For the second time in recent history, the New England Patriots will play a regular season NFL game in London this weekend. Instead of facing off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots this time face off against the St. Louis Rams in Wembley stadium.
When the Patriots played the Buccaneers in 2009, they ran out easy 35-7 winners. After finding out that this time it was the Rams who they would play, fans could be forgiven for expecting a similar blowout.
In recent times there hasn't been a less efficient franchise in the NFL than the St. Louis Rams. Entering this season, the Rams had a record of 10-38 over the past three seasons. During those years, the Rams were led by then head coach Steve Spagnuolo. However, Spagnuolo's teams were so futile that the Rams replaced him in the off-season with Jeff Fisher.
That should have made things even easier on the Patriots, because new regimes often bring a downturn to production before swinging the franchise's momentum upwards. A veteran coach like Fisher, combined with the excellent work of new general manager Les Snead, has allowed the Rams to immediately reverse their fortunes however and immediately become a competitive team.
Much of the Rams' success has come in areas that will test the Patriots.
After playing through all of last season with an injury hit secondary, the Rams brought in Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson in the off-season to beef up the secondary. Finnegan and Jenkins were immediately installed as the starting cornerbacks. Jenkins has been very impressive for a rookie, while Finnegan has continued to play aggressive, productive football on the outside like he did in Tennessee.
In Finnegan the Rams have a cornerback who will feel comfortable following Wes Welker into the slot. Welker is so difficult to match up to from week-to-week because most number one cornerbacks do not play inside at all. Finnegan won't shy away from playing aggressive coverage on Welker and is also a sure tackler in the open field. While Finnegan trails Welker, Jenkins will likely look to Brandon Lloyd all day. Lloyd is still acclimating to the Patriots' offense somewhat as he and Tom Brady are yet to set the field on fire. Quality cornerback play has been a significant aspect of that though.
Last week Lloyd saw Antonio Cromartie, who is playing at an all-pro level this season, for most of the game. Before then he spent a lot of time with Richard Sherman, who may be the best cornerback in the league without Darrelle Revis. The best comparison for his matchup with Jenkins will likely be the last time he went against a rookie, Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore was physical with Lloyd and didn't fear his speed, Jenkins has a similar skill-set and should share his approach.
The strength of the Rams' secondary is undoubtedly on the outside, which will make Tom Brady look inside with the football. With Aaron Hernandez already ruled out for the game, Rob Gronkowski should be the focal point of the offense's passing attack. The Rams have no player who can even come close to containing Gronkowski on his own. He should be double teamed on a regular basis while linebacker James Laurinaitis and safety Quintin Mikell will be the primary defenders chasing him around the field.
Losing Hernandez will significantly hurt the Patriots' offensive attack because he would have had a very favourable matchup against Craig Dahl or Bradley Fletcher. Without Hernandez on the field, the Rams will also have more flexibility with their blitz packages, although blitzing isn't an aspect of this defense that is prominent.
The Rams don't need to blitz because they have a high quality defensive line that features talented individual pass rushers. Chris Long and Robert Quinn have combined for 11 sacks on the year. Quinn is leading the team with seven, but it is Long who is consistently pressuring the quarterback and drawing double teams. Quinn, a second year player, is starting for the first time in his career this year and is still developing as an all around player. Even though he is still developing, his speed rush has been overwhelming at times for opposing left tackles. While Quinn has signature speed, Long combines a repertoire of pass rushing moves, physicality and a relentless engine to affect every phase of the game.
Sebastien Vollmer and Nate Solder will be under pressure, but they likely won't get much help either because the Rams also have a prominent inside threat.
While first round pick Michael Brockers likely won't see much time on the field, because of his limitations as a pass rusher, the Rams will still be able to use William Hayes and Kendall Langford to push the pocket inside. Hayes is a combination defensive end and tackle while Langford has converted successfully from a 3-4 end in Miami to a 4-3 tackle in St. Louis. Both players should be able to consistently cause problems for the Patriots' interior offensive linemen.
Even though the Rams defense is performing like a top five unit this season, their offense remains living in the past. Sam Bradford has new faces on his supporting cast this season, but the improvement in play hasn't been palpable. Daryl Richardson and Chris Givens have provided sparks, but they haven't been able to overcome the team's lack of quality protection upfront.
The Patriots are not an overwhelming pass rushing group, but they should be able to manhandle the Rams' offensive line and get to Bradford consistently. After spending a season working with Sam Bradford last year, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh MacDaniels will undoubtedly have plenty to tell Bill Belichick as he sets up the defensive gameplan.
In a perfect world, the Rams would be able to rely on Daryl Richardson and Steven Jackson in this game. If the Rams do try to run the ball all day against the Patriots however, that will be playing right into the Patriots' preferences. It may not be in their comfort-zone, but the Rams have to look to air it out against the Patriots' secondary that is struggling.
Even though they still don't have a fearsome group of receivers, there is more explosion on the field this year for the Rams than in seasons passed. Brandon Gibson is proving to be a reliable receiver for Bradford while Lance Kendricks is improving as the season goes on. The spark for the Rams' passing attack has come from rookie Chris Givens.
Givens is averaging 27 yards per reception and has had a reception of at least 50 yards in the last four games. Considering the Patriots have seriously struggled to defend the deep pass all season, and their safeties are banged up, Givens must be considered an x-factor for the Rams. Without Danny Amendola, who is very unlikely to play, the Rams need someone else to step up in this game whether it be Steve Smith, Austin Pettis or even rookie Brian Quick.
Smith or Pettis won't scare the Patriots' defense, but Quick could. Even though he is struggling to adjust to the professional game at this point in his career, he doesn't need to run a variety of routes to get big yardage against the Patriots. He just needs to have the explosion to gain separation.
The Rams are in a very difficult spot offensively and will likely rely on special teams ace Greg Zuerlein who has been very impressive so far as a rookie kicker. Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hecker have been important weapons for the Rams this year, if they are to upset the odds on international soil, they will need to have big performances again against the Patriots.
Even though they should face a tough test offensively, the Patriots will likely have too much overall talent to be upset in London even if it is a tight game in the fourth quarter. Very little has come easy to the Patriots this season, expect that to continue overseas.