By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots (4-3) return to London this week to take on St. Louis Rams (3-4) in a game at Wembley Stadium. The Patriots were last there in 2009 when they defeated the Tampa Bay Bucs.
The Patriots are flying over on Thursday afternoon and will have a couple of days to acclimate to the time change and prepare. The Rams flew over to London on Tuesday and have excellent facilities to practice in as their owner also owns an English Premiere League Soccer team.
So the Colonials return to their ancestral home and take on the Rams in London, lets look at the matchups:
Patriots Running Game-
The Patriots ran for 131 yards last week against the Jets although it didn’t seem like it. They weren’t getting the consistent gains that they needed to really balance out the attack and the Jets sub-packages really did a good job of holding down the fort.
The good news is that the coaches were showing patience in sticking with the running game and this week will be no exception. The Rams have been good at stopping the run allowing about 100 yards per game against the run. Michael Brockers was a big part of the Rams holding Green Bay to only 2.7 yards per rush.
A good matchup will be Brockers against Logan Mankins if he can go in this one. The Rams front four is very good, as they also have Robert Quinn, Kendall Langford and Chris Long. They stop the run and get after the passer.
The Patriots will have to find a way to limit the effectiveness of MLB James Laurinitis, who is the Jerod Mayo cog of the Rams defense. Laurinitis moves all over the field and makes plays and tons of tackles.
The key again is to stay patient and keep running the ball and try to catch the Rams dropping into pass coverage. If the Patriots can mix it up, the running backs, Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen will get some yards.
Rams Running Game-
The Rams haven’t been able to run the ball effectively even with veteran Steven Jackson running the ball. Jackson is even rumored to be on the trading block although on the surface, it’s a move that would make little sense.
The Patriots have been very solid in stopping the run, both in the middle with Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love and outside with Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones who have set the edge very well. But Wilfork and Love may need some help inside as they’ve been playing a lot of snaps and last week the Jets targeted both of them in the running game. Something to watch going down the road…
Brandon Spikes is becoming a force in the running defense, while still a bad bet in pass coverage, Spikes has been outstanding in run support. Last week Spikes had 10 tackles and was credited with six stops in run defense. He’s a downhill, big hitter and he’ll be tasked with stopping Jackson in the running game. The Rams will not get too much in the running game this week.
The Rams offensive line is a weak spot for them, two players LT Joe Barksdale and LG Shelley Smith made their first regular-season NFL starts last Sunday. The Rams jettisoned former Pats backup Quinn Ojinaka and replaced him with Chris Williams. They picked up Wayne Hunter who is also getting a lot of playing time.This is a matchup the Patriots should and must win in both run and pass defense.
Patriots Passing Game-
The Rams did a good job last week for the first half but Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers had a big day in the 2nd half. They were picking on rookie corner Janoris Jenkins, which happens to rookies. Jenkins is very good however and will only get better. This week he may be tasked with lining up with Wes Welker, and things won’t get much easier.
Jenkins will be flanked by Courtland Finnegan who I think they’ll line up with Brandon Lloyd. Both are very physical and will try to jam them at the line of scrimmage. The Rams get a very good pass rush with Long and Quinn at the ends. They’ll be matched up against Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. The Patriots will attempt to neutralize them by having Tom Brady get the ball out quick and hit on the short intermediate routes.
Where the Patriots have a big advantage is the middle of the field and against the outside linebackers who struggle in coverage (sound familiar Patriots fans?). Safeties Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell both struggle in coverage as well, and even with two tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez who are less than 100 percent physically, here is where the Patriots will attack.
Rams Passing Game-
Forget about the limits of the Rams passing game so far this season, forget that they’ve been struggling throwing the ball and lost their best receiver Danny Amendola to a collarbone injury.
Sam Bradford is improving from week to week and doesn’t have the luxury of many weapons at his disposal but look for him to air it out this week. The NFL is a copycat league and until the Patriots fix their back end of the defense and get some coverages straightened out, teams will be looking to take advantage of just that.
And the Rams have that person in the name of Chris Givens; remember his name Patriots fans, because this guy has 50 yard receptions in the last four games. He’s not the most polished route runner yet, but what he’s got is pure speed. He’s a burner and the Patriots back end has been getting burned with alarming regularity.
With Amendola out (not known if he’ll be ready for Sunday) the top receiver role has fallen to Brandon Gibson, who is still finding his way but is improving. One area they may look to exploit is Jackson and Daryl Richardson out of the backfield. Both are good receivers and bring different elements to the passing game.
Bottom line is Bradford is going to get a lot of yardage in the passing game. The key is limiting the big play, which the Patriots haven’t been able to do so far this season and force the Rams to pick their way down the field. The Rams offensive line is a weakness but with the Patriots treating the blitz as a communicable disease, they’ll have to live or die with mostly a four-man rush.
The Rams Greg “the leg” Zuerlein has been a tremendous weapon for them. He has boomed FGs of 56, 58, 60 and 53 yards this year. For an offense that doesn’t score a lot of points or move the ball consistently, he’s a big weapon.
Johnny Hekker, the Rams punter is averaging 49 yards per punt and the Rams coverage units have been unspectacular but solid. Their return game hasn’t been too productive yet.
Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko both had outstanding games last week for the Patriots against the Jets. Both are solid and are rounding into form this season after some struggles earlier. The Patriots coverage units have been inconsistent this season and the past two weeks have been gashed. The return units got a boost from Devin McCourty’s 104 yard kick-off return for a touchdown last week, but remain a question mark.
The Patriots while officially the “away” team in this game will have a huge following of the UK Patriots fan club and will be more of the home team in this one in Wembley Stadium.
The Rams have already won more games this year (3) than all of last season and are turning the corner. They’ll be looking to make a statement on an international stage by knocking off the Patriots at a time when they are vulnerable. Jeff Fisher will have them sky high for this one.
This one should be an interesting game, the Rams have a good, solid defense against both the run and the pass. The Patriots have had pretty good balance and are the #1 offense in the NFL in terms of yards and points scored.
The Rams on offense have struggled to move the ball consistently and score a lot of points and face a Patriots defense that gives up a lot of both. Something has got to give here and from a Patriots perspective here are some of the things I think they need to do to win the game:
- Control the line of scrimmage- The Patriots have to win the battle at both points to win the game. On defense, take advantage of a subpar, new unit and throw some wrinkles at it to make their pass protection vulnerable. On run defense, just do what they’ve done and set the edge and have the big men in the middle hold up the rushing attack and let the linebackers clean up. On offense, keep the good edge rushers off of Brady, mainly by using the same tactics the Packers did, three step or quick passes and strike quickly. The running game is a must, they have to stay patient and run the ball. It will open up play action passes from Brady to the WRs and TEs down the middle.
- Take away the deep ball- St. Louis hasn’t moved the ball consistently all season. Don’t give up 40-50 yard plays and make them methodically try to move the ball to score. Eventually the defense can try to force them into a mistake and/or a turnover. Patriots are +11 in turnovers, the Rams are even.
- Attack the middle of the field and underneath at the outside linebackers– If the Rams defense has a weakness, it’s there. Brady will have to exploit it and use the tight ends to beat the safeties and linebackers in coverage. If they can run the ball, it will open up play action which will be even more effective.
I think this one will be close; Sam Bradford has good mobility and can escape pressure and make plays with his feet if needed. He has excellent accuracy in the short/medium passing game and will be looking to stretch the field because that’s what everyone is doing against New England. The Patriots pass rush has been sub-par this season and since they’ve been loath to blitz, it is a situation that they should but won’t take advantage of.
The Patriots on offense will be able to move the ball but the question about them this season isn’t can they move it (they have against everyone), it is can they finish? That is what ultimately will decide this game. Neither team can afford a bevy of field goals and need to score touchdowns. I think with all the weapons that Tom Brady has at his disposal; it will be the Patriots who will ultimately wear down the Rams defense.
The running game will open enough just enough holes in the play action game for Aaron Hernandez to have a big game this week. Look for him to “make it rain” in London. Patriots 27-20.