Rams-Patriots: The Breakdown
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
When the Rams run the ball
Don't be confused by those early rushing yards the Patriots gave up against Denver. For strategic reasons, the Patriots lined up in their nickel package when the Broncos came out in sets with two wide receivers and two tight ends. They were willing to give up rushing yards in order to limit Broncos tight ends in the passing game. New England's sturdy front seven, which includes five Pro Bowlers, remains tough to beat with conventional running games. The group is fundamentally sound, tackles well and has good gap discipline. Miami had success with an unbalanced line against the Patriots; don't be surprised if the Rams go that way on some carries.
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When the Patriots run the ball
With Sammy Morris (knee) and Lamont Jordon (calf) expected to be sidelined Sunday, the Patriots will use a running-back-by-committee of Kevin Faulk, rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Heath Evans. Evans (6-0, 250) is a fullback by trade, but has 151 NFL carries, had 149 carries in college at Auburn, and could be used Sunday in some one-back sets. Faulk is the team's best pass protector and remains a productive third-down back at age 32. But he hasn't had more than 13 carries in a game since 2003. Green-Ellis was promoted from the practice squad two weeks ago and gained 65 yards on 13 carries against Denver.
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When the Rams pass the ball
The Patriots normally don't blitz much, but if they see or sense a weakness, they can adjust accordingly. It's the Bill Belichick way. The New England secondary obviously misses cornerback Asante Samuel, who signed a big-money deal with Philadelphia in free agency. The unit has had its ups and downs and has been vulnerable to the big play at times. (Donnie Avery, that's your cue.) The Patriots frequently scheme to protect their secondary. But with or without Steven Jackson, if the Rams can establish any kind of running game to keep New England honest, they should have some opportunities in the passing game.
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When the Patriots pass the ball
The key for St. Louis will be to force neophyte quarterback Matt Cassell into predictable passing situations. Because when he has to throw downfield, the sacks pile up. Last season with Tom Brady at quarterback, the Patriots yielded only 21 sacks. They've already given 26 in six games this season. Even so, the left side of the Patriots' offensive line remains formidable: Left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Koppen are all Pro Bowlers. There could be pass-rush opportunities on the right side, however, where Rams castoff Mark LeVoir is expected to start again for the injured Nick Kaczur. LeVoir figures to need some help against Leonard Little.