Ras-I Dowling was one of three New England players that received zero snaps against the Cardinals on Sunday in what can best be described as a puzzling decision. Backup quarterback Ryan Mallett and guard Dan Connolly were the other two. Connolly was questionable for the game with a head injury.
Through training camp and the preseason, Dowling appeared to be the best cover cornerback on the Patriots squad. He was rarely targeted on the outside, and when he would come into the game in nickel situations, he would shut down the outside receiver, pushing starter Kyle Arrington into the slot. For long stretches at a time it looked like Dowling could be a future lock down corner if he stays healthy.
The same things were seen from Dowling during training camp. While starters Devin McCourty and Arrington would let up big plays down the sideline and lose separation on wide receivers, Dowling was physical at the line and stuck with the Patriots talented wide receivers.
Last week Dowling was still coming into the game in nickel situations, playing 57 percent of the teams' snaps. Dowling isn't as strong of a run defender as McCourty and Arrington, which explains why he might only play in obvious passing situations. Dowling didn't play great last Sunday, but was only targeted four times while mostly covering Tennessee's talented rookie wide receiver Kendall Wright. Dowling allowed four receptions for 30 yards and had a pass interference penalty.
Why would Belichick keep Dowling out of Sunday's Cardinals loss? Did he see something in last week's performance that we didn't? Is he trying to control costly pass interference penalties by benching players for an entire week?
The Dowling benching was made even more interesting by the fact that the team was playing such a talented receiver as Larry Fitzgerald. Dowling's size — 6-foot-1, 210 pounds — would make you think that he would have been a solid matchup for Fitzgerald.
Ultimately, it was a wise decision by Belichick. The Patriots limited Fitzgerald to one reception and four yards with double teams, spearheaded by nickel cornerback Sterling Moore. Moore is a physical player who was used as a safety last season, so perhaps Belichick thought Moore's physical play would help limit Fitzgerald. Another thought is that since Moore played safety last year for the Patriots, Belichick liked what he saw from Moore in double teams and if the plan all along was to cover Fitzgerald that way, it would be wise to use two players who are very strong in that aspect. Dowling is typically used in single coverage.
The Patriots players said they had a bad week of practice, so it's also possible that Dowling was part of that poor week of practice and that Belichick didn't like what he saw. There were times during training camp that Dowling seemed slightly lackadaisical compared to the effort of the rest of the Patriots roster. If that has continued into the regular season, this could have been a wakeup call to Dowling from his coach.
Seeing Dowling benched, Shane Vereen out with an injury and Marcus Cannon struggling at right tackle, you can't help but worry about the 2011 draft class. Luckily, Stevan Ridley bailed them all out with another solid performance on the ground.
It will be interesting to see how Dowling is used moving forward. There was a lot of excitement about him during the preseason, and hope that he could overtake Arrington as a starting cornerback this year. If the combination of Moore and a safety over the top can limit receivers as good as Fitzgerald in the future, Dowling may find himself on the bench more often than not.