Eventually, Matt Cassel will hook a largemouth bass.
For eight games, he's been content casting his line into shallow seas – short dumps, drags, hitches and hot routes to Wes Welker. And the slippery slot receiver has helped chug New England to 5-3 with 56 receptions (3rd in the NFL). Yet still, this production has come in minimal increments. Welker is only averaging nine yards per catch, five yards less than the receiver ahead of him (Andre Johnson). He only has one touchdown through eight games and he hasn't surpassed 80 yards in a game yet.
Cassel sure has been making a killing on bluegills and crappies.
For a quarterback who is starting for the first time since high school this season, Welker has been a dream. He's a safety-net crutch to lean on. But this week New England's passing game could finally bust out a la 2007, and Cassel will finally catch some fish worth a picture with Grandpa. Buffalo's banged up defense directly opens the door for Welker to shine. With Ashton Youboty's status still in limbo, rookies Leodis McKelvin and Reggie Corner may be thrust into the more-important-than-ever slot corner role for Buffalo.
Such an unheralded subpackage assignment will be a daunting one. The first-rounder McKelvin has filled in for Terrence McGee occasionally at outside corner (not in the slot), while the fourth-rounder Corner has only played on special teams in four games.
On Sunday there's a good possibility one of the two will need to do something for the first time in their careers: cover a slot receiver one-on-one. Just happens, it'll come against the best in the game.
Buffalo's new resident playmaker, Jabari Greer, hinted that it could be a rough day for the rookie tandem Sunday.
Wes Welker may be primed for a big day against Buffalo
"The only thing they can learn off of is experience," Greer said. "And when they get up there, they're going to have to take the bumps and bruises but they know the only thing they may have to do is be consistent. …We have all the faith in them. Those guys can play. We have them and we're lucky to have them, so when they get out there, I'm excited to see what they can do."
The sneaky 5-foot-9, 185-pound Welker has been a thorn in Buffalo's side, dating back to his days in Miami. In Welker's last five games against Buffalo (three with Miami) he has recorded 26 catches for 284 yards.
Of course, it was Randy Moss – not Welker – who made the big splash in last season's infamous double-dose of beatdowns against the Bills. Moss went bizerk with 15 receptions for 243 yards and six touchdowns. But this year, the binoculars should focus in on Welker and how the Bills combat him with a mangled, rag-tag group.
With McGee and/or Greer preoccupied with Moss (buoyed with inevitable safety help from Ko Simpson), McKelvin and/or Corner won't have a choice. They'll have to chase Welker around all day. In turn, if Welker exhausts the chain gang in a rhythm with Cassel, the Bills may need Greer or McGee to help out, which could domino into a easy heave to Moss. It's a complementary give-and-take that drove New England to a 16-0 season last year. Finally, the Pats face a defense extremely vulnerable to their gameplan.
McKelvin was expected to assume the No. 2 CB spot opposite McGee when Buffalo drafted him 11th overall in last April's draft. He has made an immediate impact in the return game (24.2 yards per kick return), but has been slow developing as an NFL cornerback – possibly a product of facing inferior competition at Troy in college. Without seasoned experienced in various packages on Buffalo's defense, McKelvin could be painfully exposed by Welker if Youboty (foot) can't go.
The salt in the wounds is Whitner's absence.
At times through the first half of the season, the Bills have employed Whitner as their slot cover man. Now that overused Plan B is not an option. Whitner is week-to-week with a separated shoulder, forcing Buffalo to insert a traditional nickel corner to matchup against the slot man.
Seems like a recipe for disaster.
Still, there is a glimmer of hope. At least internally.
Bryan Scott, who is replacing Whitner at strong safety, said he has seen the rookie duo develop progressively through this season.
"In Reggie Corner and Leodis (McKelvin) we have two great young corners and we are at the midway point of the season so it is time for them," Scott said. "They have grown tremendously through OTA's and training camp and it is their opportunity. This won't be their first time on the field, so we are definitely relying on them to step up."
It is, however, the first time McKelvin and Corner will see snaps as Buffalo's slot cornerback. And sheer circumstance will pit them against the best slot receiver in the NFL. No doubt, the Patriots will try to pick on these two unprovens and reel in more big fish in the passing game.