When the Patriots run
New England’s depth at running back is impressive. Even with surprising rookie Brandon Bolden out, the Patriots have three solid options in Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pound Ridley keeps getting better. He runs with great energy and power, and his vision continues to improve. Even on the rare occasion when Ridley gets knocked back, he’s champing at the bit to get the ball again. Vereen (5-9, 205) showed his versatility last week. He is thickly built with good vision and shiftiness. He also has deceptive strength and will fight for yards. Woodhead continues to impress with his quickness, instincts, and toughness. If there’s a crease, he will find it and zip through it. Only his lack of size (5-8, 200) prevents him from being a complete back. New England’s offensive line has shown tremendous versatility to shift from pass protection to smashmouth. This unit takes its lead from ornery guard Logan Mankins — make no mistake how important he is. The interior three must get off their initial blocks — no small feat because tackles Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers are strong and smart — and get their big mitts on St. Louis’s active and tough linebacking corps of James Laurinaitis, Rocky McIntosh, and Jo-Lonn Dunbar.
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady was masterful in the late stages against the Jets, recovering from what was, for him, a poor performance against the Seahawks. Even as the defense and special teams did their best to gift-wrap a win for Rex Ryan, Brady never looked nervous (no surprise there) as he led drives to tying and winning field goals. Brady faces another big challenge Sunday because the Rams have an excellent secondary and can bring pressure. The quick-strike game will be imperative as Brady, though he won’t have Aaron Hernandez to go to, will target Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski early, and probably often. Welker (quick feet, great instincts, strong hands) works the slot to perfection. His production is amazing considering teams know where he is and still can’t stop him. Gronkowski is a fine blocker and superb receiver. Brandon Lloyd is the deep threat, but so far the vertical game has been virtually nonexistent. St. Louis ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn excel at collapsing the pocket and pummeling QBs. Long has a quick first step and Quinn has exceptional closing speed. Cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan (he can throw opponents off their game with physical strength and expert trash-talking) and Janoris Jenkins (he’s extremely quick and instinctive) are very good. Safeties Craig Dahl (he’s physical but lacks range) and Quintin Mikell (he’s smart and has exceptional range) provide excellent support.
When the Rams run
Steven Jackson has long been one of the league’s more versatile and consistent tailbacks. Now in his ninth season, the 6-2, 240-pounder has a lot of miles on the tires and his body has taken a lot of abuse. Durability, which was never a factor when he was wearing out defenses in his younger days, has become a problem with several nagging leg injuries. When at full strength, Jackson has a tremendous combination of size, strength, and speed. He has the quickness to run by some would-be tacklers and the power to run over others. He’s the back you were hoping Laurence Maroney would be. Rookie Daryl Richardson (5-10, 192) has shown an explosive first step, enabling him to blast through creases and get on defenders quickly. Fullback Brit Miller will bang bodies and create spaces, but if the ball is in his hands it’s by mistake. St. Louis’s offensive line has performed admirably considering it consists of spare parts from other teams, including center Rob Turner (a former Jets backup), right guard Harvey Dahl (an ex-Falcon), and left guard Quinn Ojinnaka (a Patriots castoff). New England’s front seven should dominate the trenches. Behemoth tackles Kyle Love (he’s underrated) and Vince Wilfork (he’s not) are quick and strong. They move bodies with ease and allow instinctive linebackers Jerod Mayo (he’s always hitting somebody) and Brandon Spikes (he explodes into people) room to attack runners.
When the Rams pass
When he’s not running for his life, Sam Bradford is one of the most complete and entertaining QBs in the league. He has excellent size (6-4, 224) and athleticism. The Rams pay him for his head (he’s smart) and his arm (he’s accurate and strong), but Bradford also uses his feet to extend plays and move the chains. He’s at his best working out of the shotgun. He processes information quickly and does a good job exploiting mismatches — and he’ll find plenty of those Sunday against New England’s rag-a-muffin secondary. Durability has been an issue for Bradford because he has taken a beating over the last two-plus seasons. Danny Amendola is Bradford’s best target, but he has a collarbone issue and may not play. Chris Givens (exceptional speed and hands) is a star in the making. Brandon Gibson is a precise route-runner but lacks size (6 feet, 205) and speed. Same can be said for Steve Smith (5-11, 195), but he is a clutch performer. Austin Pettis (6-3, 207) has good size and strong hands but has battled inconsistency. Rookie Brian Quick has good size (6-3, 220) and strong hands but is raw. Tight ends Matthew Mulligan (exceptional blocker) and Lance Kendricks (good hands) will show flashes. Steven Jackson is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. New England’s defensive backfield is in shambles. Kyle Arrington remains the stalwart of this bunch.
Rams’ key player: James Laurinaitis
A superb athlete (did you know he was a high school hockey star in Minnesota?), the 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound linebacker has tremendous instincts and power. Laurinaitis is a real mauler — what else would you expect from the son of Joe Laurinaitis, a.k.a. the Road Warrior Animal?
How he beats you: With quickness, toughness, and hustle. Laurinaitis has excellent lateral movement and he hits like a Mack Truck. He diagnoses plays quickly and makes tackles from sideline to sideline.
How to shut him down: By putting a hat on him. You must game-plan for Laurinaitis the way you would a dominant running back. Know where he is at all times and send a search-and-destroy blocker his way on every play.
RAMS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Clock punchers: St. Louis must keep time ticking, and the best way to accomplish this is to employ the 1-2 punch of running backs Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson.
2. Mug shots: Punishing Wes Welker at the snap is imperative. If you don’t disrupt his rhythm, he will team with Tom Brady and disrupt yours all game long.
3. Get a leg up: Rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein has a huge leg — he has a 60-yard field goal already. Let him kick for points and keep the ball away from Devin McCourty.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Equal time: Keep the offense balanced — New England has the fifth-ranked passing offense and fifth-ranked rushing offense. It’s clearly the recipe for success.
2. Chip shots: Tight end Rob Gronkowski, along with tailback Danny Woodhead, has to get a shoulder on Chris Long and Robert Quinn to buy Tom Brady extra time.
3. Safety insurance: Devin McCourty has had his troubles at corner. He was better last week at safety. So keep him there so he can provide over-the-top support.