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What to Watch For: Patriots vs. Saints

Friday, October 11, 2013

 

Maybe now, the Patriots can get back to the important business at hand.

Like getting better.

Sure, New England won its' first four games this season without gaudy numbers on offense.  After all, as much as the offense had bailed out a porous defense over the past couple of seasons, it's easy to overlook a few deficiencies - and remain confident that things will get better when injured players return.

But after an offensive stinker in a 13-6 loss at Cincinnati last week, it's becoming clear that even an improved defensive effort can only go so far, as the 4-1 Pats prepare for the undefeated (5-0) New Orleans Saints Sunday in Foxboro.  Tom Brady needs help - whether it comes from the return of TE Rob Gronkowski, or whether it comes from his inexperienced receivers finally "catching on." 

The Patriots' offensive woes actually go a little further than just receivers dropping balls, or injuries keeping key players out of the lineup.  The play of the offensive line has been shaky, at best...and teams have learned in order to beat New England, you hit TB12 early and often.  The Bengals did that last week.  The New York Giants did that to win a Super Bowl a few years ago.  It's no secret.

While relatively healthy so far this year, the line play hasn't been up to previous standards.  Brady was hit eight times last week in Cincinnati, and sacked four times.  When he wasn't hit, he rushed throws...he threw behind receivers, and failed to step up into his protection to buy a precious extra second or two.  The result wasn't pretty, failing to throw at least one TD pass for the first time in 53 consecutive games over four years.  Maybe if Gronkowski returns this week, it will help somewhat.  But you can't count on a guy coming off of FIVE off-season surgeries to return to form right away.

Here is where being on the same page as his new targets comes into play.  When healthy, Danny Amendola appears to be very much Wes Welker-like in form.  As for rookies Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, the new kids on the block had best get things figured out soon...or they'll become the new kids on someone else's block.  Couple this with better play from the line, and Brady can still be Brady...and the Patriots can still be the Patriots.

And they can get back to the business of winning.

Get Gronked

Absolutely, the return of Gronkowski to active status is big for New England.  Momentum for his return seems to be gaining steam this week, but until the big fella actually gets out there to do his thing, nothing is certain.  In the meantime, a strong running game to complement whatever Gronk might (or might not) bring is paramount to any Patriot success this week, as time of possession will be key.  Can't let Drew Brees have the ball too long.

Graham is no cracker

Saints' TE Jimmy Graham is the best TE in the NFL not named Gronkowski.  And he might even be better than that, as he leads all NFL receivers in yards gained through five weeks.  A former basketball standout at Miami, Graham simply knows how to "go up and get it."  And when you get it from a guy like Brees, you don't have to expend maximum energy to get there.  One flaw, perhaps, in this arrangement.  Brees has been targeting the TE alot this season...if the Pats' "D" can figure out a way to bottle up Graham, it might cause the NO offense to fizzle.

Protect and defend

The Patriots offensive line has been physically whipped at least twice this year - once in a win over the New York Jets, and again last week at Cincinnati.  They must win the trench battles, and keep Brady off of the Gillette Stadium turf.  They can do that with physical run-blocking, keeping the ultra-quick rush of Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette out of the backfield.  Plus, winning the clock battle keeps the ball out of Brees' capable hands.  The match of wits and adjustments between head coaches Bill Belichick, Sean Payton and defensive coordinator (and former NE LB coach) Rob Ryan promises to be "the game within the game."

Projection:

Patriots 23, Saints 20

 

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