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This spread is delicious

Cassel, Patriots feast on offense

Matt Cassel (16) cut up Miami mainly out of the spread, with a career-high 415 passing yards. Matt Cassel (16) cut up Miami mainly out of the spread, with a career-high 415 passing yards. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / November 25, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Start spreading the news: The Patriots offense is not limited in any way from a game planning standpoint by having Matt Cassel at quarterback instead of Tom Brady.

That point has been made over the last two weeks, as the Patriots increasingly have turned to the spread set, putting Cassel in the shotgun and either emptying the backfield to go with five players lined up as wide receivers or leaving just one alongside him in the backfield while having four receivers.

The result has been back-to-the-future football for the Patriots, who have put together two straight games with more than 500 yards of offense and gotten back-to-back 400-yard passing performances by Cassel.

It looked as if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dusted off the Patriots' 2007 game plan for Sunday's 48-28 victory over the Miami Dolphins. Cassel cut up the Dolphins defense while operating primarily out of the spread, completing 30 of 43 passes for a career-high 415 yards and three touchdowns (with one interception) and ran for another score out of the shotgun.

The Patriots ran 52 of their 72 snaps (including plays negated by penalties) out of three- and four-wide receiver sets. That caught the Dolphins by surprise.

"We figured they would come out and run the ball a little bit," said Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell. "They had been in the spread last week so we figured they'd get in the spread some. [But] they made a habit of it. That was their game plan, to come out in empty [sets] and spread us out and throw the little short underneath passes, and Matt did a good job."

In the first meeting with Miami in Week 3, Cassel's second start, he passed for just 131 yards. On Sunday, he had more than that with 12:23 left in the first half, as he was 13 of 19 for 150 yards at that point.

"He, obviously, stat-wise, has been doing a great job," said running back Sammy Morris. "Whether it's his numbers or in our wins and losses column, he's doing a great job. I think he's kind of grown right in front of our eyes, right before everybody. He just looks like a completely different guy than when he first took over."

Cassel looks different, but the Patriots now look the same. They're able to be the fully-operational game-plan-specific offense that they're designed to be.

They came out in the spread against Buffalo, but ultimately won that game by switching to more of a grind-it-out approach. They were forced to go to the spread out of desperation in a 34-31 loss to the Jets Nov. 13, when they rallied from a 24-6 deficit to force overtime behind a 30-of-51, 400-yard, three-TD effort from Cassel. It was their chosen method of attack against Miami.

Just because the spread was the way to go against Miami, that doesn't mean it will be the plan of attack this week against Pittsburgh, which is tops in the NFL in total defense, passing defense, and rushing defense.

The Steelers, who are so banged up at cornerback that they recently signed Fernando Bryant, who was cut by the Patriots out of training camp, could prepare for a heavy dose of the spread and get only a sprinkle of it.

That versatility and unpredictability is the cornerstone of the Patriots' attack.

"I think we always approach games doing what we think is going to give us the best chance to win," said Morris. "Against Denver, we were able to run the ball a whole lot more. It's just good to see if we need to throw the ball 40 times or whatever it might be or run the ball, we're able to get that done."

Perhaps not wanting this newfound respect to go to the erstwhile backup QB's head, or realizing that the price of retaining the would-be free agent is going up by the pass, coach Bill Belichick made a point of spreading around the credit for the success of the spread attack and praising the work of McDaniels, who has nurtured Cassel.

"Whenever the quarterback has a lot of yards passing, then everybody wants to put the quarterback in the Hall of Fame," said Belichick. "Whenever he doesn't have a lot of yards, everybody wants to change quarterbacks.

"The fact of the matter is that you have at least five people involved in pass protection, usually more. You have at least five people involved in the passing game and patterns to some degree, in terms of getting open and having good distribution, so the coverage is displaced and you create openings. And you have the guy throwing the ball and the guys catching it.

"When 11 people are doing a good job, you're probably going to have good offensive production; when you don't have 11 people doing a good job on that, or if it's poorly coached, then you're probably not going to have a lot of production on that.

"I think that [Sunday's] offensive performance is a function of good team offense - good quarterbacking - but good performance by the other 10 people and good coaching by Josh and the offensive staff. I think they did a great job. I think Matt executed it well, as did the other 10 people who were on the field."

But the other 10 players were able to execute the same spread attack last year with a QB who will be a Hall of Famer in Brady.

Cassel spreading his wings - and the ball around - has made the Patriots tougher to contain.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com

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