When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley’s absence was not the reason the Patriots lost to the Bengals. But it didn’t help. Ridley runs with energy, and the New England offense could have used some of that in Cincinnati. It will be needed the rest of the season, too. The 5-foot-11-inch, 225-pounder may not be the most elusive fellow in the league, but he runs hard on every carry. He hits holes and defenders with force, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He’s a rhythm player and he needs more touches. LeGarrette Blount (6-0, 250) is quicker and more athletic than he appears. Sure, he has the size and strength to play the power game, but he’s at his best exploding through creases and breaking through arm tacklers. Brandon Bolden has similar size and a similar skill set to Ridley’s, but his lack of focus is confounding. He loses his footing frequently and takes his eyes off the ball too quickly. New England’s offensive line struggled against the active Bengals. The interior trio of center Ryan Wendell and guards Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins must return to its Nasty Boy ways to help this offense become more balanced. The Saints have beefy Brodrick Bunkley (6-2, 306) in the middle of their base 3-4 defense. Bunkley is quick off the ball. He can shed, slide, and explode into ball carriers. He has good leverage but doesn’t always appear to be giving maximum effort. He will wear down, particularly against smashmouth offenses. Inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are solid but not spectacular. Lofton (6-0, 241) is tough and relentless. He lacks the speed and strength to consistently shed blockers, however. Hawthorne (6-0, 246) has good sideline-to-sideline speed. Safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins are thumpers who provide good run support.
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady is coming off one of his worst performances in recent memory — yet the Patriots still had a chance to tie the game late. He wasn’t helped by several dropped balls, shaky protection, and the late-game monsoon that rolled in, but Brady must take some of the blame. He wasn’t his normally accurate self, and he never found rhythm all day. Normally, a bounce-back game would be a given, but Brady doesn’t have the cast of characters he used to have to prevent a streak of bad games. That Danny Amendola has returned is a big boost to the receiving corps. The exceptionally versatile receiver runs precise routes and has strong hands. As he returns to full health and gets his timing back with Brady, this will be a very productive connection. Julian Edelman continues to be Brady’s most consistent target. The tough slotman, who is more quick than fast, runs great routes and has strong hands. Rookies Kenbrell Thompkins (6 feet 1 inch, 195 pounds) and Aaron Dobson (6-3, 200) have good size and speed but are still searching for consistency. Both must improve their fight and focus and hold onto the ball to gain Brady’s trust. With Rob Gronkowski still iffy, there’s no viable threat down the seam — one of Brady’s favorite areas to exploit. Michael Hoomanawanui has become a very dependable blocker, but teams aren’t worried about him as a receiver. As for Matthew Mulligan, there’s a reason he’s been with six organizations in five seasons. Look for Brady to go heavy on quick hits, bubble screens, and traditional screens to find an early rhythm and build his receivers’ confidence. Starting Saints cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Jabari Greer are good. Lewis (6-1, 208) has good size, quick feet, and long arms. He has the strength to play press coverage and the quickness to give a cushion. Greer (5-11, 180) has a lot of speed and takes a lot of chances. He will get burned on occasion.
When the Saints run
Pierre Thomas leads a talented cast in the Saints’ backfield. A rugged, 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pounder, Thomas excels at banging between the tackles and picking up tough yards. He takes on all comers, and will finish his run by delivering a blow. He rarely goes down on first contact and will fight tooth and nail with linebackers. He lacks speed to turn the corner or be a game breaker, but he will reach the secondary on occasion. He can milk the clock and wear out tired defenses. Mark Ingram (5-9, 215) is a powerful runner with decent moves and impressive acceleration. It’s safe to say he hasn’t lived up to the hype you’d expect of a Heisman Trophy winner, as he always seems to be nursing an injury; his bruising style has taken its toll. He has yet to show the first-step quickness at the NFL level that he flashed consistently at Alabama. When healthy, he explodes through the hole and flashes excellent stop-and-go moves. Darren Sproles has the quickness and escapability to get outside and do damage in the open field. Center Brian de la Puente (6-3, 306) is solid, smart, and takes good angles. He is flanked by above-average guards Ben Grubbs (6-3, 310) and Jahri Evans (6-4, 318). Grubbs is powerful and smart. He gets off his initial block in good time and will wipe out linebackers at the second level. Evans is a widebody with the size and power to stun defenders and shove them aside. Until the Patriots find a way to plug the hole in the middle, count on teams to attack. With Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly out, New England is vulnerable. Joe Vellano (6-2, 300) is big and has deceptive quickness but lacks the strength to consistently anchor against the run. Ditto for fellow rookie Chris Jones (6-1, 309), who has shown surprising athleticism. It’ll be up to athletic and instinctive linebackers Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower to seal off the many running lanes.
When the Saints pass
Drew Brees is one of the best field generals in the game. He’s not the biggest guy (6 feet, 209 pounds), he’s not the most athletic guy, and he’s not the guy with the biggest arm, but he’s still the guy you want running your offense. Brees knows this offense like the back of his hand. Extremely accurate and smart, Brees doesn’t waste a lot of time or a lot of motion. He has outstanding presnap recognition, scans his options in a flash (he excels at exploiting mismatches), and has a quick trigger. He delivers very catchable passes. He can make every throw in the book. He has the versatility to deliver darts across the middle or float soft tosses on screens or sideline routes. His accuracy fades just a hair on deep routes but he’s improved greatly in this area as he’s gotten older. A master distributor, Brees gets everyone involved; if you’re an eligible receiver, he’s going to get you the ball at some point. At 6-7, 265 pounds, Jimmy Graham is Brees’s favorite target. And with good reason. The extremely athletic tight end has excellent size and strength to go along with long arms and strong hands. He threatens the seam on every play and is a bull after the catch. Receiver Marques Colston has tight end size (6-4, 225) and track star speed. He explodes off the line and gains separation quickly with impressive acceleration and strength. Colston is not the sharpest route runner but he is exceptional on go routes as he tracks the ball well and catches it in stride. Lance Moore (5-9, 190) lacks size but makes up for that with quick feet, very strong hands, and superb focus. Scatback Darren Sproles (5-6, 190) is Brees’s safety valve out of the backfield. He has soft hands and is an absolute demon on screens. He’s hard to locate and has great open-field vision and moves.
Saints’ key player: Jimmy Graham
Labeled a project coming out of Miami after four years of basketball and just one season of football, the 6-foot-7-inch, 265-pounder has proven to be just as destructive as fellow tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Jermaine Gresham, and Dennis Pitta — all drafted in his class. He is a project no longer.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With great physical skills. Graham is tall and athletic. He has a quick first step, shows nifty acceleration, and has long arms and soft, strong hands. He also has great leaping ability, making him a beast in the red zone.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: With press coverage. Timing is the key to the Drew Brees-Graham dynamic. If you manhandle Graham at the line, it delays him from getting into his route quickly and forces Brees to look elsewhere.
SAINTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Express lane: The middle of the Patriots’ defense is in shambles with the veteran big bodies out. Attacking this area of vulnerability is a must until New England proves it can plug the holes — or tackle someone.
2. Mighty mite: Get the ball into the hands of 5-foot-6-inch Darren Sproles. He has great instincts and vision. Exciting things happen when he touches the ball, so feed him and let the track meet begin.
3. Man hands: New England’s receivers have struggled in press coverage, so don’t allow them a clean break. If you can disrupt them early, they lose focus, drop balls, and drop out of sight.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Masquerade ball: Drew Brees has seen it all and beaten it all. Nevertheless, disguising your defense with a lot of presnap movement is essential. You may not fool Brees or his weapons, but you have to at least make him think.
2. Don’t force the issue: Tom Brady has to be perfect with this receiving corps. When he had Welker, Gronk, and that other tight end, they could adjust to bad passes. This crew can’t. So if the throw’s not there, don’t attempt it.
3. Take some chances: The red zone (or “red area” as Bill Belichick likes to call it) is an area of concern. But instead of taking the easy 3 points, take a shot at the end zone. It can build confidence. Also, you’re not going to be beat the Saints with field goals.