Before the Patriots can start worrying about Tom Brady and the Buccaneers coming to town, they have to take care of business against another NFC South team: the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints surprised the NFL in Week 1 by smashing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, only to fall back to Earth in a drubbing at the hands of the Panthers.
Which team will show up in Foxborough? And which version of starting quarterback Jameis Winston will stand and deliver?
The list of Saints players to have on your radar this weekend begins at running back.
The Saints’ offense lines up 11 players each snap just like everyone else. But the first question the Patriots’ defense must ask itself will be: where is No. 41?
Kamara is the first, last and almost only player that matters on the Saints offense without wide receiver Michael Thomas (injury) in the lineup.
“If you were to build a perfect back, he has everything you need,” Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said this week.
“He does everything well,” coach Bill Belichick added. “Very good in the passing game. His production has been phenomenal … He’s a guy you got to keep your eye on at all times.”
Kamara didn’t do much against the Panthers last week, but his body of work speaks for itself.
Since entering the league in 2017, he’s only failed to crack the top 10 in scrimmage yards once and posted the third-highest scrimmage yards total in the NFL last year (1,688), behind 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry (2,141) and Dalvin Cook (1,918). He’s never averaged fewer than 4.6 yards a carry over a full season and has been targeted as a receiver fewer than 100 times only once (97 times in 2019).
Kamara might be the best back the Patriots face all year, which is notable because New England just allowed 154 yards rushing to the Jets’ running backs last week and got gashed on occasion in Week 1 by the Dolphins.
Kamara will also pressure Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and the rest of the linebacking corps as a receiver.
The Saints don’t have many offensive skill players that scare teams. But they do have one, and he’s plenty scary.
Jordan leads an intriguing group of edge defenders against a Patriots offensive line still looking for its rhythm.
Though he’s 32, Jordan leads the Saints with six pressures and four quarterback hurries through two games and has added three run stops.
And as Patriots center David Andrews noted Wednesday, Jordan primarily lines up on the offense’s right side, putting an additional spotlight on Trent Brown’s health.
Edge defenders that have gone up against backup Patriots right tackles Yasir Durant and Justin Herron this year have registered five quarterback pressures and two sacks.
Isaiah Wynn, who’s also struggled to start the season, will have his hands full on the opposite side with Carl Granderson. But Jordan’s experience and skill could be a big problem if he’s going against a Patriots tackle not named Trent Brown.
Whether the Saints top cornerback, Marshon Lattimore (thumb injury), plays Sunday, Roby figures to get some work.
Roby came to New Orleans via a trade from Houston before the start of the season but had to miss Week 1 while serving a six-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy.
When he and Lattimore are on the field together, the former Ohio State Buckeyes represent a formidable 1-2 punch. With Lattimore out last week, Roby became the Saints’ No. 1 cornerback.
His track record as an outside corner is solid: quarterbacks have only achieved a passer rating of 100 once over a full season of targeting him.
The veteran cornerback can run with Nelson Agholor if the Patriots try to get aggressive down the field, and can hold his own in the slot against Jakobi Meyers.
But with the Saints coming into the game as one of the best run defenses in the league — yielding 2.8 yards per carry — the Patriots will have to test Roby and the secondary.
If Lattimore — a playmaker with shutdown-corner potential — does play, New England could look Roby’s way a good amount.
Winston is the starting quarterback, but don’t forget about Hill.
New Orleans’ ultra-athletic backup quarterback is one of the most interesting non-starters in football and does a little bit of everything for the team.
In addition to five snaps at quarterback this year, he’s lined up as a running back (three snaps), tight end (13 snaps), slot receiver (five snaps), wide receiver (seven snaps), and even covers punts.
And you can’t sleep on him as a passer. In four 2020 starts in relief of Drew Brees, Hill completed more than 72 percent of his passes for four touchdowns, and two interceptions. He also ran for 457 yards and eight touchdowns in addition to catching a touchdown pass last season.
“He’s a pretty special athlete and a special player,” Belichick said of the Saints’ Swiss Army Knife. “He’s smart enough to do all those things. He has enough technique or skill at each of the positions to do them … and I think that says quite a bit about the player and his versatility and his skills. Not too many guys can do that.”
Hill’s presence on the field offers an element of unpredictability Saints coach Sean Payton has learned to wield over the years. Though he doesn’t play that much, his raw ability makes him a threat.
Preparing for the Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle in Week 1 should give the Patriots a head start on figuring out how to contain Harris, the Saints’ uber-explosive wide receiver and kick/punt returner.
After Harris led the league in punt returns and punt return yardage as a rookie in 2019, teams quickly got wise and started kicking away from him.
Jake Bailey, the Patriots’ All-Pro punter, is adept at keeping the ball away from good returners. But special teams captain Matthew Slater knows New England can’t afford to be unprepared if Harris does get his hands on the ball with room to run.
“I don’t really like comparing guys, because every guy is unique in his own way, but he’s Darren Sproles,” Slater said.
The Saints showed they can use Harris’s game-breaking speed as a weapon in the passing game against the Packers. Winston’s arm strength means burners such as Harris require much more attention than they did with Brees at quarterback.
That “begins and ends” line wasn’t a joke. Seriously, stop this man.