This game is many things to many people. For Roger Goodell, it's a showcase for a largely untapped market of potential customers. For football-mad UK fans, it's a party. For Rams fans in the UK, it's a chance to finally see their favorite (sorry, "favourite") team in person. For Bill Belichick and the Patriots, it's just another week, a stepping stone on the way to another playoff season.
But for the Rams, it's a grudge match. After a lost season co-captained by Josh McDaniels – starting with another round of questionable offensive draft picks and finishing with a triage room full of battered quarterbacks – the Rams are putting together a season of redemption. That redemption starts under center, as Sam Bradford is finally showing the signs of growth we expected after an offensive rookie-of-the-year campaign in 2010.
Now, McDaniels has returned home to New England, and lines up on the opposite sideline from Bradford for the first time. How will this match of wits and talent affect the outcome of this game, and what other factors will come into play? We talked to Patriots reporter Doug Kyed of NESN.com to find out.
RamsHerd: When Josh McDaniels last coached the Patriots’ offense, he had Randy Moss to play with. How has he adapted to the twin terrors at TE and the new-look offense that the Pats want to run?
Kyed: He’s adapting pretty well so far. The Patriots have only had both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez healthy and active for about 3 ½ games so far, but when Hernandez was out, the team was utilizing some guys you may be familiar with, Michael Hoomanawanui (yeah, I just spelled that without looking it up) and Daniel Fells. Obviously both of those former Herdsmen (is that a thing? Like, former Rams?) aren’t on the same level as Hernandez, but they were getting the job done.
I was actually surprised at how many elements the Patriots have run so far that seem to harken back to the Bill O’Brien days. I thought Hernandez would be used primarily as a wide receiver, but he’s been lining up all over the place again. The Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard wrote a fantastic piece about how New England is using one word signals for their no huddle, and that too started in the last few years with O’Brien. So while it’s McDaniels calling the plays, it’s not completely his offense.
I have to admit I haven’t been entirely pleased with McDaniels’ play calling though. There’s a mix of too conservative and too out there that he seems to have found that I could personally live without. It’s either: run a draw play with the miniscule Danny Woodhead on third and twelve, or run a flea flicker on second and 10 that there’s no way will be converted. But, it’s all part of the precision offense and as a whole, it works great, but if you’re dissecting little pieces of it, it can fry your mind a little.
RamsHerd: Mike Clay cited a stat that the Patriots are averaging 78 plays per game on offense, a staggering number. Is this a sign of their offensive efficiency, defensive effectiveness, or both?
Kyed: It’s offensive efficiency and obviously McDaniels deserves a lot of credit for that. I think if it were entirely up to the Patriots, they would average 3.34 yards per play and take 15 minutes to march down the field on every drive. The problem with that is that if one play goes wrong, the whole drive can go caput.
Tom Brady has been fantastic, even if some of his stat lines haven’t been as impressive as we may be used to seeing. He’s made a couple questionable decisions, but frankly, decisions like throwing into double coverage to Gronkowski probably wouldn’t be a blip on most quarterbacks’ bad decision radars.
The offensive efficiency hasn’t even just been against crappy defenses either. They ran 85 plays against Seattle, 74 against the Jets, 77 against the Ravens and 78 against the Cardinals. The Jets and Ravens’ defenses may be questionable this year, but you know how legit those Seahawks and Arizona defenses are.
RamsHerd: Opposing quarterbacks seem to consistently find plays deep versus the Patriots’ secondary. Is this a function of getting beat by superior talent, or simply a hole in the defense?
Completely, 100% a hole in the defense. A wide, gaping, utterly insane hole. It’s a mix of lack of talent and a major scheme problem. New England came into the season trying to run a cover two with Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory. I still consider Chung a good player (other Patriots analysts disagree), but he can’t play free safety, and that’s basically what Belichick was asking him to do. Gregory is an average player, and looked better deep than Chung did, or rookie Tavon Wilson, but Gregory is hurt and is very unlikely to play against the Rams.
What the Rams will likely see is Devin McCourty at free safety in a cover one with Chung or Wilson playing a traditional strong safety role and the corners in man coverage. That’s what the Patriots did last week against the Jets, and it worked… better? But still not entirely great. McCourty was awesome over the top, but Kyle Arrington gives up huge plays on the regular and none of the Patriots’ linebackers can cover. Brandon Spikes ran a five flat 40 at the combine, Dont’a Hightower weighs 270 pounds and Jerod Mayo is also 250 pounds and has lost a bit of speed over the years. I’d say Hightower is the best in coverage, but I mean, still, he’s 270 pounds. So if the Rams have a tight end who can run in a straight line, the Patriots could have some trouble covering him.
Another good way to break a big play is to just go deep on Arrington. He’s a good slot cornerback and I’d venture to say he’s better in zone than he is in man, but he’ll be a starting outside corner in the base defense and he gets beat deep more than anyone else. Alfonzo Dennard will likely be the other starting corner with Sterling Moore pushing Arrington to the slot on third down. Ras-I Dowling probably won’t play, Gregory likely won’t play and Chung is a wait and see.
RamsHerd: Chandler Jones has been mentioned as a DROY candidate. How do you rate his rookie season so far?
Kyed: Jones has been nothing short of amazing. Needless to say, I was wrong on Jones and I can admit it. I didn’t like him coming out of Syracuse, he looked awkward athletically, I didn’t know where he’d fit into the defense, he looked all run stopper and no pass rusher and I can man up and say I was wrong.
Jones has been the starting right defensive end since Day 1 and is third on the team in defensive snaps behind McCourty and Vince Wilfork. He’s bulked up, he’s getting after the quarterback mostly using strength, but he’s also using his hands really violently. I think a knee injury really hindered him last year and now that that’s all better and he’s even bigger and stronger, he’s a real force.
In general, the pass rush has been all right. Jones is the best pass rusher, Rob Ninkovich is a playmaker who’s always the most likely to force a fumble or get a sack at an opportune time. Jermaine Cunningham, a 255-pound defensive end, has been a decent piece as well. He’ll play DE from time to time spelling for Ninkovich, or when Nink has to play strongside linebacker, and he’s also the third down defensive tackle oddly enough. He’s really shined in that role despite his lack of size. He’s strong for his size and does a good job getting “skinny” between blockers. He can also just use his athleticism to drive guards crazy.
RamsHerd: Jeff Fisher’s pass defense was playing very well before being shredded by Aaron Rodgers. How would you gameplan to attack the Rams this week?
Kyed: I’d test Janoris Jenkins early and see if we’re getting the first couple weeks of Janoris or the last two weeks. If he’s struggling, I think Brandon Lloyd or Aaron Hernandez could do some damage against him outside. I’d also run a lot of plays with Wes Welker and Julian Edelman on the field in the slot and just throw to the one not being covered by Cortland Finnegan.
Most of all, I’d expect big days from Gronk and Hernandez. I don’t think any of the linebackers can handle them and the safeties and corners could have trouble as well. Hernandez is getting fully healthy and he may be the best weapon on the entire offense. He’s so difficult to match up against and once he has the ball in his hands he’s as dangerous as anyone at getting extra yards. Watch out whenever Hernandez is lined up at running back or fullback too. He’s almost impossible to cover out of the backfield. Defenses have no idea what to do with him in that situation.
My thanks to Doug for his excellent insight. You can read his work at NESN.com, including a nice profile on Janoris Jenkins that published this week. You can and should follow him on Twitter for some in-game conversation: @DougKyedNESN.