The New England Patriots head overseas for the second time in four years to match up against the St. Louis Rams at Wembley Stadium this Sunday. The Rams enter this game as a much improved team over last season, sitting at 3-4 in the NFC West and with a much better defense than last year. The Rams have defeated the Cardinals and the Seahawks this season, two teams that were able to pull out victories over the Patriots. The Rams’ offense has little firepower beyond Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson, but their defense has kept them competitive in each of their contests.
Hmmm…. a good defensive team with a strong running game, an average quarterback and a limited receiving corps. What could possibly go wrong for the Patriots?
Yes, Patriots’ fans… on paper this match-up offers potential trouble for the 4-3 Patriots, who last week barely managed to eke out an overtime win over a team with a very similar profile to the Rams. But while there are many similarities to the match-ups against the Jets, Seahawks, and Cardinals, there are some striking differences that offer some hope for a Patriots’ team that is universally believed to be an underachieving squad so far in 2012.
Here’s how the teams match up:
When the Patriots run
The Patriots are fifth in the league in rushing, averaging 149.3 yards per game. Stevan Ridley has rushed for 589 yards and is 7th in the league, and the running back corps is deep with Brandon Bolden (likely out this week), Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead. How the Patriots choose to rotate their backs this week remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Patriots are committed to achieving a run/pass balance in their attack, even if the plays called don’t always appeal to the percentages. The Rams are 10th against the run, giving up only 98.9 yards per game so far this season. Because the Rams have effective edge rushers and marginal outside linebackers, expect the Patriots to try to grind out yards through runs designed to go outside. The Patriots’ offensive line is an excellent run blocking group, and it is reasonable to expect the Patriots to run up at least 125 yards this week in order to keep the Rams’ safeties guessing.
When the Patriots pass
Robert Quinn and Chris Long present challenges to the Patriots’ passing attack, as Quinn has seven sacks and Long has four. Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder are going to have their hands full, and the Patriots may need to keep in a running back or tight end to insure time for Brady to go through his reads. Courtland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins are very good corners, but the Rams are vulnerable at safety. Expect Gronk and Hernandez to get lots of looks on Sunday, with Welker, Edelman, and Lloyd being used only when the match-ups are favorable. The Rams are capable of delivering the big hit and turning the momentum of the game with a forced turnover, so protection is critical. The Patriots of course have the top rated passing attack, but have struggled to utilize this strength in the fourth quarter when they are in a position to put games away. The Rams are ranked 14th against the pass, so expect that Brady will get his yards and likely a couple of touchdown completions. (Update: Aaron Hernandez is out on Sunday; Daniel Fells likely to see some snaps in his place, but Julian Edelman may see more snaps as well. This looks like a cautionary move given the Patriots’ upcoming bye week.)
When the Rams run
Steven Jackson is an excellent running back who has rushed for 380 yards so far this season. His production isn’t being maximized because Daryl Richardson has emerged as a solid complement, piling up 282 yards while averaging just over five yards per carry. However, the Rams’ greatest flaw is their offensive line, and the Patriots are famous for taking away an opponent’s greatest offensive strength. The Pats have already shut down Chris Johnson (4 yards), Fred Jackson (29 yards), Willis McGahee (51 yards), Marshawn Lynch (41 yards), and Shonn Greene (54 yards). The Patriots’ front seven is difficult to run against, as the Patriots have the 8th ranked run defense (86 ypg), and Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes are a formidable force. Expect Richardson have have a few successful runs and perhaps gain 50 to 60 yards, while Jackson will be fortunate to break the 50 yard barrier.
When the Rams pass
Sam Bradford is a decent quarterback with a depleted (poor) receiving corps. The Rams rank 24th in pass offense, generating 209 yards per game. So a cynic will expect Bradford to throw for 400 yards and six touchdowns given the way that the Patriots’ secondary has performed this season. Bradford has good arm strength and some mobility to extend or make plays, but his receiving corps is not a strength. Chris Givens is a deep threat who may well get several big catches this weekend, but he is not a disciplined route runner. Brandon Gibson and Lance Kendricks are most productive receivers with a combined 41 catches, but Danny Amendola still appears to be unlikely to play this weekend even though he has now returned to practice. If Amendola is able to play and is healthy, he will add a threat that Bradford will take advantage of.
Both Greg Zuerlein and Stephen Gostkowski are highly reliable kickers despite some early season troubles. Johnny Hekker and Zoltan Mesko are both good punters, though Mesko has been more consistent in pinning opponents behind their own 20 yard line. Chris Givens is a decent kick returner for the Rams, but Devin McCourty represents the greater threat for the Patriots. Wes Welker is a consistent punt returner for the Patriots, while Jenkins has been filling in during Amendola’s absence for the Rams. At least on paper, the Patriots seem to have a discernible edge on special teams.
Jeff Fisher has the Rams playing with confidence, and they are entirely capable of pulling off the upset this week. The Patriots have a bye week coming up, so it’s hard to expect that many of their defensive struggles coming off of the Jets game are going to be completely fixed. The Rams will get yards through the air (expect around 280), but their inability to run the ball consistently against the Patriots will likely short-circuit some drives. The Rams are averaging 18.6 points a game, and they should at least match that this weekend. On the flip side, the Patriots are the top scoring offense, averaging 31 points a game. And while the Rams’ defense is a solid unit, the Patriots have been able to put up yards and points on the Jets, Seahawks, and Cardinals, the latter two of whom have better scoring defenses than the Rams. The Rams are giving up 20.1 points per game, but can expect to give up more this weekend, as they do not appear equipped to deal with the Patriots’ tight ends, and the effective Patriots run game should make the secondary vulnerable to some big plays. More importantly, the Patriots thrive on drives of ten or more plays, and the Rams do not force turnovers the way the Patriots do (+11 differential for the Patriots, +0 for the Rams). Looks for sustained Patriots’ drives and if the play-calling of Josh McDaniels improves this week, the Rams will be hard pressed to keep up, forcing them to abandon the run for the second half.
Patriots 31 Rams 20