When the Saints have the ball:
Sheesh. The Patriots defense continued to look good against Cincinnati, giving up only 13 points in the loss, but they're facing a different animal this week. New Orleans boast two of the toughest matchups in the entire NFL and the success of the Patriots will largely hinge on how they handle those assignments.
I'm talking, of course, about Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. Graham is off to a historical start, as he already has 37 catches for 593 yards and 6 touchdowns. In case you're wondering, that projects to an astronomical line of 118 catches, 1,898 yards and 19 touchdowns over a full season. At 6'7", the former Division I basketball player is simply too big, too fast and too athletic for pretty much anyone in the league to cover. If that wasn't enough, he's even harder to matchup with because the Saints line him up all over the field (similarly to how the Patriots used to use Aaron Hernandez).
So, how do you cover a seam destroying monster like Graham? Fortunately for the Pats, that's up to Bill Belichick and not me. Unfortunately for the Pats, it might not matter what you do, as Graham really is that good. My guess is that the Pats play physical and try to disrupt the Saints timing offense by jamming Graham at the line and always shading a safety to his side. Devin McCourty will have to bring his "A" game, as he'll likely be seeing a lot of Graham. Our own Mike Saver even discussed the possibility of Aqib Talib taking Graham occasionally when he lines up split out wide, but that could leave one of the Patriots smurfs (5'10" Kyle Arrington or Alfonzo Dennard) covering 6'4" Marques Colston.
All those matchup problems happen without even getting into Darren Sproles. The diminutive back is probably the league's most dynamic receiving back, as his speed and quickness make him nearly an impossible cover for linebackers. This presents a huge problem for the Patriots, whose big physical linebackers are built to stuff inside runs, not to turn and run with 5'6" scatbacks.
Oh, and if that wasn't enough, Drew Brees also has the perennially underrated Colston and a crop of secondary targets (Lance Moore, Nick Toon, Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem) who can all make you pay for ignoring them.
The only good news for the Patriots is that the Saints aren't built to expose the absence of Vince Wilfork with power running up the gut. Former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram has been a disappointment and Pierre Thomas has done most of his damage in the passing game. The short, efficient passing of Drew Brees has basically replaced the run in New Orleans, meaning we could see less of Brandon Spikes and more Jamie Collins this week to deal with the Saints coverage matchups.
The Patriots best shot at slowing this offense down will be to disrupt it's timing with physical play. A pass rush normally is the answer for dynamic passing games like this, but Brees gets rid of the ball too quickly to put too much stock on the pass rush impacting the game. There's no way around it, everyone is going to have to bring it just for the Pats to slow this team down.
When the Patriots have the ball:
The offense will dominate headlines in New Orleans as long as Brees is there, but it's really been the defense that's fueled their turnaround. The arrival of Rob Ryan and his 3-4 scheme has transformed what was one of the league's worst defenses last year into a productive unit that thrives off of creating pressure and turnovers. The Patriots will have to figure out a defense that has yet to give up 20 points in a game this year if they want to stay in this game.
As with any pressure based/Ryan led defense, pass protection will be key. The offensive line followed up a strong performance in Atlanta by getting drubbed in last weeks loss to Cincinnati. They'll have to rebound against a surprisingly strong duo of Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Jordan has quickly gone from being a first round bust at 4-3 end to one of the league's most disruptive defenders in the 3-4, notching 4 sacks and a force fumble already this year. Galette has been a revelation at outside linebacker, where his speed has translated into pass rushing ability.
These two defenders will be supplemented with a variety of complicated blitzes and disguises. The onus will be on the offensive line and Tom Brady to keep the protections straight and keep Brady upright. The importance of protecting Brady is only magnified further by the Saints secondary, which remains the weakness of the team. Starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis struggled with the Bears Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins aren't exactly Marshall and Jeffery, but they should be able to get open against these guys. It will be up to the line to give Brady enough time to find them.
Of course, the return of our own seam-destroying monster helps things out a little bit. Rob Gronkowski is expected to make his season debut this week and his presence will make the Patriots offense much more difficult to defend. Just as the Patriots will have to devote extra attention to Graham, the Saints will be doing whatever they can to make sure Gronk doesn't beat them. Rookie safety Kenny Vacarro has played well for them and will likely get a lot of the work against his royal Gronkness.
It's difficult to judge the Saints rushing defense based on the competition they've faced. They predictably shut down Arizona and Miami's dreadful running games, got shredded by Doug Martin when they faced Tampa and gave up moderately successful days to Steven Jackson and Matt Forte. Gronk's return should help the running game, as would a return from Stevan Ridley. Establishing the run could be huge for the Patriots. It would help neutralize the pass rush, set up play action, keep Brady from having to carry the entire offense and, perhaps most importantly, keep Brees, Graham and Sproles on the sidelines. The Patriots have caught some deserved flak for abandoning the run early in last week's loss. It will be interesting to see if they make a conscious effort to pound the ball inside against underrated linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne.
Special Teams/ Coaching/ Intangibles
The Pats are coming off of a solid performance on special teams and will need to continue to play well there against an opponent of this caliber. The special teams focus of this week should be containing Sproles, who is a dangerous return man on both kickoffs and punts.
Another thing to watch will be the Patriots own return game. The LeGarrette Blount experiment ended last week, with Devin McCourty returning to his old role as a kickoff returner. I personally hate the idea of having such a valuable defender risking injury as a return man, especially with speedy talent like Josh Boyce available on the roster. A return from last year's NFC kickoff return leader Leon Washington would be welcome, but the back can't seem to shake injury issues this year.
Very interesting coaching matchup here between two of the brightest minds in football. The chess match of how Belichick attacks Sean Payton's array of offensive talent will be one to watch. Likewise, Belichick vs a Ryan is always interesting, as Brady will have to expect the unexpected from the Saints blitzers.
Here's a stat to calm nervous Patriots fans down. The Patriots are a ridiculous 28-4 over the past decade when following up a loss. They are also playing at home this week, which is certainly preferable to dealing with the deafening crowd noise at the Superdome.
However, the Pats win over Atlanta proved that statistical trends matter far less than what actually transpires on the field. There's no way around it, the Patriots will have to come up with a great performance to match what has been one of the top 3 teams in the league so far this season.