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Steel Curtain vs. the Cassel: Matt faces the #1 Defense

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For weeks we have been watching the progress of Matt Cassel and our beleagured Patriots deal with a string of injuries. The IR chart is a relative who's who of starters and key players.  The good news?  Second, third, and fourth stringers are showing they have what it takes to step up and perform.  This is a credit to their work ethic and preparation, but let's also give credit to the Patriots organization.  Without guys like Scott Pioli and his staff scouring the college and free agent ranks for this forgotten player or that unrecognized rookie, there would be no depth.  None.  And we'd be in a world of hurt right now.

This Sunday at 4:15, we face what I consider one of our toughest opponents, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  This is a storied franchise and one of only three in the history of the NFL to win five Super Bowls.  Both teams have usually had to face the other to get into the playoffs, hence a nice rivalry has developed.  But that's history.  This is 2008 and we have the #1 defense in the NFL to contend with.  Here's a quick view of the Stillers' defensive stats:

  • Points per Game - 14.5
  • Yards per Game - 235.4
  • Passing yards per game - 168.8
  • Rushing yards per game - 66.5
  • Sacks per game - 3.4

Yep, it's a tough D all around.  They're good at almost everything: pass defense, run defense, pass pressure... you name it, they own it.  So is there any hope?  Are we in for a long day?  Not so fast.  Cassel has gotten MUCH better in the pocket, very Brady-esque.  He's stepping forward instead of sideways and, in many instances, simply running when his receivers are covered and LBs go soft.

Is that all you got, dude?  What else?  Relax, I'm getting to it.  Spread the defense.  Wes Welker and Randy Moss are known threats.  Left alone or played soft, they will eat teams alive.  While DBs are busy keeping tabs on them, Matt has found success with Jabar Gaffney or Ben Watson.  Usually in single coverage, they're great for those quick 8-12 yard pops.  Putting 3 WRs out is a great balance because that leaves 5 on the line, a TE, QB, and an RB.  The TE and RB can provide pass protection OR be available as an option.  With 4 wideouts, you'd have to lose either the TE or the RB and Cassel's vertical-ness.

My prediction?  Pitt's sack count at 37 is second in the league and their pass defense is first with 168 YPG.  This means, too me at least, that they create a lot of pressure and blitz quite a bit (could be good coverage, too).  If that's the case, I don't think Cassel will have time to hang in the pocket too long.  Both Welker and RB Kevin Faulk may be in for a workout as he looks for the quick check downs.  However, if we can spread the defense and force some tentativeness on the rush, we could have some success.

The Patriots' offense has had a couple of high yardage games.  Can they repeat against the league's #1 D?  This is going to be cool to watch.