The Patriots have two big problems to deal with Sunday when the Saints come to Foxborough — one tall, and one short.
The 5-0 Saints are once again near the top of the NFL offensive rankings — fourth in total offense and seventh in points (26.8 per game) — thanks to two matchup nightmares: 6-foot-7-inch tight end Jimmy Graham, and 5-6 scatback Darren Sproles.
Somehow, the Patriots have to figure out a way to slow down Graham, who is having a phenomenal year in his fourth NFL season. Graham, the former college basketball player who played just one year of college football, leads the NFL with 593 receiving yards through five games and is tied for second with 37 catches with six touchdowns. He has four straight 100-yard games, and while Sunday’s win over Chicago was the first time he was kept out of the end zone all season, he still had 10 catches for 135 yards.
The Patriots never have faced Graham before. They limited the Bengals’ duo of Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham to nine catches for 77 yards Sunday, but they did allow Tony Gonzalez to catch 12 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns two weeks ago.
Given Graham’s height and athleticism, the Patriots may rely more on athletic 6-3 rookie Jamie Collins.
Sproles is productive as ever in his ninth NFL season, third with the Saints. A speedy matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties and the Saints’ kickoff and punt returner, Sproles is third in the NFL with 635 all-purpose yards, including 26 catches for 308 yards and a touchdown.
He didn’t have much success against the Patriots when he was with the Chargers, with just 63 rushing and receiving yards in three games, but he has been a vital part of the Saints’ offense, setting an NFL record in 2011 with 2,696 all-purpose yards.
“Sproles is a real explosive guy that can take a pass behind the line of scrimmage, screen pass or angle route or flat route and turn it up and turn them into huge plays,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Also, he has a pretty big route tree too: vertical routes, inside routes, outside routes. They use some empty formation, not a ton of it, but enough and it’s hard to find him.”
Drew Brees is also still on top of his game, with 1,722 yards, 12 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 69.7 completion percentage.
But equally responsible for the 5-0 start is the Saints’ defense, which is vastly improved under new coordinator Rob Ryan.
The Saints are tied for 11th in total defense and fifth in points allowed (14.6 per game), compared with 32d and 31st last year. The pass rush is also much improved — they had just 30 sacks in 2012, but this year are tied for seventh with 15.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan, last year’s first-round pick, has four sacks and a forced fumble, fourth-year defensive end Junior Galette has three, and eight other players have contributed a sack.
The defensive backfield might be without its leader — safety Roman Harper, who missed last week’s win and is questionable with a knee injury — but they have a talented young cornerback in first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro and solid leadership from 31-year-old cornerback Jabari Greer and cornerback Keenan Lewis, formerly of the Steelers.
“Rob has an aggressive style,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “They make you work for it. They’re disciplined, they will take some risks and some chances at times, but I think this is a strong group from front to back. They’ve got a really good pass rush that really can get after the quarterback without pressuring. They’ll have some kind of a unique blitz package ready to go for us that we’re going to have to handle on Sunday that we probably haven’t seen before, and I think they have very capable players.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin