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Keep Your Enemies Closer: New England Patriots

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In preparation of Sunday's game between the Fins and Pats, I got the opportunity to exchange 5 questions with "MaPatsFan" from Pats Pulpit, SBN's Patriots blog.  Below are his responses to my questions.  And you can head over to his site to see my responses to his Dolphin-related questions.

The Phinsider: So I have to ask: Do you feel that Bernard Pollard's hit on Tom Brady was a "dirty play"?  And speaking of the injury, what do you think of Matt Cassel's play thus far and how do you see him performing as the season goes on?

Pats Pulpit: No, I do not think it was a dirty hit.  In fact, most everyone on PatsPulpit agrees with that assessment and most of my friends and co-workers here in Chowdah Land agree as well.  As you can imagine, I've watched that hit dozens of times, but the angle the news media got hold of only focuses on Brady; it doesn't show the events that led up to the hit.  Essentially, Patriots' RB Sammy Morris missed his blocking assignment and ended up falling on Chiefs' SS Bernard Pollard to keep him from getting to Brady.  Brady stepped into the pocket to throw to Moss.  At almost the same time, Pollard was working to get away from Morris, moved forward with Morris on his back, and landed on Brady's knee.  I no way, shape or form was Pollard deliberately trying to go after Brady's knee.

As far as Cassel, I'm pleased with his play so far.  With the help of the coaching staff, he's carefully managing the game, not taking too many risks, and winning games.  It reminds me of when Brady took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001.  Brady had to be managed as well and didn't have nearly the on-field authority he enjoys now.  That level of game management skill only comes with reps in real games.  2 Things Cassel has going for him that Brady didn't have are 1) a better team and 2) 4 years in the Patriots system.  Only time will tell, but so far, he's doing a good job.  As long as the coaching staff continues to carefully monitor what he's capable of, I think he'll do fine.
TP: In light of the Pats' current situation, does it worry you at all that the Pats are only averaging 3.8 yards per carry on the ground?  And how do you see the rushing attempts breaking down this week against the Dolphins?  Will LaMont Jordan get the bulk for the 2nd week in a row or will Laurence Maroney receive the majority of the work?
PP: I'm concerned with Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris, 3.7 and 2.9 respectively.  For our "starter" backs, they seem to be starting a little slowly.  Watching the Jets in Week 2, I felt like both of them were tentative at the line, bouncing off the linemen looking for holes.  In contrast, Maroney put up 100 yarders in 4 out of the last 6 2007 outings.  The real wildcard here is LaMont Jordan.  In a heartbeat, I would've given him offensive MVP for the game against the Jets.  Granted, he only had 68 yards, but he had a 5.2 average and the yards were just at the right time.  Oddly enough, all his carries were in the second half and I've heard this is how Jordan was used by his former team, the Jets.  That is, wait until the second half when the opposing defense is tired and hand the ball to a fresh Jordan.  At 5-10 230 lbs, he's a bowling ball with legs and pretty tough stop.  While Maroney and Morris sometimes bounce off the line looking for holes, Jordan creates holes with his size and strength.
TP: I'll admit it.  I'm a bit surprised by how well New England's defense has played through to games - specifically the secondary and New England's ability to defend the pass.  I thought for sure that Brett Favre would have a better day than he had last week.  What do you attribute this to?
PP: Watching the Jets, I was rather perplexed as to why there was no pass rush.  In fact, many PatsPulpit commentors made the same observation during the game thread.  OLB's Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel appeared to be hanging back.  And then I realized why - Belichick was shutting down Favre's targets, trying to get him to force a pass.  By keeping OLBs in pass coverage mode, it made Favre's job of finding an eligible receiver more difficult.  We were also using a lot of nickel packages which helped shutdown the passing attack as well.  Then, at the end of the second quarter, we turned on the pass rush to mix it up a bit.  Our OLBs started going after Favre and shooting the gaps.  That strategy seemed to work.

TP: Talk about Randy Moss and how he's acted as a member of this team.  I remember last offseason when people questioned his ability to fit in with the culture that has been developed in New England.  Now he's become somewhat of a vocal leader - even lashing out at those who are "hating" the Patriots and expecting their demise following Brady's injury.  In past years, you would have expected Moss to complain about only having 2 catches.  Now he's defending his team and its honor.  Is he a changed person?

PP: I think Moss is genuinely depressed about the loss of Brady and is not afraid to vocalize it.  Many of his teammates have drunk the Belichick coolaid and will only say, "Tom's a friend and we hate to see that happen, but we have games to play and have to move on."  Moss has come out, holding no punches, and speaking his mind, as you referenced above.

In the off-season, Moss was voted a team captain and I think he's taking that responsibility seriously.  Like any great competitor he wants the ball in his hands and his past would indicate dissatisfaction if that didn't happen, but I think being around Brady (and other Patriots) has matured him and Belichick's system of no stars, only teammates has changed Moss.  The team needs him now, more than ever.  I think he knows the sideline circus catches are risky for Cassel at this point and the high percentage plays are to Welker and the running backs.  His time will come, although I hate seeing him go inside; he's so lanky he's a big target for hungry linebackers.

TP: What are your reasonable expectations in 2008 now that Brady is done for the year?  Do you still expect this team to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl?  Are they still the team to beat?  As we sit here in mid-September, how do you see this season playing out for the Pats?

PP: Anything can happen and often does.  If Cassel has the talent of Tom Brady, this will be a good year as this whole thing is almost a mirror image of when Brady took over for Bledsoe in 2001 - the untested backup taking the reins.  Many forget Brady had a very pedestrian year in 2001, but was managed well by the coaching staff and we all know how that turned out.  I think Belichick is 7 years wiser and Cassel has a better team to work with.

The homer in me says sure, why not the Super Bowl?  The new guys are geling well and I think the running game will be very effective throughout the year.  Let's not forget Welker, Moss and Gaffney for the aerial assault.  It'll be a different aerial assault than before, but that's the beauty of this.  I'm enjoying watching it.  I'm fairly confident we'll be able to hit 11-5 and make the playoffs.  It doesn't hurt to have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, either.  The Colts, Chargers and Steelers are always challenges, even WITH Brady, so I'm chalking those up as tough games to win.  If the coaching staff continues to manage Cassel well and he keeps progressing, we're in for a good year.

A big thanks go "MaPatsFan" for taking the time out to do this.

And as always, your thoughts below...