FOXBOROUGH — Good things happen when James White gets his mitts on the football.
Whether by ground or air, the shifty eighth-year running back consistently eludes defenders and racks up yards. White, who leads the Patriots in receptions (12) and receiving yards (94), could prove to be a big factor Sunday against a Saints team that boasts a formidable front seven and has long excelled against the run.
“They try to reset the line of scrimmage and their linebackers play downhill and try to close out any holes that may be there, and they’re well-coordinated,” White said Thursday. “So, we’ve got to be physical, we’ve got to run hard, and there’s got to be good communication because it’s going to be all about good communication and execution. They’re not really trying to out-scheme you, they just get to where they have to be and get real physical with you.”
A good strategy against an aggressive defense that likes to flood the box is the short pass. While the defenders are trying to generate pressure and get upfield, the quarterback needs to hit his receiver quickly and let his blockers set up a convoy downfield.
White is among the league’s top receivers out of the backfield and his ability to create space, avoid defenders, and move the chains on screens and swings will be critical.
The screen pass has long been a big part of the New England attack, though there were struggles at times last season when Cam Newton didn’t always look comfortable running those plays. With Mac Jones leading the offense, early returns are the screen tests will be back.
White helped set the tone against the Jets last Sunday with a 28-yard textbook screen. After faking to take a handoff, White turned at the line of scrimmage, where Jones, already under pressure, dumped the ball. As White sped to the secondary, he received blocks from mobile maulers David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Mike Onwenu before being tracked down.
“The screen game can be big each and every week. When coach dials them up, you have to be well-prepared for it — everybody has to be together in order for those plays to work,” said White.
In a schedule oddity, the Jets and Saints each face the Patriots coming off games against the Panthers — whom New England will see in Week 9 — which means White has gotten to see a lot of Christian McCaffrey. The Carolina star is arguably the best two-way back in the league and White has been watching to see how defenses attack him.
“He’s a similar type player to me, so I see how they kind of match up vs. him. He’s had a lot of success the past two weeks,” White said of McCaffrey, who had 324 scrimmage yards through two games, but left Thursday’s in Houston with a hamstring injury. “He’s a good football player, been able to watch him a little bit more since we’re playing similar opponents the past two weeks. I kind of watch to see how teams match up against him and I could possibly get a similar look, but you never know.”
Good reason for absence
The Patriots were without safety/linebacker Adrian Phillips Thursday. The absence wasn’t football related, according to the participation report, and Phillips and his wife, Camille, are expecting a baby … Matthew Judon (knee) was again present for practice, but unlike Wednesday when he was a nonparticipant, the linebacker was upgraded to limited participation for the sweats-and-shells session … Running back Damien Harris, who was limited with a finger injury, wore white gloves, which is out of the ordinary for him … Offensive tackle Trent Brown (calf) also was limited … Linebacker Kyle Van Noy (throat) was a full participant for the second straight day … Center Erik McCoy (calf) was the only Saints player to miss Thursday’s practice.
Secure in the knowledge
Saints coach Sean Payton likely stresses ball security to his team weekly, but he went out of his way to drop a particularly telling stat when speaking with reporters this week. “In Foxborough, the turnover numbers are going to be important,” he said. “Under Bill [Belichick] since  at home, the [Patriots] are 108-7 when they win the turnover battle. That’s your stat of the week.” However, more impressive is that the Patriots are 26-23 during that span when they lose the turnover battle at home. No other NFL team is above .500 during that stretch … Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael was a football and baseball standout at Medway High … Salem’s Peter Giunta, who is a senior defensive assistant with the Saints, played his high school ball at St. John’s Prep.