After opening the year with an impressive 38-3 pummeling of the Green Bay Packers, the New Orleans Saints came crashing to earth in week 2. A listless 26-7 loss at Carolina last week left some to question how good this team really is.
The Saints come into week 3 ranked last in total yardage and last in passing yardage. It’s only been two been two games, but those are unprecedented statistics in Sean Payton's 15-year tenure as the team's head coach.
New Orleans now travels to face the 1-1 New England Patriots. The Patriots are coming off their first losing season (7-9) since 2000, Bill Belichick's second year as the team's coach.
New England enters the game with the league's fifth ranked defense in total yardage and second in points allowed.
The Saints had their worst offensive output with Payton at the helm last week, managing just 128 total yards and six first downs while turning the ball over twice. Most concerning is the passing game.
Quarterback Jameis Winston makes his third start in place of the retired Drew Brees, but was roughed up by the Panthers last week.
A combination of awful pass blocking, zero separation from the receivers (once again), and poor decisions by Winston led to the worst passing production ever by a Sean Payton team.
Will New Orleans turn it around against a well-coached Bill Belichick Patriots defense?
SAINTS PASSING GAME VS. PATRIOTS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans Passing Attack
Winston has completed 59.5% of his passes for 259 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions so far. After a sparkling 5-touchdown debut against Green Bay, he was pressured into 2 interceptions and a 50% completion percentage by Carolina.
No one has ever doubted the passing talents of the 27-year-old quarterback. His decisions and penchant for turnovers have frequently come under fire, especially in crucial moments.
Winston also doesn't have a full arsenal of weapons. All-Pro WR Michael Thomas will miss at least three more games while recovering from ankle surgery. Pro Bowl RB Alvin Kamara has yet to have a breakout game as a receiver. Kamara leads the team with 7 catches, but for only 33 yards.
The team's other pass catchers haven't gotten the separation to give their quarterback a consistently reliable target.
Second-year WR Marquez Callaway has only three catches for 22 yards after an outstanding training camp. Deonte Harris also has three receptions, but for a team-high 81 yards.
Harris and Callaway are the team's best available receivers, but haven't been productive against the opposition's top cornerbacks without Thomas. Veteran WR Kenny Stills could add a big play threat to the offense if activated from the practice squad.
Veteran wideouts Ty Montgomery, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, and Chris Hogan are intermediate targets that have just five receptions between them.
The team's tight ends have been nearly as ineffective as the wideouts. Converted wideout Juwan Johnson has 4 receptions for 44 yards, two scores, and a strong rapport with Winston. Johnson may see even more playing time in the coming weeks, but is best effective as a matchup weapon.
Second-year TE Adam Trautman has had a lousy start to his sophomore season. Trautman has whiffed on several blocks, dropped easy throws, and hasn't been able to get open against any coverages. He has 3 catches for 18 yards so far.
Winston was given superb protection in the season opener, but his pass pocket crumbled against the Panthers. He was pressured an eye-popping 19 times, sacked four times, and hit as he threw in several attempts.
Starting C Erik McCoy missed the Carolina game because of a calf injury that also has him doubtful for this week.
McCoy, along with Winston, is responsible for blocking audibles. Miscommunication up front created protection issues against the Panthers, but the New Orleans offensive linemen also consistently lost their individual battles.
Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead, normally the best duo in the NFL, had uncharacteristic breakdowns along the edge. Cesar Ruiz, the normal right guard, took McCoy's place at center. He and LG Andrus Peat looked absolutely helpless in pass protection on the inside.
New England Pass Defense
After two games, the Patriots sixth-ranked pass defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete only 58% of their throws for 369 yards.
New England has surrendered only one touchdown pass this season while intercepting an NFL-high five throws.
The Patriots have six sacks so far, including 4 takedowns and 9 QB pressures in a week 2 victory over the Jets. Second-year DE/LB Josh Uche leads the defense with three sacks. Offseason free-agent acquisition Matt Judon was brought in to further upgrade a pass rush that had 37 sacks last season.
DE Chase Winovich led the Pats with 5.5 sacks last season and is part of an underrated rotation of edge rushers that include Henry Anderson and. Rookie second-round choice DT Christian Barmore was added to give New England more interior pressure along with tackles Carl Davis and Davon Godchaux.
Versatile OLB Kyle Van Noy and MLB Dont'a Hightower returned to New England after a year away from the team. Hightower and Van Noy are the Patriots best coverage linebackers and highly effective blitzers.
With Pro Bowl CB Stephon Gilmore on the P.U.P. list, cornerback J.C. Jackson has emerged as the team's top cornerback.
Jackson was second in the NFL with 9 interceptions in 2020, has 2 picks already this season, and has allowed 56% completion percentage when targeted with 19 interceptions over his four-year career.
Veteran CB/S Jalen Mills takes Gilmore's spot at the other corner. Mills is a solid off-ball defender who’s allowed 57% completion percentage when targeted in two games. Jonathan Jones rounds out a thin cornerback unit.
Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, and Adrian Phillips make up a playmaking trio of safeties that are very involved in man coverage roles. Their versatility allows the Patriots to employ several exotic coverage packages.
What to Watch
Belichick and defensive assistant Matt Patricia are masters at taking away an opponent's top offensive threat and exposing their biggest weaknesses.
The Saints were missing five offensive assistants last week, crippling in game adjustments. Sean Payton and his offensive staff must be prepared for a game-long chess match.
Carolina repeatedly overloaded tackles Ramczyk and Armstead with pass rushers on the outside while bringing a free inside blitzer last Sunday. It seems certain that New England will attack the Saints this way until they show they can stop it.
New Orleans needs to get Alvin Kamara much more involved as a receiver. Hightower and Van Noy are smart in coverage, but Kamara has a huge athletic advantage in space. His receiving skills, along with the Saints ability to run the ball, will slow the Patriots pass rush and allow New Orleans to control the line of scrimmage.
While pass protection is of utmost importance, QB Jameis Winston must also make smart decisions with the football. Belichick will give the Saints several different looks during the game in an effort to force Winston into mistakes.
Winston's underwhelming receiving corps, especially Callaway and Harris, must also make plays for any offensive success. J.C. Jackson and Devin McCourty are among the league's best at their positions, but overall the Patriots secondary isn't as talented as either the Packers or the Panthers.