Patriots - Rams: Key Matchups

Bulger needs a solid game (Getty)

Can the Patriots keep pace with the Buffalo Bills this week? If they are to stay in the hunt, they need to follow this advice to get the win. St. Louis hopes that the 2-win bubble under Jim Haslett isn't about to burst.

New England Patriots:

The Patriots have had a busy week since Monday, beginning with the announcement that running back Laurence Maroney had been placed on injured reserve and continuing with a season-ending knee injury to safety Rodney Harrison.

The Patriots filled their roster spots by activating guard Stephen Neal from the physically-unable-to-perform list and signing defensive backs Antwain Spann and Mike Richardson from the practice squad. Offensive lineman Dan Connolly was released from the practice squad and eventually re-signed Wednesday along with safety Mark Dillard.

The Patriots will try to fill the void left by Maroney's departure with a combination of Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan, though the extent of their injuries is unknown. As for the secondary, Brandon Meriweather -- who leads the team in interceptions -- will slide into Harrison's role, which likely means safety James Sanders will spend more time at the line of scrimmage rather than playing deep in passing situations.

Spann's role is that of a backup, which is where Harrison's loss is felt the most. Meriweather and Sanders can handle the pressure, but the Patriots are now much thinner and far more limited in what they can do with their sub-defense packages.

Could John Lynch come back? Belichick all but ruled that out Wednesday by indicating, "Our roster is full."

GAME PLAN: The Patriots need to do what they did against the Broncos, which is run the ball early and often. St. Louis' run defense is equally bad, so the Patriots should be able to pick up yards with a healthier offensive line and the possible return of LaMont Jordan.

Games like the one Sammy Morris had on Monday (138 rushing yards) make it easier for Matt Cassel to function in this offense. Cassel was remarkably efficient, completing 18 of his 24 passes, and did not make any mistakes.

On defense, the Patriots might get a break if Steven Jackson is unable to play, though it appears he'll start Sunday. Either way, the Patriots need to stop the run and not let quarterback Marc Bulger beat them deep. The Broncos didn't take enough chances down the field last week, but the Rams might be inclined to do so with Rodney Harrison out for the season. New England's pass rush needs to be up to the task.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots WR Randy Moss vs. Rams CB Ron Bartell. Moss is coming off his most productive game of the season after catching two touchdown passes against the Broncos while Bartell is looking to continue the positive strides he's made in pass coverage. Moss even scored on a screen pass Monday night, so Bartell needs to be ready for everything, not just the deep ball.

Which Randy moss will show up Sunday? The Patriots hope it's the 2007 record-setting one. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Patriots NT Vince Wilfork vs. Rams C Nick Leckey. Wilfork and his fellow starting linemates didn't play as much against Denver, so Leckey may face more than one defender. Nonetheless, Wilfork remains the glue of New England's front seven and needs to step up this week to help the Patriots get their pass-rush going. Monday was a step in the right direction, but it can always be better.

INJURY IMPACT: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis should get even more carries Sunday with Sammy Morris possibly missing the game with a knee injury. Green-Ellis had a big second half against Denver and could move up to No. 2 on the depth chart for Sunday.

--CB Lewis Sanders has seen an increase in playing time in recent weeks due to rookie Terrence Wheatley's lack of development and may play an even bigger role in the near future now that the Patriots are reshuffling their nickel coverage in the wake of Rodney Harrison's injury.

--RB Kevin Faulk may also get more carries with Laurence Maroney out for the season, which may limit some of his effectiveness on screen plays if the Patriots intend to keep his workload to a minimum.

 

St. Louis Rams:

With safety Todd Johnson sidelined by a bruised kidney, the Rams promoted Eric Bassey from the practice squad. They also added safety David Roach to the practice squad. Wide receiver Eddie Kennison was released.

GAME PLAN: Like the last two games, the Rams have to play smart football. They are plus-six in turnover ratio the last two games. For the second straight week, they face a 3-4 defense, although one that isn't the same as the 3-4 run by the Cowboys.

If they can protect QB Marc Bulger, there could be some opportunities to throw if they have success in the running game.

Defensively, they have to put pressure on QB Matt Cassel and keep WRs Randy Moss and Wes Welker from making big plays.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams DEs vs. Patriots OTs -- The Rams have been doing a good job rotating Leonard Little, Chris Long, James Hall and Victor Adeyanju and getting a solid pass rush. Last season, the Rams had 5.5 sacks from their ends all season. This year, they have 11. Patriots LT Matt Light will have to deal with Long and Hall, while Nick Kaczur or Mark LeVoir at right tackle will be dealing with Little or Adeyanju. LeVoir was in training camp with the Rams before being cut. LeVoir played against Denver with Kaczur sidelined by an ankle injury.

Rams WRs Torry Holt and Donnie Avery vs. Patriots CBs Deltha O'Neal and Ellis Hobbs: Avery has had catches for 42 and 43 yards the last two games, and his speed has opened up things for Holt. O'Neal has had some struggles this season. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 65.0 percent of their passes and have a passer rating of 90.9.

Rams CBs Fakhir Brown and Ron Bartell vs. Patriots WR Randy Moss and Wes Welker: Bartell has been playing well all season, and Brown's return last week brought some stability to the secondary. They will be tested by Moss and Welker, which should make for consistent battles all afternoon.

INJURY IMPACT: The biggest injury to watch is RB Steven Jackson, who hopes to play after straining his quad against Dallas. Jackson's backups are Antonio Pittman, Travis Minor and recently signed Kenneth Darby. Pittman and Minor received a lot of playing time during the summer when Jackson was holding out.

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