by Tyler Carter
In front of a nationally televised audience against Denver, Matt Cassel completed 75% percent of his passes (7.7 yards per attempt), three of them for touchdowns and none for interceptions. Although his success was no doubt buoyed by a potent rushing attack (not to mention five forced turnovers), his 136.3 passer rating was 10th highest all-time by a Patriot quarterback, and he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance.
Yet his best game may have been against the Rams this past Sunday.
The author is aware that Cassel threw two interceptions, and his 21-33 effort (63.6%) actually brought down his seasonal completion percentage (65.8%). The interceptions, which were primarily responsible for his lackluster 73.7 passer rating, were rather fortuitous: the first came on a pass intended for Moss (who had single coverage) that was tipped by Fakhir Brown and hauled in by Oshiomogho Atogwe, and the second occurred after Welker fell victim to the turf monster, giving Brown an easy pick. If you take away those two picks (and assume the passes fell incomplete), Cassel’s rating jumps to a more respectable 98.9.
You can’t simply ignore turnovers however, and on this day the Rams won that battle 4-1 (if the turnover on downs and onside kick are factored in). Although this provided the Rams with favorable field position and momentum, the Patriot defense rallied and surrendered only a couple of field goals. The unit had a monster day overall, allowing only 16 points despite giving up 358 yards of total offense (268 through the air) for an eye-popping 22.38 yards per point allowed (YPPA, a measure of CHFF’s Bendability Index).
This week however, the Turning Point belongs to the Cassel-led offense. After their three 3rd quarter drives ended in turnovers (the aforementioned interceptions and turnover on downs), St. Louis led by three early in the 4th quarter. New England was forced to punt after their next possession before they finally got in sync on a drive that resulted in a game-tying field goal. After their final (non-kneeldown) possession began with a sack (and brought up 2nd and 18), the Patriots went back to their shotgun spread in an attempt to break the stalemate.
Situation: 2-18-NE 39 (6:44)
New England Formation: Shotgun 4 WR (Trips Right), Faulk offset left
Personnel: WR 81 Moss, LT 72 Light. LT 70 Mankins, C 67 Koppen, RG 74 Neal, RT 64 LeVoir, TE 84 Watson, TE 86 Thomas, WR 83 Welker, QB 16 Cassel, RB 33 Faulk
St. Louis Formation: Nickel 4-2-5
Personnel: LDE 94 Adeyanju, LDT 97 Glover, RDT 95 Ryan, RDE 72 Long, MLB 51 Witherspoon, WLB 50 Tinoisamoa, LCB 24 Bartell, NB 31 Craft, SS 25 Chavous, FS 21 Atogwe, RCB 34 Brown
Play result: M.Cassel pass short middle to R.Moss to SL 38 for 23 yards
Play Summary: Bartell, Craft and Witherspoon respectively covered New England’s Trips Right bunch of Gaffney, Welker and Watson (outside to inside), while Brown and Tinoisamoa were responsible for Moss and Faulk on the other side. St. Louis was apparently in Cover 2 for most of the drive; in many instances safeties Atogwe and Brown were so deep they were outside the HD frame (pre-snap). The Rams mixed up their pass rush by crossing up Long and Ryan, but Adeyanju provided the greatest pressure as his outside move on LeVoir allowed him to come within a whiff of his own sack. Sensing the pressure, Cassel stepped up in the pocket and fired to Moss, who after receiving the ball at the St. Louis 47 tacked on another 9 yards (thanks to Welker’s crackback block on Atogwe) before falling to the ground.
Terrific way to bounce back after a sack which could have potentially crippled this drive. Although Moss earlier failed to break up Brown’s tipped pass (which resulted in Cassel’s first interception) and he dropped another that appeared to be an easy touchdown (for him), his yeomanlike 7 catches for 102 yards were indicative of his willingness to serve as a possession receiver.
Situation: 1-10-SL 38 (5:57)
New England Formation: Shotgun 3 WR, Welker slotted left, Faulk offset left
St. Louis Formation: Same
Play result: M.Cassel pass short left to R.Moss to SL 35 for 3 yards
Play Summary: On this shotgun variant, Welker was now slotted left while Watson lined up in his traditional TE spot. Cassel’s fake-handoff to Faulk froze the St. Louis lineman and linebackers, and the quarterback quickly threw across to Moss on a WR screen. While Brown was held off by Welker, nickelback John Craft watched Cassel the whole way and wrapped up Moss before Light could get over to help spring him.
As the color commentator (J.C. Pearson) alertly pointed out, the Patriots ran this exact same play against Denver the week before, and on that occasion it went for a touchdown; apparently St. Louis does their homework! Although Brown initially gave Moss enough of a cushion (~7 yards) to allow a screen to develop, a Craft-y veteran (pardon the pun) had it sniffed it from the get-go. Still, three yards on a drive with a dual goal of killing clock and putting up a go-ahead score wasn’t a terrible result.
Situation: 2-7-SL 35 (5:19)
New England Formation: Shotgun 3 WR, Welker slotted right, Faulk offset left
St. Louis Formation: Same
Play result: K.Faulk right guard to SL 28 for 7 yards
Play Summary: Each Patriot skill position player (excluding Faulk) swapped sides of the field (Gaffney and Watson to Cassel’s left, Welker and Moss to the right). The Ram corners lined up nearly flush with the linebackers, giving the Patriot wideouts at least 5 yards off their respective receivers (moreso for Gaffney and Welker, who respectively acted as flanker and slot receivers). After receiving the handoff from Cassel, Faulk sidestepped Ryan (who got penetration against Koppen) and squirted through the hole provided by Neil (matched up on Adeyanju), LeVoir (who sealed off Witherspoon after initially helping Neil) and Welker (held off Craft before the latter made yet another tackle).
It’s worth pointing out here that St. Louis was in pure reactionary mode on this drive; apparently they were confident that their base nickel package gave them the greatest flexibility to prevent a New England score. The Patriots clearly had them guessing, however; on this play the linebackers and corners played so far off the LOS that they must not have been anticipating a run call. This resulted in favorable blocking and provided Faulk with room to maneuver.
Situation: 1-10-SL 28 (4:41)
New England Formation: Ace 3 WR, Welker slotted left
St. Louis Formation: Same
Play result: M.Cassel pass short right to R.Moss to SL 20 for 8 yards
Play Summary: In response to the Patriots first (and only) non-shotgun formation on the drive, the Rams lined their corners on the LOS tight and brought Chavous down from his SS spot to shadow Watson. After taking the snap, Cassel pumped once and fired to Moss, who positioned himself inside Bartell and made the catch for an 8 yard gain.
As with the previous play, the Patriots appeared to have the Rams fooled, only this time they had them thinking run by adopting a more ‘traditional’ 1st down formation. This appeared to be a timing route designed for Moss the whole way; after taking the snap Cassel stared down Witherspoon (who was either serving as ‘spy’ or covering the middle zone) before tossing it to Moss; he made no other reads on the play. Nothing fancy, just a quick slant.
After returning to a shotgun 3 WR set, Faulk picked up 5 yards and a first down on a run up the middle. This gave New England 1st and 10 from the 15 yard line:
Situation: 1-10-SL 15 (3:19)
New England Formation: Shotgun 3 WR, Welker slotted left, Faulk offset right
St. Louis Formation: Same
Play Summary: Faulk split out left to empty the backfield for effectively a 5 WR formation; Tinoisamoa responded by moving over to his side (albeit 6 yards off the LOS, and slightly to the inside). Cassel noted the mismatch and Tinoisamoa’s positioning as went through his pre-snap rituals (pointing out the MLB, etc.). After the snap, Faulk ran a slant-and-go route (shake and bake!), and Cassel pump-faked once before floating a perfect ball over the linebacker right into his running back’s basket for the go-ahead score.
While Cassel made a terrific throw, Faulk deserves the majority of credit for his execution. In the locker room after the game, Heath Evans commented on Faulk’s value to the team:
“If you’re going to put it in one person’s hands it might as well be his. When it comes down to pressure situations and someone that’s done it for 10 years one way with great consistency, who else’s hands would you want it in? This guy does it all, pass protection, catches a tough ball, picks up blitzers that are 50 pounds heavier than him, he’s the best.”
Although the game was frustrating to watch at times from a fans perspective, there were a lot of positives to take away from it: the defense bent-but-didn’t-break, and despite being without its top three running backs the Patriots managed a balanced offensive attack (29 rushes, 33 passes). What’s more, Cassel’s first 4th quarter comeback demonstrates his continued progression. We’ll see how far the Patriots have come when they take their impressive 5-2 into Indy on Sunday night.