Observations From Foxboro: Cassel Rocks

FOXBORO, MA – He'll never get confused with the likes of Tom Brady or even Brett Favre, but if former Patriots quarterbacks Steve Grogan and Drew Bledsoe had a step child, it would be Matt Cassel.

Grogan made his bones in the NFL as a scrambler and a solid signal caller, while Bledsoe was a pure pocket passer with a canon for an arm. Despite the difficult loss to the Jets Thursday night, Cassel is slowly emerging as a mixture of both. Several times against the Jets, Cassel was able to sense pressure from the Jets’ pass rush and scramble out of trouble to either run for first downs or buy time for receivers to get open down the field.

Cassel is the first player since the 1970 AFL-NFL Merger to total at least 400 yards passing yards and at least 60 rushing yards in a game. There was only one other player since 1970 who had at least 400 passing yards and at least 50 rushing and that was Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers against Buffalo 1992. Coincidentally enough, Young and the 49ers lost that game, 34-31 - the exact same score by which Cassel and the Patriots fell to the Jets.

Even though the Patriots lost, the growth of Cassel as an effective quarterback is evident. “I think anytime you can come back from a 24-6 deficit it’s a building block and something every team should be proud of,” said Cassel following the overtime loss to the Jets. “Obviously we never want to lose, but it’s definitely something we can take away and hopefully not have to use down the road, but we might have to use down the road. To show that kind of fight and tenacity, I thought that was great for the team.”

What has been great for the Patriots offense this season was Cassel’s Grogan-like running ability. Cassel now has the most rushing yards (62) in a game for a quarterback in 30 years. Steve Grogan had 65 rushing yards on six carries in a 21-14 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sept. 24, 1978. Cassel’s 62-yard performance stands as the sixth-highest single-game total for a quarterback in Patriots history. Grogan holds the franchise record for rushing yards by a quarterback with a 103-yard performance on seven carries against the New York Jets on Oct. 18, 1976.

Matt Cassel joins a select company of Patriots quarterbacks who have thrown for 400 yards in a game. Bledsoe leads the pack with four 400 yard game games. Cassel totaled a career-high 400 yards on 30-for-51 passing, recording the ninth 400-yard passing game in Patriots history and the first since Tom Brady had 410 passing yards on Sept. 22, 2002 in an overtime win over Kansas City. Cassel joins Bledsoe (4 times), Tom Brady (1), Tony Eason (1), Steve Grogan (1) and Tom Ramsey (1) as the only quarterbacks in Patriots history to exceed 400 passing yards in a game. Cassel was also the first player in Patriots history to have 300 or more passing yards and 50 or more rushing yards.

“After the game, Jets quarterback Brett Favre said “Matt Cassel played one hell of a football game… He made some tremendous throws throughout the game.”

There were still some inconsistencies in Cassel’s game. He continues to have trouble with the long ball, failing to connect with Randy Moss on five possible deep passes. All five times, it would have been a sure score. While Brady last year was able to continuously hit Moss in stride on deep patterns, Cassel continues to overthrow his big target. Moss was wide open three times in the first have and twice in the second half, but Cassel just could not get him the ball.

Although not perfect, it was by far the game of his life. Cassel’s presence in the pocket improves every time he drops back to pass and it was on display against the Jets helpless secondary. Cassel set single-game career highs for passing yards (400), passing attempts (51), pass completions (30) and rushing yards (62). He also tied his career best with three touchdown passes. Cassel’s 51 attempts were the most for a Patriots player since Tom Brady attempted 54 passes against Philadelphia on Nov. 25, 2007. His 30 completions were the most by a New England player since Brady had 32 completions against the New York Giants on Dec. 29, 2007.

It was also a clutch performance. Cassel, with more and more confidence in the pocket, led clutch two-minute drills at the end of each half, as the Patriots scored key touchdowns with 15 seconds left in the first half and one second left in the second half.

The most impressive drive was with a little more than a minute left in the game. The second-half two-minute drill covered 62 yards in eight plays over 1:03, ending in a 16-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss in the side of the end zone with one second left to send the game into overtime. Cassel completed 6-of-8 passes on the drive for 67 yards (the two incomplete passes were spikes to stop the clock).

“I don’t know if you can make a better throw at the end of the game than he made,” said Favre. “Honestly, it was a great catch on Randy’s part, but the ball was thrown – I mean Ty Law has great coverage – you can’t get a better throw than that.”

It was a good throw,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “(Cassel) was scrambling around, running out of the pocket; it was a good play.”

The first-half two-minute drill covered 68 yards in 10 plays over 1:29, ending in a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney that cut the Jets lead to 24-13 with 15 seconds left in the first half. The Patriots got the ball, down 24-6, on their own 32-yard line with 1:44 left in the first half. Cassel completed 4-of-8 passes for 47 yards on the drive and ran twice for 21 yards (including a career-long 19-yard scamper).

“I think we have confidence in Matt passing on all downs, in all situations: first down, second down, third down, red area, two minute,” said Belichick. “If the situation is there where we feel like we need to throw the ball based on what they are doing, if that is the preferred call then we make it. I don’t think there is any hesitation about that.”

Matt Cassel's 400 yard passing was the most since Tom Brady threw over 400 in 2002.
Thursday was a career best performance by New Engalnd's current QB (AP Photo)

Cassel may not be Tom Brady, but a mixture of Bledsoe and Grogan isn’t quite so bad either.

Other observations from the Patriots loss against the Jets include:

* Jabar Gaffney caught a touchdown, but he also dropped some passes. Gafney has made some gaffes a few times this season, most notably a sure touchdown pass against the Colts two weeks ago.

* The Patriots’ special teams coverage on kickoffs was awful all night. It seemed only a matter of time before Jets kick returner Leon Washington would bust out a big return. The first couple of kickoffs were returned to about the 40-yard line, prior to Washington breaking one for 92 yards for the touchdown. One could speculate with the Patriots best special teams’ player this season, Ray Ventrone, getting literally knocked out of the game early may have affected the Pats’ kickoff coverage.

* The defense continued to struggle to stop opposing offenses on third down. The Jets converted nine of 16 third down chances with a success rate of 56 percent. The most notable third down was a third and 15 with the Jets back on their own 15 yard line. The defense seemed to just fall apart in the overtime after that.

* Poor secondary play and a lack of a pass rush contributed to the Jets success on third down. Where is Mike Vrabel? He has been invisible this season. The secondary played too far off the receivers, allowing rookie backup tight end Dustin Keller to burn the Pats for eight catches for 87 yards, mostly on third down. Tackling was also poor with players gaining too much yardage after the catch.

* Newly acquired cornerback Jason Webster made his presence felt for the Pats forcing a fumble on Laveranues Coles in the fourth quarter. Webster just signed with the team last week.

* Mike Wright, who missed several tackles at the line of scrimmage couldn’t fill the shoes of injured defensive lineman Ty Warren, while it’s obvious Pierre Woods couldn‘t fill the void of the missing Adalius Thomas. Although Woods was able to tally a sack in the overtime, he was otherwise nonexistent throughout the game.

* Ben Watson fumbled early in the third quarter killing a possible scoring drive. It changed the tide of the game. The Patriots were driving down the field, and Watson coughed it up without even being hit giving the ball back to the Jets on their 30.

* The second drive of the third quarter saw Pats center Dan Koppen hiking the ball passed Cassel, putting the pats in a 2nd and 34. They ended up punting, killing another promising drive.

* Player Notes: Ben Watson, dropped one pass, but also caught a touchdown. His only bad play was the fumble… Rookie running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis only had a couple plays in the beginning of the game, but then didn’t really play much as Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk saw more carries. This after running for a career high 105 yards and a touchdown the previous game against the Bills. With that said, it was good to see Sammy Morris’ return, who ran hard early in the game. It looked like he was torpedoing through the line without any ill effects from his injured knee. He may have been getting his feet wet in order to get back into the swing of things the rest of the way.

Kevin Saleeba is a frequent contributor and columnist to Patriots Insider. A former beat writer for local media, Kevin has extensive knowledge of the team and experience covering the Patriots. Share your thoughts on this article, or send your questions to Kevin here.

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