I even managed to catch some photo evidence of the kind of protection this O-Line produced for Matt Cassel today:
This week, he wasn't sacked at all until the fourth quarter.
So, finally, he could turn his eyes downfield more than he has been able to before, and...the results were mixed. He was picked off twice, and then watched both Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk drop what would've been big gains. Then he was sacked. I saw him slam the football to the ground in frustration before he picked himself up.
But pick himself up he did. And Kevin Faulk really stepped up in this game, picking up the runningback duties admirably with both Maroney and Morris out and serving as a receiver when needed. And when Cassel floated a beautiful deep pass to a wide-open Randy Moss in the end zone, and it fell out of Moss's hands, it was Moss the people around me were cursing, not Cassel (for once). "Can't blame Cassel for that one, that was a perfect throw." Considering these same people were suggesting where Cassel could go only an hour or so earlier, I think he earned himself some respect today.
Little by little. Week by week. That's how this team works.
There are still a lot of games left to play, but they deserve credit for their discipline and determination, and the progress they've shown so far.
Defense soldiers on despite injuries
This was a hard-fought game against the St. Louis Rams. The Patriots defense had some trouble shutting down the Rams offense, especially on third down, and especially early on. Rodney Harrison's absence was felt--the Rams killed the Patriots today with the deep pass, including one 69-yarder for a touchdown to Donnie Avery. It's not like the Patriots to give up a big play like that.
The war of attrition continued with an injury to Ellis Hobbs, who didn't return to the game after a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter. Even though Hobbs was the Rams' patsy on the deep ball today, we can't afford to lose any more defensive backs.
The game was close until the very end, but this defense did its job today. Especially in the third quarter, they just kept getting off the field, handing the ball back to Cassel after each of his mistakes.
The pass rush was in full effect today; Ty Warren and Richard Seymour each had sacks, and the crowd got to enjoy some good "Bruuuuuuuuu"s when everyone's favorite, Tedy Bruschi, had his name called, which happened more often than I can remember in any other game this season. The D gave up the long ball, but they brutalized the run.
While Mark LeVoir did so much better this week, I would have to give the overall most improved award to Deltha O'Neal, who I wished off the team two weeks ago and who came up with a game-sealing interception today, just to show what I know.
Another strength for the team this year is how cleanly and precisely they look after the technical minutiae of the game. They committed no accepted penalties against the Rams, while St. Louis racked up 9 for 63 yards. They consistently put themselves in great field position on special teams, Stephen Gostkowski provided a generous number of points, and both Wes Welker and Ellis Hobbs had strong kick returns.
The Patriots have lost their franchise quarterback and linchpin safety, but have regained their 12th man. Just walking in to the stadium today, there was a different energy, even compared with the last game I went to this year. The mix of people at any given game is a roll of the dice, and some crowds are going to be lively and some quiet no matter what. But I've noticed a change in the tone at Gillette as the weeks pass this season, which was striking last week and even more so this Sunday.
On almost every defensive play, as soon as the defensive linemen's knuckles touched turf, the din would rise again, a shapeless sound, but deafening. I rarely saw defensive players flapping their arms to ask for more noise--instead some of the fans toward the front of each section took over those honors. The same crowd that's gotten criticisms from the players for its lack of energy over the last few years was coming back to life.
It's similar to something else that happened a couple dozen miles north of Foxboro, ten days earlier, when the Red Sox faced the Tampa Bay Rays in what everyone from the press box to the bleachers thought would be the final game of the American League Championship Series. The Red Sox were down 7-0 going in to the bottom of the seventh inning, and a good chunk of the crowd was streaming for the exits during the seventh inning stretch.
But the crowd that remained made itself the center of discussion long after the game and the series were over. During all the earlier games, while the Rays led by blowout scores, the TV announcers could not shut up about how quiet and dead the Fenway crowd was. This time, down seven runs--even with two outs in that seventh inning--the crowd and team seemed to suddenly and simultaneously decide that they were at least not going down without a fight. The Red Sox pulled off the biggest single-game postseason comeback in 80 years to win 8-7, and criticisms of the fans from the broadcast booth suddenly dried up.
The theme that emerged after that astonishing game was that if that crowd sounded different, it's probably because it was. After the injury-battered Sox were blown out several games in a row by the clearly superior Rays squad, suddenly tickets were exceptionally...available for that game. I personally have never had so many people I know, in my age group (young) and tax bracket (low), all go to the same Sox playoff game. The final crust of fairweathers and frontrunners was removed during that seventh inning, which one Sox blogger referred to as a "weed killer."
Part of me wonders if that's what's happened in Foxboro, too. If the so-called "wine and cheese" fans and people who go to the game to Be Seen have also gone home with Brady out and the injuries still mounting, transferring their seats to people with less means and more enthusiasm.
I have no evidence of this. It's equally likely that the insults to the Patriots' pride since last year's Super Bowl have just made Foxboro hungry again.
The one thing I do know is that a Gillette crowd that has been called out by its own players for lack of enthusiasm and booed its own players after their first loss in 21 regular season games, is suddenly a pack of ravening animals on every defensive third down, and very few seats were empty today by the time the clock read 00:00. You might think that's a given, since the game was so close so late, but it hasn't always been like that. Especially not lately.