Every week during the season, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week is Sunday's road game (in more ways than one) against the St. Louis Rams at Wembley Stadium in London (CBS, 1 p.m. ET).
Mike: It's a contrast in scheduling approaches this week, as the Patriots planned it out to depart for the game in London on Thursday evening after a three-day stretch of practices. That is also how they approached things in 2009 when they blew out the Buccaneers in London. The Rams, on the other hand, arrived in London on Tuesday and have spent the week there.
Tedy: Coach Bill Belichick isn't about to let guys go spend a week somewhere like London and have a good time, and possibly get themselves in trouble and lose focus. He is a creature of habit. It's like the Super Bowls. We'd spend a week in that city, and be at one hotel all week, and then the night before the game we'd check into a different hotel. That kept the same routine, because whenever we played on the road or at home, you'd always be checking into a hotel the night before the game. I know some of the players would love to go to London and spend the whole week, enjoying the city. It's not like they'd all tear the city down ... but some might. We've been in Super Bowl cities before where players had to be sent home. It would be the Monday or Tuesday before, and they'd go out, make some bad choices, and next thing you know they're sent home. That's something Belichick wants to avoid. This way, the team can use its facilities all week, and it's treated like a business trip as much as possible.
Mike: So the Patriots will get to London on Friday morning, and Belichick, QB Tom Brady and a few players will have media availability at 9 a.m. London time. The idea is for Friday to be an acclimation day for players, and then they pick things up Saturday for a normal day-before-the-game routine. Before we get deep into this game, let's just touch on the "fallout" from the Patriots' 29-26 overtime win over the Jets on Sunday. It was a result that was unsatisfying to some, in part because if not for a few breaks and/or mistakes by the Jets, we could be talking about a 3-4 Patriots team.
Tedy: When I played, there were times when you knew there would be gloom and doom, even after a victory. And that's just because of the standard that's been set in that locker room, especially after the three Super Bowl victories, and the records being broken offensively, and some of the great defenses. Those who follow the team are used to winning, and winning, and winning, and they want it a certain way. But one thing I'd say is that when you're in the NFL, you take a win however you can get it -- overtime, no matter who it's against, even if it's a team that hasn't won the entire year. It's just about getting that victory and moving on. As a player, you always respected that about the fans. They pushed you not to just win, but to consistently win and sometimes dominate. You always felt that passion.
Mike: I think some of the frustration stems from the Patriots' defense allowing big passing days to quarterbacks who haven't done that against other teams -- guys like Russell Wilson and, in this case, Mark Sanchez. This has been a consistent theme in recent years, and it doesn't sit well with some. It's the idea that the team is 4-3, but people aren't crazy with what they see right now.
Tedy: I think it's OK to feel that way. I can understand the frustration when a quarterback like Sanchez has 328 yards passing. It is the secondary, combined with the viewpoint of, "Where can this Patriots team go in the postseason? How far can they go against teams that will have a much better offense than the New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks?" That's what we do, as fans and media members. But for players in that locker room, what you're doing is buying time. You're buying more time to improve, especially when it comes to pass coverage. This team will continue to get better. The coaches are making changes, trying to find the answers, such as moving cornerback Devin McCourty to safety. But I think this would be the right way to look at it: While you have these problems, and you see coach Belichick doing everything he can to fix them, you still won a game, and you are still in first place in your division. That's a sign of a good team, that when you have a glaring weakness -- which is what we've seen in the secondary with giving up the deep ball -- you're still able to squeak out a win and make the play when you really need it.
Mike: The Patriots have the bye after this game, and they're a banged-up football team, so this is the type of situation where they need to call on that mental toughness one more week, and if they can come home 5-3, it's actually the same record they had through eight games last season. The Rams are 3-4, and one point that Brady made is that they've beaten two teams the Patriots have lost to this season: the Cardinals and Seahawks.
Tedy: When it comes to the St. Louis Rams, you have to start with Jeff Fisher and the type of coach he is -- tough, smart, the type of guy who will take some chances with players -- such as rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins -- because he has an ability to relate to people. This year, the Rams' offense is struggling, so Fisher looks at it and asks, "How can we manufacture wins?" He's found ways to creatively do that. He's that type of coach. This is a very aggressive team, a physical team. They'll hit you and bully you a little bit after the whistle. Fisher is an intense coach and the team takes on that personality. This team won't quit and will play the Patriots hard. I always respected these types of teams, because you looked at the head coach, you knew who he was, and you watched them on film and could see the fundamentals they're trying to implement, and the philosophy he has. In his first draft, he selected a defensive tackle in the first round. It's about the physical aspect of the game. St. Louis is mentally tough. and the Patriots have to be ready to match that.
Mike: Let's get deeper into the Rams' defense, which ranks 10th in the NFL in terms of fewest points allowed per game (20.1).
Tedy: You start on the defensive line. They're young, with No. 1 draft pick Michael Brockers, the defensive tackle out of LSU. He's playing inside and starting to come along. He had an injury earlier in the year. He's a big, strong, physical guy, a pocket pusher. Then you have Robert Quinn on the outside, a first-round pick from the 2011 draft out of North Carolina. He is a quick pass-rushing defensive end who can give the Patriots problems if he gets going. On the opposite side is Chris Long, who is one of those players who has a motor and never quits. Last year, the Rams were behind all the time, and a lot of times that meant teams were grinding the clock out against them with the running game -- yet Long still managed to produce 13 sacks. He just finds ways to get to the quarterback. Between Long and Quinn, you have the physical, hustle type of guy on one side, and the skill-and-athleticism guy on the other. It makes for an interesting mix.
Mike: It's a 4-3 defense, and based on what you've seen from your film study, is this the type of scheme that can hurt the Patriots because of its ability to get to Brady with the standard four rushers? Or is this more of a pressure-based unit that will come with a lot of blitzes?
Tedy: They trust those four guys at times to get pressure by themselves, but this is still an aggressive team. They'll bring pressure with man-to-man concepts behind it because they really feel comfortable with their cornerbacks, Cortland Finnegan and Jenkins. So this isn't strictly like the Giants and that front four. Another player to mention is linebacker James Laurinaitis. He's rare, an every-down player who was on the field for every snap in 2011. That shows incredible durability and a unique skill set at the linebacker position because the NFL is so package-specific today. Laurinaitis is almost like the Patriots' Jerod Mayo, and guys like that are rare breeds -- they can cover and are still strong against the run.
Mike: When you look at the Patriots' offense and how they attack the Rams' defense, do you see any clear answers?
Tedy: The running game can be a factor, and balance is something I think the Patriots will try to emphasize this week. I don't think they'll be pass-happy like they were in Seattle. Watch for how the Rams match up against the Patriots' spread sets. Finnegan played the slot corner against the Packers last week. In the multiple tight-end sets, that means you could have positive matchups in the running game. He's a really tough player, but the Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez matchup can be utilized there. The Rams then bring in Bradley Fletcher to play outside, and that matchup can also be exploited with wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. The Patriots need to attack those types of mismatches.
Mike: For the Rams' offense, it starts with quarterback Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2010. He's been under three different offensive coordinators in two-plus years. You see that and realize how fortunate someone like Tom Brady has been, to play in the same system for 13 years.
Tedy: Bradford is an accurate quarterback and he's done OK given all those changes. He struggled in Josh McDaniels' system last year, and right now I think he's doing what Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer ask him to do -- it's not all on Bradford. The Rams want the running game to be a team strength, but they've struggled with injuries along the offensive line. That's why they're averaging fewer than 20 points per game (18.5, ranking 26th in the NFL). Do I think Bradford is more talented than Sanchez? Yes, and the Patriots are coming off a game where Sanchez threw for 328 yards against them, so Bradford will take his shots. He did it in previous weeks. Also, there was a time earlier this year where he was completing 74 percent of his passes on third down -- it helped that he was throwing to wide receiver Danny Amendola, who injured his collarbone on Oct. 4 -- which comes back to Bradford's accuracy. So that third-down battle will be important to watch. The other thing to look out for is the trick play. I've seen them run a flea-flicker, and Fisher will try anything to manufacture a win.
Mike: The Rams are expected to be without Amendola, who plays a Wes Welker-type role in their offense, although it was notable that Amendola returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis. On Bradford's conference call with Patriots reporters, he talked about how Amendola's return to practice generated a spark for the team. Being without Amendola in recent weeks contributed to the Rams' offensive struggles, but as you mentioned, if they can get running back Steven Jackson going, that makes them tougher.
Tedy: Coming into this year, Jackson had seven straight 1,000-yard seasons. What he can is very impressive. He is a big back -- 6-foot-2, 240 pounds -- and that's an understatement. Between the tackles, he's a problem, and he has a lot of respect from players around the league, even if he might have slowed down a bit. He has a good running mate in Daryl Richardson, a quicker back who gets the ball on outside runs and tosses and is almost the antithesis of Jackson. The more I watch this Richardson kid, the more I think he could be a potential problem. Both backs also catch the ball out of the backfield. But every running back needs help up front, and that Rams' O-line has struggled. I see the Patriots' defensive front having the advantage.
Mike: Rams receivers Brandon Gibson, Austin Pettis and Chris Givens should be on the radar -- though they aren't a top group -- and McDaniels felt that tight end Lance Kendricks had promise when he coached in St. Louis last year. When it comes to special teams, Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein has created some waves with his strong leg. Some have nicknamed him Leg-a-tron.
Tedy: Whenever the Patriots would go up against a good kicker, this is the line coach Belichick would say in the meeting room: "Just cross the 50 and they're in field goal range." With Zuerlein, I've seen him make 60-yarders this year. Fisher knows what he has and won't be afraid to put Zuerlein out there for a long one. The other thing, and this comes back to Fisher trying to manufacture wins, is that his team shows up on special teams, too. The Rams have already run the hideout play with their field goal unit. The hideout play is when a player makes a third-down completion and pretends he's running off the field, but actually stays on the field. The holder then gets the snap and throws it to him. It's the exact same play we ran against the Rams, with Troy Brown. Rams tight end Matthew Mulligan has already blocked a punt. The special-teams units for the Patriots have to be alert for things, such as a surprise onside kick. Fisher knows he's outmatched, so he'll try to use his background in special teams to steal some points and possibly a victory.
Mike: Let's get to some predictions. Devin McCourty's presence at safety is the key, as he helped settle down the back end last week, and the Rams figure to test New England again. I think the Patriots have a good chance to control the line of scrimmage against a banged-up Rams O-line, which should also help. Offensively, Pats tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer need to be at their best against two disruptive edge rushers. The Rams have a stingy D, but I see the Patriots moving the ball against them. Patriots 30, Rams 20
Tedy: The Rams had two players on their offensive line make their first career NFL starts last week. This team has had one of its best players, Danny Amendola, who was having a great year, go down with an injury. The Rams are tough and well-coached, but they are outmatched by this Patriots team. This victory won't be impressive. On a road trip like this, the goal is always to get the victory and then get out. The Patriots will achieve that. Patriots 24, Rams 20