By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots return home after a two game road trip that saw them win a close game in Atlanta before falling for the first time in Cincinnati. The Patriots (4-1) are hoping to get tight end Rob Gronkowski back for the first time in 2013 in this contest.
The Saints (5-0) have been on a roll with the return of Head coach Sean Payton and led by Quarterback Drew Brees. They are on the second game of a road trip and beat Chicago 26-18 last week.
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. We’re going to run a column, the “Razor’s Edge” to give a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and Saints have met 12 times in their history with the Patriots holding an 8-4 edge overall and hold a 4-3 lead in games played in Foxboro.
The Saints won the last meeting 38-17 in Oct. 2009 as Drew Brees shredded the Patriots defense with 371 yards passing and five touchdown passes. That game was featured on NFL Films as Bill Belichick lamented about that 2009 Patriots team couldn’t play the way he envisioned which prompted a house cleaning in 2010.
After seeing the offense make nice strides the past two games, the unit as a whole took a big step backward in Cincinnati. Not to take away anything from the Bengals, who played outstanding, but that kind of effort was not acceptable across the board for a Bill Belichick coached Patriots team.
The offense however was missing its top two running backs (Stevan Ridley/Shane Vereen) and Amendola was just getting back on the field after missing three games but the biggest problem for this offense especially in the red zone is the lack of production at the tight end position.
Here’s a breakdown of this season and last at the tight end position through the first five games:
Year Recpts Yards Touchdowns
2013 5 39 1
2012 32 388 4
This is the Patriots biggest issue offensively. Yes the wide receivers need more production and need to do a better job at holding on to the football but the numbers don’t lie and for the record, the production from the slot has zero to do with their struggles. Having Rob Gronkowski back won’t cure all their ills, but it will go a long way as to smoothing out the edges.
Patriots RBs vs Saints Front Seven- Edge Patriots
The Patriots offensive line had their worst game of the season against the stout Cincinnati DL and this week, will be looking for a better effort. The Patriots were without their top two RBs in Ridley and Vereen last week, and weren’t confident enough to stick with the run in the second half.
The Saints run defense has been so-so thus far, giving up an average of 5.4 yards per carry but playing with the lead has had them in sub-packages nearly 80 percent of the time. Rob Ryan knows the Patriots will want to keep the offense balanced so watch him move some players down into the box (Kenny Vaccaro) and try to blow up the run.
The Patriots are hoping Ridley returns to action on Sunday, and if so, the Patriots should find some room to run the ball with their committee of him, LaGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden.
Patriots WRs vs Saints Secondary- Edge Saints
The struggles throwing the ball continue for the Patriots. There is still miscommunication in the routes between the wide receivers and Tom Brady and there are still far too many dropped passes. Tom Brady’s accuracy and decision-making, however, are two things that generally aren’t worried about in these parts and both have been issues for him this season.
Danny Amendola did return last week and in limited (38 of 63) offensive snaps played well. But their struggles in the red zone would be aided by a return from Rob Gronkowski who accounted for about one third of RZ touchdown receptions last season.
The Saints pass defense is vastly improved from 2012 and they bring good pressure (15 sacks) on the quarterback while rushing four most of the time. Cameron Jordan at DE and Junior Galette at OLB are very good at bringing the heat but Rob Ryan has had success at mixing it up and bringing the occasional overload blitz like he did in 2010 to Brady and the Patriots while the defensive coordinator at Cleveland.
The Patriots defense took another big blow when DT Tommy Kelly went down with a knee injury against the Bengals in the second half. Coupled with Vince Wilfork going on IR the week prior, the already thin Patriots DT position is now in a state of emergency, especially if Kelly misses any significant time.
Kelly missed Wednesday’s practice which isn’t a good sign for him playing on Sunday. The team signed NT Andre Neblett on Wednesday. as well, the 25 year old is probably at best a stop gap signing for the interim.
Overall however, the Patriots defense has been very good thus far this season allowing only 14 points per game, good for 2nd in the NFL after five games. The Saints will provide their toughest test of the season.
Saints RBs vs NE Front Seven- Edge Patriots
The Saints don’t run the ball much, by design but use the short passing game with Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles as a kind of long hand-off substitute. While their running game hasn’t had big numbers nor a large average per carry, (3.1 ypa) it is somewhat misleading.
The Patriots are normally very stout against the run but with Wilfork on IR and Kelly possibly not playing, the middle of the Patriots defense is much softer now. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, both rookie UDFAs did a decent job in the pass rushing department, but were pushed around at the point of attack. LBs Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were able to shoot up and keep the damage to a minimum on Sunday.
Look for the Patriots to play in a lot of sub-packages on Sunday in an effort to slow down the Saints passing attack, so the onus will be on the linebackers to stem the tide, but they’ll be tested by both of the Saints talented backs.
Saints WRs vs NE Secondary-Edge Saints
Jimmy Graham is on a record setting pace and has been close to unstoppable, netting four games in a row with 100+ yards receiving. Drew Brees is completing over 69 percent of his passes and is at the top of his game.
Brees normally looks to Graham then to his running backs, Thomas and Sproles out of the backfield. Marques Colston is the third option most times which speaks volumes on how strong the Saints offense is.
The question for the Patriots is how they plan on defending against Graham. They won’t be able to shut him down, but will try to limit his production. That will be a daunting task given the Pats struggles in defending tight ends.
Talking with Mike Reiss from ESPN Boston on Tuesday, he brought up the fact that the Patriots may opt to cover Graham with Aqib Talib. The Patriots will most likely be in sub-packages for much of this game and it will bear watching to see if Talib follows Graham around as the Saints move him both inside and out. They will need a big game with the pass rush if they are to slow down the Saints passing game.
Special Teams- Edge Push
This is a pretty even matchup across the board. Stephen Gostkowski does get the slight edge over Garrett Hartley who has missed two of seven field goals from 40+ yards this year.
Both teams have dangerous return men in Darren Sproles and Julian Edelman although surprisingly Sproles hasn’t had a breakout game yet. Patriots special teams’ standout Matthew Slater has returned to practice and his presence would bolster the coverage units.
Both punters, the Saints Thomas Morestead and the Patriots Ryan Allen are off to strong starts. Morestead has a 47.7 yard average and has been excellent at pinning opponents inside the 20 yard line. Allen has steadily improved and is averaging 44.7 yards per punt with 13 punts downed inside the 20.
Patriots Player to Watch- Aqib Talib
Talib has been outstanding all summer and through the first five weeks of the 2013 season. He’s been routinely asked to cover some big-name wide receivers notably Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, A.J. Green and now will probably draw tight end Jimmy Graham.
Graham is more wide receiver than tight end but his size and athleticism make him a very difficult matchup for a single player and Talib will be at a decided size disadvantage. But one thing we’ve seen from him is that he never lacks for confidence.
This matchup should be a great one to watch and may go a long way in deciding who takes this game on Sunday.