One week after a 38-3 rout of the Green Bay Packers to open the season, the New Orleans Saints clunked their way to a 26-7 road loss to the Carolina Panthers. The 1-1 Saints now travel north to take on the 1-1 New England Patriots.
After rolling up 322 offensive yards against the Packers, the Saints managed a measly 128 total yards against Carolina. New Orleans was without C Erik McCoy for the game and were missing five offensive assistants because of COVID-19 protocols.
Offensive line woes contributed greatly to the team's struggles. The Saints rushed for 171 yards against Green Bay, but only a paltry 48 yards on the ground against the Panthers. They come into this game ranked dead last in the NFL in total offense after the first two weeks.
New Orleans takes on a Patriots defense that ranks fifth in total yardage and has allowed the second fewest points in the league. New England has forced the second most turnovers in the NFL so far. They struggled at times defensively in 2020 because of several opt-outs on that side of the ball.
The Saints need to establish offensive balance to ease the pressure on QB Jameis Winston and a passing attack that also struggled last week. Can they do it against a typically stout defense led by New England coach Bill Belichick?
SAINTS RUSHING ATTACK VS. PATRIOTS RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans Running Game
The Saints running attack ranks 17th after two games and has averaged only 3.9 yards per carry. After a dominating performance in week one, the offensive line was pushed around the line of scrimmage by the Panthers last week.
Cesar Ruiz, who replaced McCoy at center last week, struggled to handle interior assignments. Left guard Andrus Peat was equally abysmal, while Calvin Throckmorton was overwhelmed at times in Ruiz's right guard spot.
Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead, usually dominant, had problems containing the edge to allow the Saints rushers to get outside against Carolina. McCoy (calf) is questionable for this Sunday but has yet to practice this week.
New Orleans has usually dominated the line of scrimmage in recent years. Their ability to control the point of attack has fueled the offense and allowed them to be one of the most balanced attacks in the league.
Pro Bowl RB Alvin Kamara is the team’s leading rusher and the focus of the entire offense. Kamara had just five yards on the ground last week after 83 rushing yards to open the year.
One of the most explosive players in the league, Kamara can effectively pick up yards between the tackles and has devastating cutback skills.
Second-year RB Tony Jones has 57 rushing yards so far after a standout training camp. He picked up 50 yards in the opener and shows excellent vision and natural feel for blocking. Not as explosive as Kamara, Jones still has good cutback ability and burst into open space.
Taysom Hill, a valuable weapon over the last three seasons, has had a quiet start to the year. Hill has 17 yards on just four carries in 32 offensive snaps so far. A rugged runner between the tackles with outstanding speed in the open field, Hill has usually added a physical dimension to the running attack.
New England Run Defense
The Patriots came into 2021 looking to be more physical after ranking just 26th against the run last season. Veteran MLB Dont'a Hightower returned after opting out in 2020. Hightower has elite anticipation and a terrific understanding of opposing offenses.
Complementing Hightower at inside linebacker is Ja'Whaun Bentley, a big and physical run-stopper. Bentley leads the team in tackles so far, including two for loss, after finishing second in that category last year.
Matt Judon, a key offseason addition, is a terrific pass rusher who is an underrated run defender. Kyle Van Noy and Matt Uche man the other edge and provide a physical push along the outside. Henry Anderson, Deatrich Wise, and Chase Winovich provide edge versatility for Belichick's multiple defensive fronts.
The Patriots spent a second-round choice on DT Christian Barmore to bolster their interior. Barmore looks like a potential star inside. He joins big-bodied tackles Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, and Carl Davis to clog up interior rushing lanes.
New England's active trio of safeties play a key role in their run defense. Devin McCourty is the star of the group, but Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips are also extremely active near the line of scrimmage.
What to Watch
The Saints desperately need to establish their running game early against the Patriots. It starts with controlling the line of scrimmage, something they failed miserably to do last Sunday.
An effective rushing attack will give the team much-needed balance, but also open up play-action opportunities for Winston and the passing game.
What Belichick's defenses do best is taking away the opposition's best weapon. For the New Orleans that’s Alvin Kamara, who will be used all around the formation to gain a matchup advantage. The Saints must not only get push at the point of attack, but need to be effective in opening up cutback lanes for Kamara and Tony Jones.
Jones and Taysom Hill will be underrated in the team's attack on Sunday. If they can provide an efficient rushing attack, that will allow Sean Payton to use Kamara as a receiver more while maintaining the threat of the run.
The Patriots opened the year by allowing Miami just 74 rushing yards, but were gashed for 152 yards on the ground by the Jets last week.
Neither the Dolphins nor Jets have a running back nearly the caliber of Kamara, or an offensive line as dominant as New Orleans has been for most of the last three seasons.
Look for the Saints to attack New England off-tackle with Kamara early on, where the Patriots have struggled most. Ruiz, Throckmorton, Peat, and McCoy if he plays must get interior push and provide cutback options for the New Orleans runners to get them in the open field.