Keys to the Game Answered: New England

Posted Oct 28, 2012


1. Battling Brady

THE KEY: New England QB Tom Brady remains one of the best in the league and will almost certainly go down as one of the best to ever play.

This season, his numbers are still outstanding but below the video game like performance he put on in 2011.

Teams have long since given up on trying to put the clamps on Brady, knowing full well that the best they can do is limit his damage. To do that, the Rams will have to generate a pass rush on the strength of their front four.

Brady shreds teams that consistently blitz and the Rams have not been a blitz heavy team most of the season.

That means the onus falls on ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long and their cohorts to get to Brady and force him to throw under duress. Even then, it’s likely he’ll still post some strong numbers but if they can at least keep the touchdown totals down, it will give the Rams a chance.

“He’s one of the centerpieces of their team, a future Hall of Famer,” Quinn said. “You can’t completely stop him but if we can slow him down and give our offense as many opportunities as possible to stay on the field and score points, I think we can have a good day out there.”

THE ANSWER: Perhaps the area that hurt the Rams the most: they never got near Brady and he dissected them as a Hall of Famer would any time he’s not under fire. He finished 23-of-35 for 304 yards and four touchdowns for a rating of 131.1. He was never sacked and unofficial pressbox statistics had zero quarterback hits.

2. Dynamic Duo

THE KEY: A big part of Brady’s success is the two-headed tight end monster the Patriots have in the form of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Gronkowski is the big, strong, powerful force of nature that has been nearly unstoppable in the red zone since he came into the league two years ago. Hernandez is the fast, versatile type of tight end that has almost become a hybrid of tight end, receiver, fullback and even running back.

The Rams have done a solid job for the most part against tight ends this year but no team can match the combination the Patriots put forth. Hernandez has battled an ankle injury for most of the season and missed some practice time this week so it would be a break for the Rams if he weren’t at 100 percent.

Meanwhile, the job of slowing Gronkowski and Hernandez and making New England make plays on the boundary falls to a group of linebackers and safeties that to this point has kept most tight ends in check.

Still, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will almost certainly look to get his tight ends involved early and often.

“They present a lot of matchup problems with their size and speed,” safety Quintin Mikell said. “Hernandez basically plays receiver, he runs great routes, has very good speed and he’s a big guy that breaks a lot of tackles so he’s a huge threat. Then, of course, Gronk is huge and he’s fast in his own right. They create some things but we are going to do some different things and move around and basically play our game and hopefully we can minimize the big plays.”

THE ANSWER: No Hernandez? No problem for Gronkowski who did most of the heavy lifting. He repeatedly burned the Rams down the middle, taking advantage of miscues by safeties and linebackers alike as he went for eight catches, 146 yards and two touchdowns.

3. Turnover Turnaround

THE KEY: At the beginning of the season, the Rams defense feasted on opposing quarterbacks by generating turnovers upon turnovers, namely interceptions.

But lately, the takeaway well has gone dry and the Rams have not had a single turnover go their way in the past two games. It’s no coincidence they’ve lost each of those contests as they haven’t won the turnover battle.

New England doesn’t have much of a penchant for giving the ball away but the best way to slow Brady and Co. is to limit the number of possessions they get. The best way to do that is via the turnover.

While the Rams have grabbed their share of interceptions, they do have a statistical anomaly that figures to shift their way eventually: fumbles. The Rams have only forced one fumble all season, that’s forced, not just recovered.

“It’s a little weird,” Mikell said. “That’s never really happened before that I can remember. It is like that sometimes, I can remember teams where we didn’t get any picks and all of a sudden we popped up with a whole bunch. Fumbles have always been there but this is the first time experiencing that so hopefully that will change this week.”

Getting some takeaways and winning the turnover battle is always a priority but it’s even more important against an elite offense like New England.

THE ANSWER: Another week, another goose egg for the Rams defense.

4. Undercover

THE KEY: Perhaps the area the Patriots have struggled the most this season is pass defense as they just haven’t been able to find the right mix in the secondary despite spending plenty of high draft choices on defensive backs.

What that group does do well, though, can make things awfully difficult on a quarterback who might look into the secondary and think there are some openings.

“They’re good at holding disguises,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “They don’t blitz a lot but what they do well is the guys on the back end hold things. They are not going to tip their hand before the snap. Part of my job this week is going to be seeing things after the snap, see what they are doing because they are good at disguising what they do.”

In other words, Bradford has to be able to go through his progressions and be willing to take a check down if it’s there. The temptation against a New England secondary that has struggled is to force the ball down the field. Those shots will be there but Bradford will have to choose his spots wisely in order for the Rams offense to succeed in keeping the Patriots potent offense off the field.

THE ANSWER: A strong start in the passing game had Bradford and Co. rolling but penalties and other mistakes left Bradford and the passing game stuck in the mud. He finished 23-of-31 for 205 yards, a touchdown and an interception for a rating of 88.8.

5. On the Run

THE KEY: While the Patriots have found themselves susceptible to the pass this season, they’ve also established a pretty dominant front seven that makes it difficult for opponents to run the ball against them.

Monster defensive tackle Vince Wilfork leads the charge for a group that is eighth in the league in run defense, allowing 86 yards per contest. With the likes of Wilfork taking on blockers and linebacker Jerod Mayo, the league’s leading tackle so far, cleaning up behind him, the Patriots are actually tied for second in fewest yards allowed per rushing attempt at just 3.3.

The Rams have already proved that a dominant statistical performance heading into their games by a run defense doesn’t mean they’ll shy away from pounding away in the run game.

Backs Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson have formed a strong one-two punch and had great success against a stout Miami run defense that was first in the league in run defense before meeting the Rams.

Still, it will be a challenge for Jackson and his running mates to find space against the Patriots oversized front.

“They have a very impressive front seven, led by Vince Wilfork, of course,” Jackson said. “I think their front seven is very stout. They do a good job of two-gapping. It makes it really hard on running backs to get a clean read on what they want to do. Their linebackers do a very good job of disengaging blockers once they make contact with a fullback or offensive lineman. The thing is for me to trust my eyes and just be really aggressive.”

THE ANSWER: Some late bursts from Richardson and rookie Isaiah Pead inflated the Rams numbers against New England’s backups but it was tough sledding for most of the part of the game where it was close. The Rams finished with 107 yards on 23 carries, including 53 yards on seven attempts for Richardson.