As soon as the Panthers' game ended last Sunday and Sam Darnold was in the concussion protocol, P.J. Walker probably started his film study for the Patriots.
There's a huge change in mentality for a backup quarterback when you know you're starting. You rarely get reps in practice when you're the backup. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are your preparation days, and each of those days have primary focuses. So, during the team periods, you want your starter to get those looks when you're putting in new plays.
But when you're named the starting quarterback and get a week of preparation, your mindset changes. You get the reps, you get the discussion points with the coaches, you communicate with the coaches in terms of what you like and don’t like. So, there’s more confidence going into those games than being thrust into action unexpectedly.
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There's also the unknown the Patriots have to prepare for with a backup quarterback like Walker.
There could be wrinkles in Carolina's game plan, because Walker and Darnold are different quarterbacks. While Darnold can get outside the pocket and has five rushing touchdowns, P.J. Walker might present more issues involving designed QB runs and boots.
New England's edge setters will need to have discipline, keep their containment rules and make sure Walker doesn’t break contain on the outside while pressuring at the same time.
P.J. Walker is an athletic quarterback. He’s multi-dimensional, he can throw the ball and presents some issues in terms of his "escapability" and ability to run.
Any time you get an opportunity as a backup quarterback, you’re not just performing for your team. You’re also auditioning for the 31 other teams out there that are watching the film and saying, “This kid can play, he’s got potential.”
Maybe if you’re near the end of your contract and trying to give yourself an opportunity to go somewhere else and play. So, you look at that as a motivating factor as well.
Backup quarterbacks try to mentally prepare as starters every week, because they know they're one play away. You have to do that to be ready when your opportunity comes, and that's why you sometimes see guys like Mike White, Cooper Rush and Trevor Siemian take advantage.
The Patriots have definitely had success against Sam Darnold too, so I’m sure they would have loved to see him. But there are definite advantages in going up against a backup quarterback who hasn’t played that much. Experience is a huge factor for an NFL quarterback, particularly against a Patriots defense that is so diverse in terms of the multiple personnel groups and different blitz packages they run.
Just overall, that scheme is difficult for a quarterback to really process quickly, because there are so many moving parts. Every week is like cramming for a test in this league for a quarterback. There are so many looks that challenge you on that side, that that’s a major advantage as well when you go up against a quarterback like P.J. Walker.
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The Patriots have a really strong defense. They’ve learned from every opponent they’ve faced, and you can see them steadily gaining confidence, playing well, while the secondary seems like it’s in sequence with the front seven.
I think they’ll get after this guy, they’ll pressure him and they’ll play good coverage while forcing him into throwing the ball and potentially making mistakes.
Editor's Note: Matt Cassel played 14 years in the NFL as a quarterback, including four with the Patriots from 2005 to 2008. He serves as an analyst for NBC Sports Boston, appearing on Pre/Postgame Live, as a guest on Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast every Thursday, and as a columnist each week during the season.