The New England Patriots find themselves in an interesting situation. Both they and the New Orleans Saints are both looking to start a new era after their Hall of Fame quarterbacks have moved on to another chapter of their life. The Saints present an unique challenge to the Patriots, a team who beat the snot out of the Green Bay Packers in a 38-3 score in Week 1 as well as a team that got slapped by the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 with their offense a non-factor. Which Saints team shows up will determine a lot on how the Patriots will fare, albeit they will have the game in Foxboro this time around.
#1: Attack the weakness in the interior of the Saints’ OL
Winston was very much as bipolar as the Saints were in their first two weeks. In Week 1, he was able to keep the offense on the field on 3rd downs and managed the situation well en route to 5 touchdowns and a field goal. In Week 2, Carolina’s good but not great defense was able to shut down the Saints offense. One such area where the Panthers were successful at getting pressure on Winston came in the form of blitzes.
Pass protection seems to be an early issue for the Saints. Starting center Erik McCoy went out early in the Week 1 win vs. Green Bay with an injury and has already been declared out. The Panthers at one point in the game found a blitz look that the Saints were unable to pick up on three consecutive plays with the interior of the Saints OL mostly to blame.
.@Saints @Panthers and the Panthers run the EXACT same blitz 3 plays in a row. The Saints never picked it up and got beat by it 3X in a row. Something you never see in the #NFL. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/YGkvT5mO7d— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) September 23, 2021
This is a blitz look the Patriots could utilize, not necessarily with their safeties but with their linebackers. Players like Josh Uche, Dont’a Hightower, and Kyle Van Noy could easily take advantage of this hole in the Saints offense, especially with the latter team having half their coaching staff currently in quarantine.
#2: Take away the easy throws to the middle of the field
The Saints have a decent receiving corps, but no outside threat that would require the Patriots to do anything special with their coverage. Speedster Deonte Harris could present some issues downfield, although the team will have their own speed merchant in the secondary covering him in Jonathan Jones. Alvin Kamara presents the biggest matchup problem for the Patriots against their lumbering linebackers in space. Patriots must find a way to keep him out of the middle of the field as well as the tight ends to force Winston to have to hold onto the ball and try to attack the deeper areas of the field. It will be up to Devin McCourty to take away those particular passes, but the emphasis should be to force Winston to make tougher throws.
#3: Utilize the screen game to curb the Saints’ aggressiveness
One issue the Patriots have had on offense is the lack of pass protection that limits their ability to attack down the field. With that in mind, teams are moving their safeties down to attack the middle of the field. The Saints have a very good Front 4 that features Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, and Sheldon Rankins, all of whom are capable of getting to the QB on a consistent basis. The Patriots offensive line will be in for their toughest challenge of the year.
One area where the Patriots can eliminate the defensive front is in the screen game and turn this into 7-on-7 football. Players like James White, Jonnu Smith, Gunner Olszewski, and Nelson Agholor could benefit greatly here. If the Patriots are able to force the Saints secondary to tackle, I think there can be success in yards gained after the catch.
#4: Complementary football or bust
The Saints aren’t a world-beater on offense and have some dinged up players on defense, which means the Patriots aren’t outmanned in this game. Execution in all three phases will be critical, as the offense cannot turn the ball over and allow the kicking game to establish good field position for the defense. The Patriots themselves aren’t going to be elite on offense or defense this year, so leveraging the few advantages they have will be key.
On offense, the goal is to be able to move the chains as well as they can but also avoiding the bad turnovers. Rookie QB Mac Jones will have to avoid trouble, as he’s already put the ball on the ground twice in two games. On defense, they will need to avoid mental errors and keep the ball in front. Winston hasn’t shown any ability to consistently be able to lead drives in his career, so there will be opportunities for mistakes. Complementary football also means when turnovers are to be had on defense, they need to capitalize as well.
Saints player to focus on: RB Alvin Kamara
The Patriots cannot let Kamara have a big game against them, as that will allow the rest of the Saints offense to flow as intended. I expect New Orleans to scheme up 15-20 plays for him, especially if he can get matched up against the Patriots lumbering linebackers outside the tackle box. One way to take away his receiving ability would be to blitz the pocket and make him stay in pass protection. Given the weakness in the Saints OL, blitzes seem to be the best way for the Patriots to slow down the Saints offensive attack.
Patriots offensive X-factor: TE Jonnu Smith
The Patriots will try to establish the play action game as well as some screens to slow down the Saints pass rush. Smith creates a lot of favorable match-ups against the Saints linebackers and safeties should the offensive line be able to hold up against the Saints defensive line. There are still some growing pains with Smith in the Patriots offense, although we saw more contributions in Week 2 compared to Week 1.
Patriots defensive X-factor: LB Josh Uche
The second year rusher out of Michigan has a chance to make a significant impact. The Patriots have moved him around the defense, mostly in the sense of attacking the B-gaps. With Christian Barmore working the A-gaps and Matt Judon providing a consistent rush from the outside, it gives the Patriots three guys to rush the QB with. As mentioned above, the Saints inability to protect the interior was exposed by the Panthers and sending overload or up the middle pressures have created devastating effects in the Saints offense. Josh Uche easily fits into this role and could put up strong pass rush numbers attacking the weakness in the Saints OL.
Final score prediction: Patriots 23, Saints 21
Expect an ugly game where execution comes at a premium for both rosters as they continue to try to figure out how to best utilize their offense. Both teams have a fatal flaw on that side of the ball tied to the ability of the offensive line to pass protect as well as a defensive unit that can exploit that weakness. At the end, I think the Patriots defense will make one more stop than the Saints and come up with a couple big turnovers to push away the Saints sputtering offense.