last week and leaving the Steelers game in the fourth quarter. Fullback Patrick Pass' thigh injury is getting closer to full health, but he remains questionable while special teams ace Larry Izzo is also surprisingly questionable with a knee injury, the extent of which is unknown.