Cassel Coming Into His Own

Matt Cassel (AP Photo)

Have the Patriots finally found the quarterback they thought they had backing up Tom Brady, or was last weekend's performance a fluke?

Watch out, NFL.

Matt Cassel is looking confident, cool and collected in the pocket.

Fresh off a solid performance that earned him the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week award, Cassel pieced together another strong effort Sunday in New England's 23-16 win over the St. Louis Rams.

Outside of two interceptions -- one of which wasn't even his fault because Wes Welker fell down running his route -- Cassel looked sharp, finishing 21 of 33 for 267 yards and a touchdown. Of his 12 incompletions, four were dropped passes and one was thrown away on a scramble toward the sideline.

The most notable difference, however, was Cassel's poise in the pocket. He looked much more comfortable against the pass rush and made wiser decisions in terms of stepping up in the pocket and either getting rid of the ball or scrambling for yards. Cassel carried seven times for 22 yards and only got sacked three times -- a clear sign he was far less deliberate under pressure.

"I think for any quarterback, if you play with confidence, you play well because you're confident in what you're doing (and) you're confident in where you're going with the ball," Cassel said. "It's a big part of my game, and I played with a lot of confidence (Sunday). I felt good about the game plan, and it showed out there."

Cassel also scored his first come-from-behind win Sunday, rallying the Patriots from a 16-13 deficit with 10 unanswered points. The game-winner came on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Faulk on a well-placed fade in the corner of the end zone.

"It was a great catch by him," Cassel said. "He made a great move on the linebacker. He was in one-on-one coverage, and I just tried to put it out there and give him an opportunity to make the catch. He did a great job. He did what Kevin Faulk does best."

Returning to Foxboro has worked wonders for Cassel. He struggled on the team's West Coast road trip to San Francisco and San Diego, particularly against the Chargers in a 30-10 loss. Since then, he has taken advantage of his opportunities against two porous defenses, starting with Denver and continuing Sunday with St. Louis.

"Matt is a good quarterback," coach Bill Belichick said. "I thought he played well (Sunday). There are always things to work on, and there are always things to improve on. It's not perfect, but he's played good for us all year, and I expect him to continue to do that. He works hard, gets better, understands the mistakes and things that he hasn't seen before and goes on, and usually those aren't a problem going forward."

The most positive sign is he didn't panic down the stretch, which should make the Patriots feel good about their chances at another run toward the playoffs with Cassel at the helm.

"As you get going in the game, you just kind of go along and you play the game," Cassel said. "I really wasn't worried about the situation other than the fact that I knew we had to score. I wasn't trying to press. I was just trying to go out there and execute the offense like we always try to do, and we were successful at it."

Notes:

Faulk Steps Up
RB Kevin Faulk continues to step up while his injured teammates recover. With Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan out of the lineup, the veteran led the team with 60 yards on 13 carries and also caught four passes for 47 yards, including the game-winning touchdown.

"I think that's what you come in for," Faulk said. "You don't have a lot of opportunities sometimes, but the thing is, you always have to be ready because you don't know when the situation is going to come up. The situation came up (Sunday) where we were down to three running backs, and we had to carry the load."

"Nothing he ever does surprises me," FB Heath Evans said of Faulk. "He amazes me at times."

Secondary Adjustments
The Patriots were beaten on some big plays early, but eventually they switched their coverage to make sure they had a safety over the top helping out on both sides.

The adjustment slowed down St. Louis' passing game in the second half and helped the Patriots rally for the win.

"Anytime somebody in the back makes a big play, we are a young group, so that gives us confidence," said backup Antwain Spann, who was activated last week to replace Rodney Harrison. "Of course we are going to go through our bad plays because we are young. When we get the opportunity to make plays, most of the time we do."

Spann also credited CB Deltha O'Neal, who struggled early in the season but came up with the game-clinching interception despite missing several series due to an injury.

"To be out most of the game and come in cold and clinch the game for us, that was real big," Spann said.

Defense Making Strides
The Patriots came away from Sunday's game feeling they played their best defensively when it counted the most.

"It seems that way," DE Ty Warren said. "I think in the fourth quarter a lot of guys stepped up and came up with some plays that we needed when it was tied up. The offense did a good job of capitalizing at the right time and our special teams and so forth. I would say so."

One of the keys was holding the Rams to just two field goals despite losing an onside kick, turning the ball over twice and failing to convert on a fourth-and-1 situation in the third quarter.

"Obviously you see a big difference when we would go out there and stop them on third downs and get off the field compared to the first half with the big plays," LB Adalius Thomas said. "They even had a big play in the third quarter, but we were able to get off the field. It definitely helps a lot."

Players Notes:
--CB Ellis Hobbs left the game with two injuries -- one to the hand and another to the shoulder -- but returned each time and finished the game. Hobbs' status is worth keeping an eye on as the week progresses.
--CB Deltha O'Neal suffered an undisclosed injury during the first half of the game, but he returned in the third quarter and came up with a game-clinching play when he intercepted Marc Bulger at the 16-yard line in the closing minutes.
--RB Sammy Morris (knee) could be out for at least three weeks, according to various published reports, though the team has not disclosed any information on his long-term status. The Patriots are thin at running back and need all the help they can get.
--CB Jonathan Wilhite continues to get more snaps as a nickel back and spent a considerable amount of time Sunday covering St. Louis' slot receivers. Wilhite struggled at times, but he appears to be ahead of fellow rookie Terrence Wheatley, who did not get on the field until CB Ellis Hobbs got hurt.
--DE Richard Seymour had a solid performance Sunday as the Patriots continued in their effort to generate more pressure on the quarterback. He finished with four quarterback hits, a sack and seven tackles in arguably his best game of the season.

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