With no Rob Gronkowski in the lineup, Tom Brady and Martellus Bennett will be working closely together down the stretch. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)
Here’s everything you have to know about Sunday’s game between the Patriots (9-2) and the Rams (3-8) at Gillette Stadium.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL
New England now features three primary backs, not counting “Brandon” and “Danny,” as part of its ground game. The between-the-tackles work will continue to be done by LeGarrette Blount (212 carries, 869 yards, 12 TDs), while Dion Lewis (11 carries, 47 yards) and James White (28 carries, 112 yards) will offer support, as well as a third-down option for Tom Brady. Blount still figures to be the man, especially if the game gets out of hand early. He’s 138 yards from tying his career-high for yards in a season, and while he probably won’t reach the milestone Sunday against Los Angeles, he’s got a good chance of at least nearing the mark. Look for the occasional two-back set of White and Lewis. We saw it occasionally last week against the Jets, and could be an intriguing combo going forward. Overall, Los Angeles is 20th against the run (112.3 rushing yards allowed per game), and has struggled as of late, allowing an average of 149 rushing yards per contest in the last three games. That includes yielding a season-high 209 rushing yards last week in a loss to the Saints.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL
With no Rob Gronkowski in the lineup anymore, Brady (68 percent completion rate, 2,201 yards, 18 TDs, 1 INT, 116.7 passer rating) and the Patriots passing game will change its focus to more of a spread look with an emphasis on multiple (three and four) receiver sets. That’s not to say we won’t see plenty of work for Martellus Bennett (42 catches, 54 targets, 540 yards, 4 TDs), who will be asked to continue to produce at a high level in the wake of the loss of Gronkowski. It’s only to suggest that it’ll be the likes of Julian Edelman (64 catches, 100 targets, 617 yards, 2 TDs), Danny Amendola (20 catches, 25 targets, 213 yards, 4 TDs), Chris Hogan (23 catches, 35 targets, 461 yards, 2 TDs) and Malcolm Mitchell (16 catches, 27 targets, 235 yards, 3 TDs) will get more targets going forward. That doesn’t even begin to take into account the White/Lewis combo, which caught eight passes last week out of the backfield and will continue to account for a sizable portion of the passing game the rest of the way.
Los Angeles is actually pretty good when it comes to pass defense (seventh in the league at 227.5 passing yards allowed per game). Aaron Donald is a terrifying pass rushing presence along the interior, and one of the best young linemen in the league. The 6-foot-1, 285-pounder will present a sizable challenge for New England’s offensive line — he has 35 tackles (28 solo) this year, to go along with a team-high six sacks. Defensive end Robert Quinn has four sacks on the year, while ex-Patriot Dominique Easley has 2.5 sacks of his own. Los Angeles is middle of the pack when it comes to forcing turnovers (13 takeaways are tied for 19th in the league). Linebacker Mark Barron leads the team with two picks.
WHEN THE RAMS RUN THE BALL
Todd Gurley (200 carries, 641 yards, 4 TDs) is going to get his shot against the Patriots on Sunday. Gurley is pretty much the only back worth mentioning, other than Benny Cunningham (20 carries, 102 yards, 16 catches, 91 yards), who is basically a changeup/third-down guy. Overall, the Rams are 29th in rushing (83.1 yards per game). New England’s run defense has improved over the next few weeks since allowing 167 yards on the ground against the Bills at the end of October, and when you look at this matchup, it certainly appears that the Patriots have an opportunity to take another step in the right direction. Overall, New England is 13th in the league against the run, allowing an average of 99.5 rushing yards per game.
We’re not sure if it’s more appropriate to blame the passing game or the running game, so we’ll just leave this here because there’s little to talk about when you’re discussing the Los Angeles running game: The biggest problem with the Rams’ offense is the fact that they can’t score. Los Angeles is dead last in the league in points per game at 15.5 points per game. Blame Jeff Fisher, blame his reticence to go to Jared Goff, blame the playcalling or the personnel. In six of their 11 games this year, the Rams have scored 10 points or less. That’s astounding to me. That, combined with the Patriots elite-level scoring defense, means that Los Angeles will struggle to hit 15 points on the afternoon.
WHEN THE RAMS PASS THE BALL
Predictably, Goff — who will be making just the third start of his professional career Sunday in Foxboro — is still pretty raw. In his two starts, he’s a combined 37-for-63 (59 percent) for 348 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 83.3. He was kind of all over the place in his first start, but there were flashes of positivity from last week against the Saints, when he tossed three touchdown passes in a 49-21 loss. The leading offensive options for Goff in the passing game are wide receiver Kenny Britt (54 catches, 81 targets, 788 yards, 4 TDs) and wide receiver Tavon Austin (44 catches, 79 targets, 401 yards, 3 TDs). Overall, the Rams are 29th in passing (212 yards per game), but most of those numbers came with former starter Case Keenum under center instead of Goff, so take them for what it’s worth.
On the other side, the Patriots are 18th in the league when it comes to pass defense, allowing an average of 253.6 yards per game. The pass defense numbers have been pretty good over the last two months or so, as the Patriots have allowed just three quarterbacks (Landry Jones, Russell Wilson and Ryan Fitzpatrick) to top 250 yards in the last nine games. Pay attention, because there will likely be some new looks thrown at the rookie, who is still so green he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know yet.
Stephen Gostkowski is 16-for-20 on field goals and 31-for-34 on extra points. Punter Ryan Allen’s 44.2 average is 25th in the league, while his 40.9 net is ninth. New England has had a bunch of different kick and punt returners this year, and the Patriots are 27th in the league in kick returns (19.1 yards per return) and 17th in punt returns (8.6 yards per return). New England doesn’t have a return for touchdown this season.
Put Johnny Hekker on Bill Belichick’s crush list right now. The Rams would be well served to keep someone with the punter at all times while they’re here, lest Belichick thinks about abducting him. He averaged averages 46.7 yards per punt (eighth in the league) and has a 44.9 yard net (second in the league). Kicker Greg Zuerlein is 15-for-18 on field goals and 17-for-17 on extra points — he’s one of eight kickers with at least 15 extra-point tries who is perfect on the year. Austin has been their primary punt returner (eight yards per return), while Cunningham has worked as their primary kick returner (18 returns and an average of 28.2 yards per chance).
THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… the Rams are able to break at least two special teams plays and can figure out a way to generate consistent pressure on Brady with just Donald, Quinn and Easley.
THE RAMS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… Goff plays like most rookie quarterbacks have against Belichick since 2001. In that time, no rookie quarterback in his first or second start against the Patriots has beaten Belichick in New England. Overall — both home and away — Belichick has faced 22 quarterbacks in that time, and he’s 17-5 against them.
UNDER THE RADAR PERFORMER: We used to love putting tight ends here, because so many relatively anonymous guys at that spot would manage a big catch or two in a big moment against New England. Now, we’ve moved on to speedy receivers who aren’t necessarily the first or second option, but have the ability to get behind a defense. This week, that’s Brian Quick (30 catches, 50 targets, 445 yards, 3 TDs). The Rams will likely play it cautious this week offensively — that was one of the reasons that Goff looked better against the Saints than he did in his first start against the Dolphins. But when Goff looks deep, he’s going to be looking for the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Quick, a sizable target who lives up to his name. Tops on yards per catch among the Los Angeles regulars, his 14.8 yards per reception is a terrific indicator of his ability to stretch the defense. One to watch for on Sunday.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 — Goff, one of the youngest quarterbacks in the league this year, was seven years old when Brady and the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI.
QUOTE OF NOTE: “Well, they’re all different. I have a place in my heart for LeGarrette [Blount], because I gave him a start [with Tennessee], and I have great respect for him. He’s a big back, and he’s hard to get down. And as they rotate through, different guys play in different situations, and they do a good job with it. He knows where the ball’s going to go, and the guys are very, very disciplined. I’ve been impressed with Brandon and what he’s done out of the backfield. You’ve got to deal with him, in addition to Danny. You’ve got playmakers all around, so we have to play sound defense.” — Fisher, answering a question about the New England ground game. For the record, Brandon could be Brandon Bolden, but he hasn’t played on a regular basis since 2012. The Patriots do not have a running back named Danny.
PREDICTION: When you consider the matchups on both sides of the ball, the Patriots should dominate this one. The Rams have done a few really nice things defensively, and the Los Angeles front four is very impressive. But in the end, it’s not going to be enough to keep up with New England. Expect the Patriots to go small and lean on their undersized crew of pass catchers, as well as a sizable dose of Bennett and Blount. On defense, this is the last chance to really fine tune things before a key back-to-back against the Ravens and Broncos. My take? Brady gets his record-setting win, Mitchell and Blount each get touchdown passes and Bennett says something noteworthy after the game. Patriots 31, Rams 14.