NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Despite a run of injuries and a flat second half in which the New Orleans Saints seemingly had the game firmly in grasp, the New England Patriots have improved to 5-1 on the season following a series of defensive stops and a dramatic last-minute touchdown drive by Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. Read on for five observations from this week’s unexpected victory.
1. Stevan Ridley assembles his most impressive performance of the year
After landing in the coaching staff’s doghouse following a week one fumble and missing last week with a knee injury, Stevan Ridley reclaimed his role as the team’s top rushing option, breaking an eighteen-yard run late in the first quarter and eventually scoring the team’s first touchdown of the day to conclude the same drive. Ridley caught a fourteen-yard pass to convert a second-and-fourteen situation on the following drive, then scored from four yards out to earn his second score of the day. The first seven touches of the team’s other two backs, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden, gained a total of thirteen yards, while Ridley’s eight touches to that point had netted the team 49 yards and the two aforementioned touchdowns. Bolden had success on his next rushing attempt, but limped off the field one carry later, sending Ridley back onto the field.
With the second quarter winding down, Ridley exploded through a massive hole and stiff-armed a pair of defenders en route to a nineteen-yard gain. Thankfully, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels scaled down the touches allocated to Blount and Bolden for most of the game’s remainder, with Ridley finishing well ahead of the other two backs in touches, tallying twenty-one combined rushes and receptions to seven each by Bolden and Blount. Look for Ridley’s larger workload to continue for as long as he’s able to maintain this week’s level of play.
2. Patriots secondary shuts down Jimmy Graham, but Talib leaves early
Considered an especially problematic player to defend heading into the game, tight end Jimmy Graham’s contributions were nonexistent in the early going, with the Patriots covering him with cornerback Aqib Talib on his first three targets, and Talib receiving some additional help from the rest of the secondary on the second throw, as well as from middle linebacker Brandon Spikes on the third. All three passes were incomplete, with the second forcing a Saints punt at the beginning of the second quarter. Drew Brees looked Graham’s way late in the fourth quarter after drawing coverage from Kyle Arrington, but New England’s slot cornerback defended the route beautifully and almost came away with an interception, forcing another incomplete pass on a throw in Graham’s direction.
In the third quarter, things took a turn for the worse when cornerback Aqib Talib left the game with a hamstring injury, appearing extremely frustrated on the sideline; at that point, responsibility for Graham fell to a rotation consisting of free safety Devin McCourty and cornerback Kyle Arrington, who intercepted an overthrown pass in Graham’s direction with just over twelve minutes left, putting the Patriots in New Orleans’ red zone with a narrow lead. Arrington was able to get his hand on the football and separate Graham from making what would have been a 33-yard reception or so late in the fourth quarter, a clutch play which forced a second-and-twenty situation.
3. Saints get everything they could have hoped for out of the backfield
Defending screen passes to running backs was considered a troublesome aspect of playing the Saints, and the impact of New Orleans’ receiving options out of the backfield became apparent in the first quarter when a Drew Brees screen pass to Pierre Thomas took the Saints into Patriots territory via a 29-yard gain, with New Orleans later moving to the New England seven-yard line via a nine-yard pass to Darren Sproles on third-down. The drive culminated in a touchdown by running back Travaris Cadet, who ran a whip route and dove into the end zone to give New Orleans a 7-3 lead. On a drive in which the Saints’ top options, Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, were held without a catch, the team’s ability to find running backs in key situations highlighted one of the unfortunately side-effects of removing Graham and Colston from the game.
Sproles caught a first-down pass on a slant route out of the left slot and was almost found by Brees what would have been a long touchdown on a wheel route down the left sideline. Sproles caught a nineteen-yard pass during New Orleans’ first drive of the second half. To make matters worse, in addition to all of the receiving success the Saints had out of the backfield, their running game was extremely effective in the second half, allowing them to move down the field consistently despite the surprising ineffectiveness of their passing game. All told, the team’s rushing options finished with 131 yards and a touchdown on the ground, adding nine catches for 93 yards and a touchdown through the air.
4. Dobson, Thompkins both make important (if uneven) contributions
After dropping Tom Brady’s first throw of the game, Aaron Dobson made up for it on the same drive, catching a nine-yard pass to convert a first down on a drive which concluded with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Later in the first quarter, Brady found Dobson down the right sideline for a 20-yard gain, then targeted him two throws later for a 19-yard gain on an impressive contested catch versus Saints right cornerback Jabari Greer, moving New England into the red zone and giving the rookie second-round pick a total of 48 yards over his three first-quarter receptions. On the same drive, Dobson caught a nine-yard pass on second down, then drew a pass interference call against left cornerback Keenan Lewis when Brady targeted Dobson on a fade route into the end zone. A quick snap gave Dobson another reception on the one-yard line, but he was tackled before making it into the end zone. Despite not scoring on the play, Dobson’s catches helped keep the Patriots moving downfield on a drive which ended in a one-yard touchdown run by Stevan Ridley
Dobson’s contributions fell off dramatically in the second half, however, and culminated in a dropped pass on fourth-and-sixth with less than three minutes remaining, crippling New England’s chances of winning the game by giving the Saints possession deep in Patriots territory with a lead. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see him making some real progress, which was complemented by fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins’ efficient game, which included impressive footwork on the game-winning touchdown and a 3/6, 45-yard line. The Patriots need these two to continue playing as well as they did this week, especially given the possibility of Danny Amendola missing additional time with what appeared to be a concussion.
5. Patriots offensive line run-blocks effectively, has some protection issues
While New England was effective running the ball, the team struggled in pass protection, failing to account for some of Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s exotic blitzes and occasionally blowing assignments at times. Tom Brady was sacked a season-high five times in tonight’s game, and hit on seven other occasions, with one-and-a-half sacks coming by way of free safety Malcolm Jenkins, continuing a problem which has plagued New England’s protections for the entire season: their ability to block safety blitzes.
To some extent, New Orleans’ ability to create pressure was a function of effective coverage and/or a lack of separation in the passing game, forcing Brady to hold onto the ball longer than desirable at times, but there were enough clear paths to the quarterback to share the blame with the line. New England’s trench players also committed a trio of declined penalties, those being a pair of holding calls against Logan Mankins (although both were declined) and a false start called against Marcus Cannon prior to an extra point; Cannon replaced right guard Dan Connolly midway through the game, who left with a head injury.