NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Coming off of a discouraging 13-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which the Patriots struggled to produce anything on offense, the team faces an even more difficult challenge this afternoon, hosting the undefeated New Orleans Saints, who rank among the league’s top ten teams in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Read on for ten keys to a matchup which should serve as an early litmus test for two championship hopefuls.
1. Which players currently listed as questionable will be at New England’s disposal?
Last week, it appeared likely that tight end Rob Gronkowski would finally make his return to the field, but recent reports from ESPN’s Ed Werder indicate that New England remains concerned about the stability of his forearm, and that he is expected to miss this week’s contest. However, running back Stevan Ridley, who missed last week’s contest with a knee/thigh injury, is expected to play this week, according to NFL Network’s Albert Breer.
The other players currently listed as questionable include running back Brandon Bolden (knee), wide receivers Danny Amendola (groin) and Matthew Slater (wrist), center Ryan Wendell (concussion), and defensive back Tavon Wilson (hamstring.) All of the aforementioned players have practiced throughout the week in a limited capacity, although Slater and Wilson both missed last week’s contest and it may be somewhat premature to expect them back on the field. Bolden and Amendola, though, both played last week and, barring a reaggravation of either player’s injury, both should be on the field again this afternoon. The wild card is Wendell, whose absence would likely lead to Dan Connolly sliding inside and Marcus Cannon making the start at right guard.
Given Wendell’s weak play thus far in 2013 and the size of New Orleans’ defensive line, it may make some sense to get Cannon, a significantly bigger lineman, onto the field, while adopting a more conservative approach to Wendell’s injury. Some see Cannon as a future starter along the offensive line, something Patriots head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged as a possibility this past offseason, so this may be viewed as a convenient opportunity to see how he has developed. However, Wendell was the league leader in playing time last season, appearing in a total of 1,379 snaps between offense and special teams, so based on his prior durability, expect him to play.
2. How can the Patriots limit Drew Brees’ production and create turnovers?
Through five games this season, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for a staggering 1,722 yards, putting him on pace for the fourth 5,000-yard season of his career. Additionally, Brees looks to have benefited from Sean Payton’s return to the team, with his completion percentage up 6.6% from 2012 and his yards per attempt figure increasing from 7.73 to 8.57, which would rank as the highest mark of his career. In every game but last week’s contest against the Bears, Brees has thrown for over 300 yards, meaning that the Patriots’ secondary will have to be significantly more successful than previous opponents were in limiting Brees’ impact, especially given the anemic state of New England’s own offense.
While Brees is an effective passer to all levels of the field, he really excels on deep throws, having completed 10/26 attempts thus far for 378 yards and five touchdowns, being intercepted on just one occasion. On intermediate throws, Brees is averaging 13.1 yards per attempt, favoring routes over the middle (with 29/45 intermediate attempts having been thrown between the hashes.) Therefore, it may benefit the Patriots to drop plenty of defenders into coverage, with safeties in high coverage and defenders flooding the middle of the field, consequently forcing Brees to drive downfield via the short passing game, with his chances downfield coming on throws down the sidelines.
Without pressure, Brees is completing a surgical 76.5% of his passes, but his completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown/interception ratio are all higher against the blitz than against four or fewer rushers, so the Patriots’ defensive line will need to win individual battles in order to create that pressure. Additionally, expect a defensive gameplan which forces Brees to target the team’s less-utilized receiving options.
3. Will Aqib Talib be responsible for shadowing top receiver Marques Colston?
New England’s best defensive player this season has been left cornerback Aqib Talib, who rebounded from an underwhelming, injury-plagued 2012 campaign in order to become one of the top man coverage options in the league this year. Talib has been targeted 28 times on the season, surrendering just eleven completions (39.3%) for 159 yards and one touchdown, intercepting four passes and getting his hands on four more. Over the past two weeks of the season, he’s been matched up against two of the league’s finest wide receivers in Julio Jones and A.J. Green, holding Jones without a catch on seven targets and preventing Green from becoming a major factor last week, allowing five receptions on eight targets for a total of just 60 yards.
Given his previous success as well as the complexion of New Orleans’ receiving corps, it makes sense for Talib to shadow number one receiver Marques Colston this week, as Drew Brees has targeted him on 31 throws so far this year, well above the second-highest wide receiver figure (rookie Kenny Stills, with sixteen.) On the 31 throws previously mentioned, Colston has caught an impressive 74.2%, doing the vast majority of his work over the middle, with passes in that area representing 67.7% of his targets and 73.9% of his catches. In order to create those opportunities, the Saints move Colston around in the formation, with him lining up in the slot on occasion despite his impressive 6’4”, 225-pound build.
Even if the Patriots view Colston as a lesser threat than Jones and Green, the fact remains that New Orleans has had significantly more success on throws targeting Colston than their other receivers, and consequently do so more often. Additionally, no other Patriots cornerbacks have the size to prevent Colston from winning jump balls. Colston was targeted only once with Talib in coverage in week six of the 2011 season, gaining eight yards, and turned in a 2/2 performance for 15 yards on throws in Talib’s direction during week nine of the same season. Surprisingly, that’s the best performance he’s ever had against Talib. The Saints like to scheme Colston open, but assigning Talib to cover him one-on-one for the game would be a wise idea.
4. How can tight end Jimmy Graham be prevented from taking over the game?
With tight end Rob Gronkowski now appearing unlikely to return this week, only one elite tight end will take the field this afternoon: fourth-year player Jimmy Graham, a 6’7”, 265-pound force with incredible athleticism, who caught 184 passes over the past two seasons but is set to eclipse his previous production this season, with a 37-593-6 line which puts him on pace for a staggering 118-1,898-19 year. Graham is at his best when working the middle of the field, whether on seam routes, posts, or otherwise, although he has also had success on the outside this year, catching four of his six touchdowns on sideline throws.
Given New England’s inability to defend tight ends this season or last, and given Marques Colston’s difficult matchup, New Orleans will surely emphasize Graham above all their other options, as they have to this point. The Patriots have assigned Dont’a Hightower to cover tight ends with much greater frequency than last year, although Hightower has allowed catches on 18/22 attempts, in the process highlighting the need for a different approach.
Bill Belichick’s defensive philosophy includes the belief that an opponent’s top option should be eliminated from the game, and in order to do so this week, it will be necessary to allocate multiple defenders to Graham, as he represents a mismatch against any individual player on New England’s roster. After being unable to stop Tony Gonzalez for much of their victory at Atlanta two weeks ago, the Patriots simultaneously employed two defenders in press coverage against him, preventing Gonzalez from being able to release and forcing Matt Ryan to target a hobbled Roddy White; although admittedly an unorthodox approach, it would be beneficial to do the same thing again this week, as the Saints have a rather sparse arsenal of auxiliary options. Double-or-triple-covering Graham all game will undoubtedly create opportunities for other receivers, but allowing Graham to run free is courting defeat.
5. Can New Orleans’ ground game capitalize on a diluted defensive line?
Two weeks ago, star nose tackle Vince Wilfork was lost for the season after tearing his right Achilles, and the subsequent lineup New England fielded against Cincinnati last week allowed the Bengals to rush 39 times for 162 yards, with rookie Giovani Bernard’s 28-yard run helping seal a victory. To compound matters, fellow starter Tommy Kelly was forced from that contest with a knee injury and has since been ruled out for this week, meaning that New England will be forced to start two rookie defensive tackles, Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, a pair of players who have to this point failed to defend the run at an acceptable level.
Unfortunately, the Patriots won’t be able to replace either with an internal option, as the only other defensive tackle on roster is Marcus Forston, who was recently promoted from the team’s practice squad. That means that New Orleans’ two-pronged rotation of Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles may finally see some success this season.
The Saints are averaging just 77.8 yards per game, with an average of 3.1 yards per attempt, a figure which does not reflect the significant financial investments they’ve made along the interior offensive line in recent years, with right guard Jahri Evans signing a seven-year, $56.7 million deal featuring a $12 million signing bonus back in 2010 and New Orleans luring left guard Ben Grubbs away from the Ravens in March 2012 via a five-year, $36 million pact which features $15.9 million in guarantees. On twenty-four rushes behind Grubbs and Evans, the Saints have gained only 82 yards. However, those players should be able to rebound against what will likely be the weakest group of defensive tackles they will play all season.
6. Will New England be able to defend running backs used as receiving options?
Despite their lack of success rushing the ball this year, Thomas and Sproles have been effective receivers out of the backfield, catching 54/61 targets for 474 yards and three touchdowns, meaning their contributions won’t be limited to one area of the offense. This season, the Patriots have allowed opposing running backs to accumulate plenty of catches out of the backfield at times, the two most notable examples being Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller coming for nine catches and 55 yards in the season opener and Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers catching six passes for 56 yards.
However, that success hasn’t been ubiquitous, as running backs who typically double as effective receivers, such as Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin and New York’s Bilal Powell, didn’t have significant impacts in the passing game, their eleven combined targets resulting in only four catches. Because the Patriots are likely to devote significant resources to limiting Jimmy Graham, and because Marques Colston may not be particularly effective against Aqib Talib, it’s possible that New Orleans’ best chance of moving the ball down the field will come via the short passing game, where the Patriots may not have enough personnel to eliminate screens and swing passes.
The sight of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, or Dont’a Hightower trailing a running back is more familiar than it should be, so look for Sproles and Thomas to receive plenty of touches this week even if they are somehow contained on the ground.
7. What does defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have in store for Tom Brady?
The last time quarterback Tom Brady played against a Rob Ryan defense, the Patriots narrowly escaped from Dallas with a 20-16 victory over the Cowboys in which Brady threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns, completing 65.9% of his passes, but was also intercepted twice and sustained three sacks, relying on a last-minute touchdown drive to escape victorious despite a sputtering offense. However, Brady and the Patriots were not so lucky in 2010, when Ryan masterminded a defensive gameplan which crippled New England’s offense and helped the Cleveland Browns steamroll the Patriots in an unexpected 34-14 blowout, with Brady completing only 52.8% of his passes.
This season, Ryan, who coached New England’s linebackers from 2000-2003, is enjoying a career renaissance after coordinating a disappointing Cowboys defense in 2012. Part of the reason for Ryan’s success is his ability to disguise his intentions via plenty of pre-snap movement, alternating between heavy blitzes and seven-or-eight-man coverages. Last week, the Saints substituted their fourth linebacker for nickel back Rafael Bush, technically a free safety, but presented as four-man fronts on a number of occasions as well. Look for Ryan to draw up plenty of unique looks this week, as Brady is among the best quarterbacks in the league in terms of deciphering defenses.
On New England’s end, the highest priority will be accurately assessing which players will be rushing on any given play and making the necessary adjustments to protect Brady. It may benefit the Patriots to run plenty of no-huddle, as doing so limits the range of looks New Orleans’ defense will present and can lock in favorable matchups. However, the no-huddle approach favored by New England over the past few years has been curtailed this season based on the overall ineffectiveness of the offense, presumably in order to buy the defense some additional rest.
8. Will New England’s wide receivers be able to capitalize on a battered secondary?
While New England’s injury woes are currently bordering on comical, the New Orleans Saints have been hobbled as well, particularly in the secondary, where strong safety Roman Harper has been ruled out once again because of the knee injury he sustained in week two; additionally, New Orleans may be without the services of free safety Malcolm Jenkins (neck) and left cornerback Keenan Lewis (knee), both of whom were limited this week and are currently listed as questionable on the Saints’ injury report. Both Jenkins and Lewis have appeared in every game this season, so expect them on the field again this week, although it remains to be seen if they are as effective as usual.
The secondary will be rounded out by right cornerback Jabari Greer, rookie strong safety Kenny Vaccaro, and slot cornerback Chris Carr, whose playing time has been limited this season. The Saints have been moving around their cornerbacks rather than limiting Lewis and Greer to sides of the field, so it’s possible that Greer could be assigned to cover Danny Amendola, while Lewis handles either Kenbrell Thompkins or Aaron Dobson. At safety, look for Jenkins to be utilized in some single-high looks, while Vaccaro lines up in the box. This approach has served New Orleans well so far this season, as they are currently ranked twelfth in the league against the pass.
The Patriots may not be able to throw in Lewis’ direction too often should be play, as the team’s top cover man has allowed just 101 passing yards this season on twenty-one attempts, eleven of which have been completed. It may be easier to target Greer, who has allowed 65.4% passing on twenty-six attempts, being victimized last week by Chicago’s stable of receiving options to the tune of 8/9 passing, 128 yards, and one touchdown. It may be beneficial for New England to force New Orleans into sub packages more often than they’d like, as the likes of Rafael Bush, Chris Carr, and Corey White provide more opportunities for favorable matchups.
9. Who will win the battle of 2011 first-round picks, Nate Solder or Cameron Jordan?
After finishing the 2010 season with an underwhelming assortment of defensive linemen complementing standout Vince Wilfork (those players being Gerard Warren, Mike Wright, Ron Brace, Myron Pryor, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, and Landon Cohen), a substantial portion of the pre-draft speculation concerning the New England Patriots’ draft intentions revolved around the possibility of adding a five-technique defensive end to help solidify the defensive line.
Alabama’s Marcell Dareus and Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt were projected to be off the board by that point, but there was nonetheless quite an array of highly-regarded players considered to be in play for the Patriots, including Illinois’ Corey Liuget, Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, and, perhaps most frequently projected of all, California’s Cameron Jordan, who had played in a three-man front in college. However, New England ended up targeting the offensive side of the ball instead, selecting Colorado’s Nate Solder with the seventeenth overall pick to succeed Matt Light at left tackle, with Jordan eventually being drafted twenty-fourth overall by the Saints.
It’s impossible to fault New England for drafting Solder, as he has developed into one of the league’s top left tackles, but New Orleans hit as well with Jordan, who is now considered among the best five-techniques in the league, emerging as a terrific run defender in 2012 and dramatically improving his pass-rushing efficiency this season under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Through five games, he has recorded four sacks, five quarterback hits, and nineteen pressures, providing Solder with another challenging matchup. If Solder proves up to the task, it’s possible that Jordan will slide to left end, the position he played in week two, with 2012 third-round pick Akiem Hicks shifting to the right side.
10. Can New England’s interior offensive line move John Jenkins to establish the run?
After sustaining a calf injury just seven snaps into the season opener versus Atlanta, Saints starting nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley missed the team’s next four contests but is currently listed as questionable this week after practicing on a limited basis. Regardless of whether or not Bunkley returns, however, the Patriots could nevertheless have some problems rushing up the middle against New Orleans’ defense, which currently boasts 6’3”, 359-pound rookie John Jenkins, a third-round pick, occupying the zero-technique.
On paper, this would appear to favor the Saints, but surprisingly, the Saints rank just twenty-sixth in the league this year in Adjusted Line Yards on rushes up the middle, while New England ranks fifth offensively. As mentioned earlier, the Saints have been running some 3-3-5 defensive fronts in order to get Rafael Bush onto the field and defend the pass more effectively, so it should be possible to double-team Jenkins if needed. Even if New Orleans performs better than they have thus far on inside runs, the Saints aren’t particularly effective defending rushes in any direction, ranking eighteenth in total yards allowed but surrendering the highest yards-per-carry figure in the league, a dreadful average of 5.4 yards per attempt which ranks last in the league.
Therefore, their inefficiency in that regard has been masked by an offense which takes leads and forces opposing teams to pass in order to remain competitive, as only Tampa Bay threw the ball less than 33 times against the Saints. This may be a more favorable matchup for the Patriots than it initially appears, making running back Stevan Ridley a candidate for continued improvement. Should have enjoy some early success, New Orleans may be forced to utilize their base defense more often than they’d like.
Final Prediction: Saints 24, Patriots 17