The Patriots will travel "across the pond" this Thursday in advance of their Sunday game, which features a relatively unfamiliar opponent, the St. Louis Rams.
The two have had memorable clashes in the past, highlighted by Super Bowl XXXVI, which kicked off the Patriots' most successful stretch in franchise history. But that game is a distant memory for the Rams franchise, which has struggled in recent seasons and underwent an overhaul this offseason led by the hiring of a new head coach, Jeff Fisher, and a new general manager, Les Snead.
Here's a brief introduction to some of the relevant names and faces for the Rams.
Record: 3-4 (last in the NFC West)
Head coach: Jeff Fisher (first season, 3-4)
Offensive coordinator: Brian Schottenheimer
Defensive coordinator: None (Gregg Williams, named as the defensive coordinator this offseason, is suspended indefinitely as part of a punishment in relation to the Saints bounty scandal).
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. QB Sam Bradford. The first overall pick in the 2010 draft, Bradford has had some ups and downs during the first two-plus seasons of his career. He's been sufficient so far this season, with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. Though his completion percentage may not suggest it, Bradford has lethal accuracy in the short and intermediate passing game. A lack of weapons, inconsistent line play and an ankle injury have slowed the former Heisman Trophy winner down in the beginning stages of his career.
2. RB Steven Jackson. It feels like Jackson has been around forever in St. Louis, and he remains a nightmare for opposing defenses. Although not an elite home-run threat from the backfield, Jackson runs incredibly hard and has excellent hands as a receiver. He's not afraid to initiate contact, and like the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch, won't be an easy player to bring down.
3. WR Brandon Gibson. When productive slot man Danny Amendola went down with a nasty collarbone injury, Gibson assumed what looks like the top receiving role in the Rams' offense. He's been targeted a total of 16 times in the past two weeks and has averaged more than 80 yards per game in that stretch. Although not an elite playmaker, the fourth-year pro is a player to keep an eye on considering the Patriots' secondary woes this season.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. DE Chris Long. Long has ascended in recent seasons, totaling 25.5 sacks in his past 39 games. He's also a tough, reliable and strong player at the point of attack in the running game, who does a little bit of everything for the Rams' line. His play this year has been helped by the standout complementary rush provided by fellow defensive end Robert Quinn, who has seven sacks in just seven games.
2. LB James Laurinaitis. The heart of this Rams defense, Laurinaitis will be seen near the ball throughout the game on Sunday. He mops up tackles with regularity, can defend the pass and is a vital communicator for St. Louis. He trails only Jerod Mayo for the NFL lead in total tackles, with 69 through seven games. The Rams made a firm commitment to the Ohio State product last month, signing him to a lucrative five-year contract extension.
3. CB Cortland Finnegan. The five-year deal given to Laurinaitis was matched this past offseason by the deal signed by free-agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan, among the most coveted available players. Finnegan reunited with his former head coach Jeff Fisher in St. Louis and has brought a tone-setting physicality to the defense. He's considered one of the most aggressive cornerbacks in all of football and is unafraid to mix it up with any receiver.
2012 RECAP THROUGH SEVEN GAMES
Though the Rams have lost consecutive games and enter Sunday's contest under .500, it's worth noting that two of their victories have come against teams -- Seattle and Arizona -- that defeated the Patriots this year. What they have struggled to do on offense is throw the football, averaging just 209 yards per game through the air, good for 25th in the NFL. Additionally, the offensive line has had its moments of shaky footing, allowing 21 sacks already, third most in the NFL. On defense, however, the Rams have been equally efficient in sacking opposing quarterbacks, totaling 21 sacks, fifth best in the NFL. The team has looked improved overall under Fisher and seems to be hampered most on offense without an elite receiver. With Amendola out, the Rams have had to piece together new options for Bradford to throw to, and have a couple of young, developing targets who are not quite ready to be consistent contributors.