Rams Pose Test for Depleted Secondary
By John MacKenna, Patriots Insider
Adversity has come knocking at the locker room door, and the 2004 Patriots will now start learning if they have what it takes to make another Super Bowl run. Sunday's game against the Rams in St. Louis will test the resourcefulness of a team famous for finding a way to win.
This week's formula for victory will likely require a massive infusion of Patriots' offense, to the tune of at least four touchdowns, because the battered New England defense will be hard-pressed to hold the Rams to much less.
With starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Pool both out, the Patriots are ill-prepared for the Rams' high-octane passing attack that averages 298 yards a game on the Edward Jones Dome artificial turf. St. Louis WRs Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, fixtures on the 2001 Rams that lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl, must be eager to take it to New England's patchwork secondary.
The Patriots might be visiting St. Louis at exactly the wrong time. The Rams are coming off a bye week and, before that, a stinging 31-14 loss to the Dolphins, who were winless at the time.
"We're playing against a team that has played extremely well coming off of their bye week, and they're playing at home," said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. "I think the Rams are a real good football team. We're just trying to get ready to deal with all the problems they present, which are numerous."
The Rams enter the game at 4-3, tied with the Seahawks for the NFC West lead. They had won three straight before the loss in Miami. St. Louis has won 16 of its last 17 home games.
The good news for New England is that they can fight fire with fire. Quarterback Tom Brady and his receiving corps can light it up, especially if RB Corey Dillon is on hand to keep the defense honest. The Patriots had their record 21-game win streak shattered rudely last Sunday in Pittsburgh, and they should be motivated.
Dillon was listed as probable on yesterday's injury report, and his availability is crucial. Without him last week, the Patriots gained five yards rushing against the Steelers. If he doesn't suit up, expect the New England losing streak to reach two.
Despite a 6-1 start, New England is in a dogfight in the AFC East. The Jets are also 6-1 and looked very strong in Monday Night's 41-14 thrashing of the Dolphins.
New England had looked invincible through six games, which included wins over the Colts, Seahawks and Jets. But that all changed last Sunday in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers burned the Patriots for 21 first-quarter points enroute to a 34-20 victory. New England's run defense, which had appeared more solid by the week, collapsed as the Steelers gained 221 rushing yards that included 17 rushes longer than five yards.
"We just have to learn from it and get better," Brady told Patriots.com. "It's our seventh game of the year, and there is a lot of football left to be played. This team has a lot of fight in it."
As they surrendered 25 first downs and 417 total yards, the Patriots looked nothing like a team that was riding a 21-game win streak. "I think whenever you go through adversity, you always wonder how you're going to respond," Safety Rodney Harrison told Patriots.com. "Knowing these guys, I think we're going to respond well."
Worst of all, the Patriots lost Law to a foot injury that could sideline him well into December. Aside from Brady, Law might be the team's most indispensable player. And St. Louis is the wrong place to go without Law, as the Rams are fifth in the NFL with an average of 264 passing yards per game.
But Belichick and Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennell have demonstrated their creativity at the Rams' expense before, shutting down the Bruce, Holt & Co. in Super Bowl XXXVI. Law was on hand then, leading the assault as New England got rough with the St. Louis receivers.
"They do a great job at the line of scrimmage," Rams Head Coach Mike Martz said. "I'd like to get our guys to do the same thing, to be real physical with those receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupt their timing."
This game will test the depth of the Patriots' defensive backfield, and in so doing test the team's commitment to youth. Belichick and Personnel Director Scott Pioli have tried to kill two birds with one stone by opting for young players instead of veterans when filling out the Patriots' roster. Younger players earn less money, which helps with the salary cap, and they have longer futures with the team, which guards the team against instability from year to year.
The commitment to youth was exemplified by the team's one controversial decision in the final preseason cutdowns: waiving veteran CB Terrell Buckley in favor of undrafted rookie Randall Gay. Gay should play plenty against the Rams, either as a starting cornerback, a starting safety or a nickel back.
In fact, 11th-year SS Harrison is the only backfield regular with more than one full season's experience. Second-year CB Asante Samuel will start at one corner. Eugene Wilson, also in his second year, will start either at corner or at free safety. Rookie safety Dexter Reid likely will be the nickel back or the starting free safety.
"I don't know what to expect because I haven't been out there against [the Rams], but I feel more comfortable out there now," Samuel told the Boston Globe. "I'd love to have Ty and all the players out there with me, but unfortunately it's not going to be like that."
Expect Belichick and Crennell to call for zone defenses and more blitzes than normal to disrupt Rams QB Marc Bulger and his deep receiving corps. Bulger has completed 64.4 percent of his passes overall, but only 55.6 percent against the blitz.
The Patriots have gone two games without a sack, but they took down the opposing quarterback 19 times in the first five games, and they have enough healthy, talented pass rushers to get after Bulger, including LB Willie McGinest, LB Mike Vrabel, DT Jarvis Green and LB Rosevelt Colvin.
The Pats have been sending Harrison after the quarterback more often this year, but with so little experience among the other DBs, Crennell will probably put that trick back in the bag.
The Rams are a pass-first team, and Bulger has plenty of receiving options. Bruce is 5th in the NFL with 635 yards on 44 catches. Holt has 491 yards on 37 catches, and RB Marshall Faulk has 216 yards on 28 catches. The backup wideouts are dangerous too. Second-year men Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis have only 20 catches between them, but both are averaging over 16 yards a catch.
"I think Mike [Martz] has done a great job of utilizing his talent, and putting them in positions that make them hard to defend," said Belichick.
Bulger loves to dump to Faulk, but New England handled Faulk very well in Super Bowl XXXVI, and the same linebackers who corralled him there-McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer-are back to haunt him again.
One emerging target is Rams rookie RB Steven Jackson, the 24th pick in the draft out of Oregon State who was mentioned often as a potential Patriots' pick before the Pats traded for Dillon. Jackson has caught seven passes in the last three games, while rushing 24 times for 139 yards.
On the other side of the ball, only four NFL teams surrender more yards than the Rams (359 yards per game). They are weak against the pass and worse against the run, giving up 129.7 ground yards per game.
Brady should be able to air it out against a Rams defense that has only two interceptions this year, both by CB Jerametrius Butler. Butler also has eight passes defensed. Second-year man DeJuan Groce is a weak link at the other corner. Former All-Pro cornerback Aeneas Williams has no interceptions and only two passes defensed at free safety. The Rams do have one star in the secondary in SS Adam Archuleta.
Backfield depth has been an Achilles heel all season. The Rams recently signed veteran free agent defensive back Tod McBride, who was released earlier this month by the Seahawks.
If the Patriots can keep wideouts David Givens, David Patten and Troy Brown on the field at once, Brady should have a good game. Brown caught five passed for 59 yards against the Steelers after missing three games with a shoulder injury, but he is questionable for Sunday. Also questionable is Givens, who eight catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"
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