While some eyes in New England might be looking ahead, those of the New England Patriots players and coaches are squarely set on the task at hand. With the image of their Week Two victory over the New York Jets having disappeared from sight in the team’s rearview mirror, the Pats have turned their attention to the New Orleans Saints. The teams will meet on Sunday, September 26 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Though New Orleans employs one of the more impressive defensive units in the NFL, the franchise is primarily known for its high-powered offense. Despite the retirement of long-time franchise quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints still have some impressive offensive weapons at their disposal. From standout running back Alvin Kamara to quarterback Jameis Winston, New Orleans is able to light the scoreboard in numerous ways.
It Starts At the Top
Much like their New England counterparts, the Saints’ prowess edgings with coaching. Head coach Sean Payton is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL (behind only Bill Belichick). While Belichick is primarily known for his defensive acumen, Payton is credited with being one of the top offensive minds in the NFL. His ability to utilize his players’ strengths is a trait that is admired among his peers, including Belichick. When speaking to the media on Friday, the Pats head coach was effusive in his praise for Payton’s coaching abilities.
“I think Sean's always done a really good job of using his personnel,” Belichick said. He uses a lot of personnel groups…more personnel groups than any other team in the league. Those combinations, they operate very quickly…and then as soon as that play is over, he's got somebody else in there and a whole other set of personnel, formations, motion, ball snap. So, it's hard to stay ahead of Sean because he operates so quickly with so many variables. Again, he does a good job attacking defenses and matching things up that create problems for your defense.”
For the Patriots, a Sean Payton-offensive attack presents multiple challenges. Fortunately, for New England, they have the defensive personnel to meet such challenges. Through the first two games, the Pats’ pass defense ranks sixth in the league, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete only 58% of their throws for 369 yards, compiling six sacks. The Patriots have also shown improvement when defending the run. Defensive tackles Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, and Carl Davis have demonstrated the ability to clog-up interior rushing lanes. Rookie Christian Barmore has bolstered the interior, providing several key pushes of the pocket. Linebackers Matt Judon and Dont’a Hightower routinely play with great anticipation and have a vast understanding of opposing offenses. Inside linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley has emerged into a physical run-stopper. Bentley leads the team in tackles (13 total, ,11 solo) so far, including two for loss. The new and improved Patriots front seven should help to put the team in a position to win each of their games.
Preventing the Pass
To keep the Patriots defenders at bay, New Orleans will first need to get solid play from their offensive line. With center Erik McCoy having been ruled ‘out’ for Sunday’s game, second-year reserve lineman Cesar Ruiz is likely to get the start in his stead. Ruiz struggled against Carolina in Week Two, often showing hesitation to snap on schedule and having difficulty with blocking defenders in the middle of the line. If the offensive line plays poorly on Sunday, Winston will not have time to find the open man in a receiving corps that currently lacks players with the ability to create separation.
The Patriots defense has held opposing quarterbacks to a 50.1 passer rating this season. They will look to improve upon that statistic against Winston. The 27-year-old is off to a roller-coaster start in 2021. In the Saints’ season-opener against the Green Bay Packers, he threw five touchdown passes in just 20 attempts. However, in Week Two, Winston threw a pair of interceptions, while passing for just 111 yards against Carolina. The Patriots will look to force the Saints into obvious passing situations. Should they do so, they will be able to bring pressure on a suspect offensive line, and perhaps goad Winston into making poor decisions with the ball. The Patriots secondary, led by cornerbacks J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones, as well as safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips are quite adept at taking away the ball.
While Winston can provide some problems for opposing defenses, the Saints offense is primarily paced by running back Alvin Kamara. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a reputation for taking away what a team does best. On Sunday, he will look to do so with Kamara. The 26-year-old has game-breaker potential each time he steps on the field. While he has been off to a slow start this season, he will still present a challenge, and figures to be the focal point of New England's defensive game plan. Kamara has rushed for 88 yards on the season, with 83 of those yards coming in Week One against the Green Bay Packers. The Patriots will look to funnel New Orleans’ run plays to the middle, in hopes of containing Kamara. However, the Patriots linebackers may have trouble defending his dual-threat abilities as both a runner and a receiver. Both Hightower and Kyle Van Noy provide great coverage, but Kamara has a sizable athletic advantage in space. His receiving skills, along with the Saints ability to run the ball with fellow back Tony Jones, Jr., could slow the Patriots pass rush and allow New Orleans to control the line of scrimmage. As a result, it is imperative for the Pats front seven to get off to a fast start and force the Saints into third-and-long situations; in hopes of neutralizing Kamara’s ability to dictate the offensive tempo.