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Brees remains a scary guy to defend, regardless of his supporting cast

Each week, I'll be preparing you for the Patriots upcoming opponent with a scouting report, going over the opponent's roster with a focus on how they will specifically match up with the Patriots. This week, the Patriots will take the road to New Orleans, where they'll face a Saints team that is looking to rebound from it's own humiliating season opening loss. With a Hall of Fame quarterback on each sideline and Brandin Cooks making his return to New Orleans, there's no shortage of storylines in this one. Lets get right to the matchups that will play out on the field Sunday.

Saints offense vs Patriots defense

The Saints have consistently been an offensive powerhouse during the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, but they looked nothing of the sort during their Monday night season opener, a 29-19 loss that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate. It certainly looks like the Patriots are catching Brees at a fortuitous time, as the future Hall of Famer on the opposite sideline will be without his trusted slot receiver (suspended Willie Snead) or either starting offensive tackle (injured Terron Armstead and Zach Streif). The Saints had already suffered a weapons downgrade this offseason by trading Brandin Cooks and replacing him with free agent Ted Ginn Jr. Subtracting the suspended Snead from the equation as well appeared to expose the Saints lack of depth behind Michael Thomas (#13) at times during the Monday night loss.

Gilmore will be tested by the uber talented Mike Thomas
Thomas, of course, is a problem. The dude brings explosive athleticism to a ripped 6’3”. 212 frame that he uses to easily bully smaller cover corner. In short, he can do everything: he’s a good route runner in all zones of the field, has excellent hands and is dangerous after the catch. Freaks like this are why the Patriots gave the Brinks truck to Stephon Gilmore, one of the few humans on earth with the physical talent to match up with Thomas in man.

If Gilmore can win that matchup, it could become very difficult for the Saints to find consistency in the passing game. Without Snead, the second receiver in terms of snaps played Monday was Brandon Coleman (#16). Coleman’s size (6’6”, 225) and physical talent has long made him a frequently hyped breakthrough candidate in the preseason, but he’s proven to be plodding possession receiver when the games count thus far in his career. Despite his high snap count, Coleman managed just two catches for 13 yards against the Vikings, allowing a potential touchdown to slip through his hands on his other target. We’ll see if the Pats opt to go match-up man on Sunday, but Eric Rowe’s unique size and length would make him the logical choice to guard Coleman in that scheme.

If the Pats do in fact play more man coverage this week, Malcolm Butler will likely see his fair share of Ted Ginn Jr (#19). Still a dangerous vertical threat at age 32, Ginn easily outproduced Coleman in fewer snaps. He turned his five targets into four catches for 53 yards, with a five yard end around thrown in for good measure against the Vikings. Butler will likely give Ginn some cushion, prioritizing stopping the deep ball while against a receiver whose pure sprinting speed is still his best asset. In zone, the deep safeties will surely have to be aware of Ginn’s location at all times due to his lid-lifting abilities.

With former Patriot Austin Carr inactive (presumably due to his behind severely behind with the playbook), the fourth receiver on Monday night was Tommy-Lee Lewis (#87). Like Ginn, Lewis has been a bit of a one-trick vertical route pony so far in his career, but he’s an explosive enough athlete to hurt you with that one trick if you don’t respect his speed enough. He flashed that big play ability with a 52 yard catch Monday night, setting up an eventual field goal. Special teams standout and depth corner Jonathan Jones could get a chance to showcase his 4.3 speed during the handful of snaps (11 last week) that Lewis is on the field.

Fleener's size is a problem in the red zone
While a receiver like Ginn usually commands designed safety help, the Patriots snaps in man could see some over the top help for whoever is tasked with guarding Coby Fleener (#82). Patrick Chung normally handles opposing tight ends in man, but would face a tough matchup size-wise against the 6’6”, 251 Fleener. Fleener’s pure size and length makes him dangerous in jump ball situations, particularly in the red zone. His speed makes him a constant threat to attack the seam, especially in a Saints offense that likes to push the ball vertically in the passing game. Fleener was one of the few bright spots for the Saints on Monday, scoring their only touchdown as part of a five catch, 54 yard night. I could see the Pats shading a safety his way when Chung is on him to prevent him hurting them with the vertical routes the Saints love to use. I could even see them using Rowe on him in the slot at times, as Fleener’s finesse-based game puts him more in the category of “huge slot receiver” than “actual tight end”.

The Saints do have and use traditional tight ends, with veterans Josh Hill (#89) and former Patriot Michael Hoomanawanui (#84) rounding out the depth chart. Hill is more of an in-line type, albeit with enough athleticism to threaten occasionally in the passing game. Hill split the bulk of the snaps almost evenly with Fleener, spending most of his time as an in-line blocker. He's flashed in the past as a receiver, but didn't receive a target last week. Meanwhile, the man affectionately known as “Hooman” has stuck around in New Orleans since the 2015 Akiem Hicks trade due largely to his versatility. The Saints don’t play him a ton of snaps, but they use him in a ton of ways, including as an H-back, in-line tight end, slot receiver, motioned-in wham blocker…you name it. He’s not exceptional at any of those roles, per-say, but his ability to perform all of them helps the Saints to open up their playbook, which has as many formations and personnel groupings as the Pats will see all year.

The versatility of the Saints stable of backs also helps them to utilize so many different formations. In Alvin Kamara (#41), Mark Ingram (#22) and Adrian Peterson (#28), the Saints have three note-worthy backs with completely different skillsets. Peterson has been in the news the most recently, but Ingram and Kamara played more and had far more impact on the field Monday. Kamara slightly outsnapped Ingram (31 to 26) and saw one more carry and two more targets, but Ingram was more productive thanks to catching all five of his targets for 54 yards. Neither back found much of anything to work with on the ground, turning their 13 combined carries into a mere 36 yards rushing.

A lack of versatility killed Peterson’s chance at making an impact on last week’s game. While Ingram and Kamara both have real passing game chops to offer, Peterson was never highly regarded as a pass catcher or blocker, even in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. The Saints didn’t help him much with their schemes, as multiple tight end sets and the presence of full back John Kuhn (#29) telegraphed power runs that the Vikings loaded up against and stopped with ease. Peterson’s snap count this Sunday will likely coincide with those of Elandon Roberts and David Harris, two run first linebackers who were left in cobwebs week one thanks to a dime package-based defensive game plan. It will also coincide with the game script, as playing from behind last week led to more passing plays and less snaps for the apparently disgruntled Peterson.

Kamara is a dangerous big play threat
Unlike Peterson, both Kamara and Ingram are pass catching threats. Kamara in particular is a worrisome matchup for a Pats defense that couldn't cover rookie Kareem Hunt out of the backfield last week. A second round pick from this spring, Kamara is an explosive athlete with polished receiving chops for a rookie. He's a good route runner with receiver-like quickness out of his breaks, catches the ball well, and has the pure speed to turn a single broken tackle into a long touchdown. He didn't break any big plays on Monday, but the explosiveness he flashed all preseason was still evident on film. The defense will certainly have to be aware of his location on every snap due to that big play ability.

In fact, if I were the Patriots, I'd consider using a defensive back to matchup with Kamara when he's in the game. They traditionally cover opposing backs with their linebackers, but top option Kyle Van Noy will be at a major quickness disadvantage if asked to mirror routes with this guy. Perhaps this could be a game where Duron Harmon plays more single high safety, freeing Devin McCourty to take on more tight end coverage and likewise freeing Chung to take Kamara. Perhaps the "Jordan Richards as a linebacker" experiment gets another test drive, with the former safety getting a chance to prove his worth as a coverage player in the box.

Ingram isn't quite the matchup nightmare Kamara presents; he's not quite as explosive and not as diverse of a route runner. However, Ingram combination of power and speed makes him mighty dangerous once he gets the ball in the open field, which happens quite a bit on screens and check downs to the flat. While I'd expect Kamara to receive more defensive attention, they certainly cannot ignore Ingram as a pass catcher.

Despite all this talent in the backfield, the Saints managed 2.9 yards and a cloud of dust per carry against the Vikings. Some of that comes with the territory of playing the Vikings, who are expected to have one of the league's toughest defenses, but alot of that also stemmed from below average offensive line play. More than anything else, the play up front seemed to stymie the Saints offense in critical situations on Monday, as they rarely got push in the running game and had some untimely breakdowns in pass protection. That wasn't for a lack of trying, however, as the Saints do have power football schemes in their playbook and two backs (Peterson and Ingram) capable of moving the pile inside. That could mean more time for David Harris and Elandon Roberts, both of whom are far better playing downhill against the run than backpedaling in coverage.

As I hinted at earlier, health issues are severely testing their depth at offensive tackle. With Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead injured, first round rookie Ryan Ramczyk (#71) will get his second career start as Brees' blindside protector. There were a few rough moments here for the and there for the rookie, who wound up being the Saints return in the Brandin Cooks trade, but Ramczyk handled himself alright in his debut considering he spent most of his snaps against Vikings star Everson Griffen. He'll get tested this week by Trey Flowers, who surely saw how Griffen set him up with a spin move for an easy sack on the film.

On the right side, Zach Strief was expected to bring some continuity and leadership to the line, but the 12 year vet went down with an MCL sprain Monday night and will not be out there this Sunday. The Saints replaced him on Monday with veteran Senio Kelemete (#65), who was listed on the depth chart as a backup guard. Kelemete predictably had his struggles against the uber athletic Danielle Hunter in pass protection. As a guy used to playing on the interior, the Patriots should attack him when they can with speed on the edge. Derek Rivers would have been that guy if healthy, but Harvey Langi could get some pass rushing snaps in subpackages if he's active.

The interior of the Saints line has plenty of name recognition, but they got pushed around by the Vikings. Former Seahawks star Max Unger (#60) anchors the line at center. A veteran who has seen and done it all during his nine year career, Unger brings plus athleticism to the position which helps him in a Saints blocking scheme that, much like the Patriots, asks a lot movement-wise from it's interior guys. At 6'4 and just about 300 pounds, Unger is undersized, but he excels at picking off linebackers at the second level, getting out in front on screens and making reach blocks in the zone stretch runs the Saints like to use.

Peat is converting inside to guard after getting drafted as a left tackle
Like Unger, left guard Andrus Peat (#75) brings plus athleticism but below average bulk to the interior. Just two seasons removed from being the 13th overall pick in the draft, Peat was widely considered to be the best left tackle prospect in his draft class due to his athleticism. However, after two difficult seasons on the outside, the Saints have moved him to guard full time in his third season. Unfortunately for Peat, his struggles with power have followed him inside, as he was blown up time and time again Monday night by the Vikings bullies up front. His counterpart on the right side, Larry Warford (#67), is the closest the Saints have to a road grader up front. The 6'3", 330 pound Warford was a highly touted free agent signing this offseason following four productive years with the Lions.

The Patriots are, at least on paper, well equipped to battle this undersized Saints line, but they'll need their interior guys to play much better than they did last week. With Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy, the Pats have three massive guys to throw at the smaller Saints interior. With the Pats likely to use plenty of defensive resources in coverage, those guys will need to win the line of scrimmage and bottle up the Saints running game. They'll especially need a bounce back game from Branch, who was the teams best interior defender last season but played an uncharacteristically poor game last week against the Chiefs. When he's at his best, he absolutely mauls lighter blockers like Unger and Peat. They'll need that version of Branch this week, as the Saints will likely try to establish the run early on.

If the Saints can establish that running game, it will just open up play action and make Brees that much more dangerous. The future Hall of Famer remains as good as ever in his 17th season, with his mere presence on the field making this and every game winnable for the Saints. Facing Brees will require a far better execution and communication in coverage than the Pats showed against the Chiefs, as the veteran gunslinger will quickly find and exploit whatever mismatches or breakdowns his opponent presents to him. Despite breakdowns in pass protection and having no running game to speak of, Brees still moved the ball plenty against the Vikings. It was the red zone that killed the Saints, as they settled for four field goals in four trips to the red zone before finally converting with a too little too late touchdown to Fleener. Their inability to run the ball really cost them in those situations, as they wasted down after down trying to pound the ball inside with nothing to show from it.

Unlike last week, when the Pats game plan was designed to keep Alex Smith in the pocket, we could see more pressure this week, as allowing Brees a clean pocket to work with is football suicide. Still the Patriots will be careful and are unlikely to send many outright blitzes, especially against a team that uses screen passes as much as New Orleans does. It will be up to young players like Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler, both of whom flashed in limited playing time last week, to step up and give Flowers some help in the pass rush, as Flowers nearly had as many pressures last week as the rest of the team. Langi could also factor into that mix if active (he missed last week with a concussion, but has since been cleared), as could trade acquisition Cassius Marsh. While the Pats won't send more than four often, look for them to use twist games to create mismatches with their four guys up front. They'll also likely attack the relative inexperience of Ramczyk and Peat with some disguises regarding which players are rushing and which are dropping into coverage.

Saints defense vs Patriots offense

An encouraging preseason elicited some hope amongst Saints fans that the perennially awful Saints defense might be improved this season. However, the immortal Sam Bradford shredded that hope to pieces on Monday night. As David Byrne would say: "same as it ever was".

The Saints have made visible efforts to improve the defense, but it will simply take time. You'll be hard pressed to find a defense in the league with as much youth and inexperience as the unit the Saints will put out this Sunday. Plenty of these young defenders have obvious talent, but it takes time for any young player to translate that talent into consistent results, and that process just becomes more difficult when said young player is relying on fellow "yutes" rather than steady veterans to make that transition easier.

Jordan is simply a monster on the defensive line
The one spot on the Saints defense stoked with veteran talent is the edge. That's where the Saints lone defensive star, Cameron Jordan (#94), resides. Jordan has quietly turned into an every-down stud despite the dearth of talent around him in New Orleans. While not a traditional speed rusher around the edge, Jordan's power makes him a handful both against the run and pass. He was his typical disruptive self on Monday, victimizing right tackle Mike Remmers repeatedly, and will be another stiff test for Marcus Cannon, who gets no break after seeing Justin Houston last week.

Jordan is bookended by veteran free agent signing Alex Okafor (#57). A talented former role player in Arizona, Okafor started and played the vast majority of the snaps Monday. While he didn't make any splash plays, it was a solid debut for the former Cardinal, who earned the 27th highest grade for an edge defender in the league. While not a dynamic threat, Okafor has some pass rush ability, as evidenced by the 8 sack season he put up in 2014 for the Cardinals. He'll spend the bulk of his time against Nate Solder, who was alright but showed rust at times in his debut last week. Third year man Hau'oli Kikaha (#44) was also sprinkled into the rotation as a pass rushing specialist, but he did little of note in his 16 snaps. Kikaha racked up sacks as a collegiate star, but the former second pick missed last season with a torn ACL, marking the third time he's suffered that injury in his pro and college career.

The interior of the Saints defense, long a major weakness, actually held up fairly well on Monday night. While Dalvin Cook wound up with an impressive rushing statline for the Vikes, most of his damage came on outside runs, with the interior of the defense largely holding its ground. The Saints are counting on big things from second year man Sheldon Rankins (#98), the 13th overall pick from last year's draft. Rankins was highly touted as an interior penetrator coming out of Louisville, but a broken leg and the subsequent recovery process led to a quiet rookie year. He's healthy now and had a nice game on Monday night as the clear leader of the Saints interior rotation. Rankins isn't much of a two gapper, but his game is based on using his hands and explosive first step to shed blockers and get into the backfield. He's the key guy for the Pats to block in the middle of this Saints defense.

The Saints were hoping to pair Rankins with massive space eater Nick Fairley for years to come, but an unexpected heart condition discovered in Fairley has likely ended the former Lions star's career. Instead, it was a rotation of 2015 fifth rounder Tyeler Davison (#95) and 2016 fourth rounder David Onyemata (#93) eating up the snaps alongside Rankins. Both handled themselves well, earning solid marks from ProFootballFocus for their work. In fact, all three members of the rotation rank in the top 15 in run defense grades at their position according to PFF, with Davison currently ranked sixth.

Anzalone brings desperately needed playmaking to the Saints linebackers
The Saints linebackers were more hit and miss against the Vikings, with the bright spot being the play of rookie Alex Anzalone (#47). Health was a far bigger question mark for Anzalone than ability, as he struggled to stay on the field at Florida but excelled whenever out there. The Saints rolled the dice on him in the third round and were rewarded with a stellar debut on Monday, as he was active and physical against the run while excelling in pass coverage. Currently graded as the 9th best linebacker in the league by PFF through week one, he should see more and more snaps as he continues to flash his three down ability.

While Anzalone is clearly the Saints best coverage linebacker, veteran AJ Klein (#53) was the only linebacker to play every snap for the Saints last week. A backup for years behind Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis in Carolina, Klein was signed to bring leadership and smarts to this young Saints defense. Known as an instinctive player, Klein was active downhill against the run, but his lack of top end athleticism was exposed both in coverage and runs around the edge by Minnesota. With three excellent pass catching backs (James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead) and a fourth who excels on outside zone runs (Mike Gillislee), Klein's lack of lateral quickness and speed should be tested early and often by the Pats stable of backs.

Klein was still the preferred option on passing downs over Manti Te'o (#51), the third starting linebacker in base packages who was often subbed out during nickel situations. The former Notre Dame star had a nice day playing downhill against the run, but offers little in passing situations. Expect him to have a minimal role against a Patriots offense that will likely be pass heavy on Sunday.

Speaking of the pass, we've finally reached the reason the Saints got shredded like they did: the secondary. While the youth in their front seven generally overacheived against the Vikes, the young secondary simply got destroyed by Bradford, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. When they played zone, there were consistent breakdowns that Bradford quickly found and exploited. When they played man, there were mismatches all over the place, with no one able to hang with either of the aforementioned receivers.

At corner, the Saints trotted out first round rookie Marshon Lattimore (#23) and 2015 third rounder PJ Williams (#26). De'Vante Harris (#21), an undrafted rookie from last year, played the slot in nickel situations and was picked on mercilessly by Bradford. Harris ended the game with as the 80th ranked corner in the league (out of 83 qualifiers) according to PFF. Brady is notorious for finding a weak coverage player and relentlessly going after him. Harris is an obvious candidate for that treatment this week, regardless of who winds up playing in the slot.

The Saints need Lattimore to develop into a top corner quickly
Of the starters, Lattimore had the best day, highlighted by a nice pass break up in the end zone. While far from dominance, it was encouraging debut for the #11 overall pick, who is looking to build off of an impressive preseason. Williams on the other hand, was more up-and-down. Hailed as a physical press-man corner coming out of Florida State, Williams was active in run support but gave up his share of plays in coverage. With Lattimore being the superior athlete and pure cover corner, I'd expect him to see more of Brandin Cooks, with Williams' physicality making him a better match for Chris Hogan. Brady will like his chances with either of those matchups.

The Saints problems in coverage were exacerbated by youth and inexperience at the safety position. Starting a rookie (second round pick Marcus Williams, #43) at the important free safety position is always risky, but that risk is magnified playing against a quarterback maestro like Brady. Williams will likely be tasked with giving Lattimore help against Cooks, who is always a threat to take the top off the defense. If Brady can either manipulate the young Williams with his eyes or suck him inside with a play fake, opportunities should be there for either Cooks or Hogan to make big plays downfield. Philip Dorsett, seemingly thrust into a legitimate offensive role due to Danny Amendola's injury, could also get his chances to make some big plays against the Saints suspect coverage.

The Saints were hoping that fifth year man Kenny Vaccaro (#32) would be one of their top defenders this year, but missed tackles and busted coverages showed up throughout the former first rounder's tape against Minnesota. More of a "in the box" strong safety type, Vaccaro is active and aggressive in run support, but his lack of size and fundamentals showed up with several glaring missed tackles. He's another guy that could be victimized by play action, especially if the Patriots show New Orleans plenty of run looks early. Vaccaro also struggled in coverage, as he was late to pick up Kyle Rudolph on the big tight ends touchdown while also earning a personal foul penalty with a stupid, undisciplined high hit on Diggs. People have been asking what was wrong with Gronk after the Pats All World tight end was largely stymied by All Pro Eric Berry in Week One. My guess is the answer to that question will be quickly proven to be "nothing" after an afternoon of Vaccaro trying to stick with Gronk in coverage.

Vaccaro and Williams played nearly all of the snaps on Monday, as the Saints stuck with a three corner, two safety nickel package. That left Vonn Bell (#48), a 13 game starter last year as a second round rookie, on the bench for all but six snaps. It will be interesting to see if the Saints continue with that approach, as Bell's range in coverage could be an asset against this speedy Patriots offense. Perhaps the Saints will switch to more three safety nickel looks if Harris continues to get victimized in coverage? That would make sense, as the Patriots figure to play more two tight end and multiple running back sets with only three healthy receivers available.

The Pats are notoriously hard to predict gameplan-wise, but here's a shot in the dark: plenty of two tight end sets early, with an emphasis on showing the running game. Power runs up the middle didn't look like a strong suit of the Pats against the Chiefs, and I wouldn't expect them to pit that weakness against the surprisingly decent Saints interior defense. However, the Saints did look vulnerable to perimeter runs against Dalvin Cook and the Vikings, plays which happened to be an offseason emphasis of this Patriots ground attack. Those run looks should open up play action opportunities as the game goes on, which should lead to big plays for a Patriots passing attack that still boasts plenty of explosive weapons with tasty individual matchups. Combine that with a pissed-off "lazer focused" Tom Brady, and this side of the ball has the potential to get real ugly.

Special teams

Noted punting enthusiast Bill Belichick lavished praise on Saints punter Thomas Morstead, who has long been one of the best in the business. Morstead's ability to pin opponents deep only highlights the Patriots issues at punt returner, where it's currently unclear who will be out there on Sunday (Patrick Chung?). Whoever is back there for the Pats will likely have a sore arm by the game's end from calling for fair catches.

In the return game, Ginn and Kamara give the Saints a pair of dangerous big play threats. Ginn has long been one of the most dangerous punt returners in the league, with four career touchdown returns to his name. While he's coming off of a relatively down year in that department, Ryan Allen will still emphasize directional punting to limit his opportunities to hurt the Pats with a big play and field position swing. Kamara is unproven at the NFL level as a kick returner, but his explosion in the open field is obvious. It's looking like the Pats will be without special teams captain Matt Slater again, but the expected return of Nate Ebner should give the coverage teams a boost. Langi's expected return could impact this area as well, as he flashed on the coverage teams in the preseason.

Kicker Wil Lutz was tested far more often than he should've thanks to the Saints red zone breakdowns, but he made every kick. The second year man had a nice rookie season last year, proving to be nearly automatic within 50 yards, and picked off where he left off with a solid showing.

Ned Brady 9/15/2017 04:20:00 PM Edit
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