When the 5-0 New Orleans Saints visit the 4-1 New England Patriots Sunday, it could very well be a Super Bowl preview. For many, these two teams appear to be going in opposite directions, after perennially being two of the absolute best.
A year after going 7-9, the Saints have a revamped defense that is anchoring the team's success. New Orleans was already the No. 2-ranked offense in 2012, but it's the improvement of the 32nd-ranked defense—which now sits 13th—that has the league buzzing about its potential.
But any time you have one of the league's marquee quarterbacks on your roster, you will virtually always have a chance to compete. Between New England's Tom Brady and New Orleans' Drew Brees, two of the top three QBs will be on display. And I can't wait!
In full disclosure, if I weren't fortunate enough to cover the Saints, the Patriots would be on my short list of teams to cover. As a matter of fact, before I got the call to continue covering the Saints for Bleacher Report, I was actively looking to break into the realm of vast Patriots coverage.
I've been a fan of the Patriots way of operating ever since I could remember. Famed coach Bill Parcells is my all-time favorite coach, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick is his most successful pupil. Both are legends of defensive football—which is my favorite part of the sport—and both know how to build a successful franchise with sustainability in mind.
So naturally when I saw that the Saints and Patriots compete this season, I became as giddy as a little school girl.
These are the two best ran franchises, with the two best offensive schemes. I expect nothing short of a high-stakes poker game when these two behemoths collide.
It's hard to find a more multiple offense than New England's. They've gone through what seems like three different offensive philosophies—during the Brady-Belichick era.
They started with a short-to-intermediate scheme, switched to a spread offense, went to a "12 personnel" based attack and now are back to their initial scheme. New England is a lot like New Orleans in the fact that it can take low-round picks and undrafted free agents and turn them into good players.
But this might be the time that philosophy has finally caught up to them.
This past offseason saw the Patriots lose their top five receiving threats from 2012—through a myriad of circumstances. Fortunately, or unfortunately (for the Saints), it looks like tight end Rob Gronkowski will make his season debut, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Gronkowski is the second-best player at his position, coincidentally to Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, and his presence will open up the entire Patriots offense. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro will have his hands full with this athletic monstrosity. At 6'6", 265 pounds, there's isn't a player who wouldn't struggle against Gronkowski.
What the Saints have on their side is the fact that the Patriots have the worst group of outside receivers in the NFL.
Due to the numerous amounts of defections, the Patriots had to reload on the fly—and did so through the draft. Their rotation consists of three rookie receivers in Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins.
Thompkins is the best out of the three (or most productive), but he has some of the worst hands I've seen in a long time. He runs great routes and has a propensity for getting open, but catching the ball is like going to Disney World for him—it's an adventure.
Boyce can fly but doesn't seem to understand the Patriots' complex offensive system, thus far limiting his opportunities. Dobson has shaky hands as well, but he was the most talented of the bunch in college. As a whole, these guys are contributing to one of the worst starts of Brady's career.
Slot receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are really good players. Both are athletic, savvy and intelligent. Saints safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Vaccaro are usually charged with the task of defending the slot, and defending these guys may be one of their tougher assignments.
Expect a lot of option routes from the receiving corps. Depending on what looks the defense provides, the receivers will determine their routes based on its positioning. This is why it's rare to see a rookie thrive in New England's offensive scheme. Even veterans like Chad Johnson struggled to grasp the system.
The struggles of the rookies have made Brady look rather human this season.
Not to say that it's all on the receivers, because parts of the offensive line, Brady and the play-calling have contributed to these offensive woes. But I'm quite sure if the receivers were better, the production would mirror that.
The offensive line has oscillated between solid and horrendous play. As a whole, it's one of the very best run-blocking units in the league. But it can be average at times in pass protection.
I fully expect for the Saints' front to get after this line. The matchup between Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette and Patriots left tackle Nate Solder will be paramount on both ends.
The strength of the Patriots offense lies in the backfield, where the talent is both plentiful and productive. I wrote an article prior to the season, stating how the Patriots could mimic the success of the University of Alabama by leaning on the run game heavily.
Between Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots have three backs who could easily top 1,000 yards rushing.
They leaned on these guys to destroy the Atlanta Falcons (in Atlanta) in emphatic fashion a couple of weeks ago on Sunday Night Football. And I saw it all in person...
In one of the most physically dominating drives I have ever witnessed, the Patriots called 11 straight run plays (one was called back due to a penalty), which made it seem like the Patriots had the ball for 20 minutes real time!
The Saints can't afford to get gashed liked that.
Watching the Patriots offensive line run block is akin to watching a symphony. Most of the plays will have pulling guards and trap blocks. The tackles are athletic enough to get out on the second level, which makes draws and counters prevalent amidst the scheme. And all backs have vision and short-area burst.
Here we see a perfect example of what the Saints will see plenty of. Readers should pay attention to not only the line, but the blocking tight end (No. 47) who springs this play free.
As the play develops, you can see how the line moves in unison—kind of like a boy band. The Patriots' line reminds me of New Kids on the Block (or NKOTB for the cool kids). The rhythm with which it operates is amazing.
The Saints can't afford to over pursue as they will be driven out of their respective gaps. Instead of crashing the line, they should practice patience before shooting the gaps.
The Patriots leave no stones unturned while run blocking. Every man is accounted for, leaving the back (No. 22 Ridley) to use his natural gifts to defeat defenders approaching from the secondary.
I expect the Patriots to attempt to achieve the type of balance they did against the Falcons. With 31 rushing and pass attempts apiece, New England can lay claim to being one of the most balanced attacks in the NFL.
The Saints should sell out to stop the run and force Brady to pass. That would've been an insane statement a few seasons ago, but it is undoubtedly the best way earn a victory present day. New Orleans shouldn't take the pass game lightly, but failing to stop the run might be a form of football suicide against this team.
Defensively, the Patriots are a 4-3-based outfit, with a lot of 3-4 parts. Schematically, the Patriots will throw out a few blitzes and stunts, but they mostly want to line up and play solid, all-around defense.
New England mostly uses sub-packages as its base defense. This puts the onus on outside linebackers Jerod Mayo (6'1", 250 lbs) and Dont'a Hightower (6'3", 270 lbs). Mayo is a stack-and-shed linebacker who is one of the league's premier run defenders. But in nickel packages, Mayo is often matched up with tight ends.
If the tight end motions to the opposite side of the formation, he will be picked up by Hightower. Hightower is one of my favorite players in the league. Coming out of Alabama, I felt he could possibly be the league's most versatile players. His size, speed and agility would make him in the perfect size to play all over a defensive front.
So far, he's been a bit of a disappointment. The Patriots tend to use him in coverage a lot, when he is more suited to play moving forward. In a 3-4 defense, he'd be an ideal rush backer, as well as playing on the inside.
The Patriots were a 3-4-based team for most of the past decade but have slowly made the transition to an even-front alignment. You have to think Hightower will eventually figure it out; he's too talented to be mediocre.
Moreover, I expect Graham to have huge day if one of these linebackers is charged with the task of playing him man-to-man. There's not one person on New England's roster who poses much of a threat to Graham; they'd be better off doubling him or using bracket coverage.
Here, we see Mayo in coverage against Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. Mayo is a really athletic linebacker, who can cover the average tight end but gets exposed against the elite. He actually does a pretty good job at the bottom of the route but fails to even remotely get his head around in an attempt to locate the ball.
Graham is twice the athlete the 37-year-old Gonzalez is at this point in time. Expect Belichick to scheme against Graham, which would force someone else to dominate the game.
The Saints have about five different players who can dominate, so good luck with that theory.
As most of you know, the Saints offensive line has been struggling with both the run and the pass. Former Saint Rob Ninkovich is the Patriots' most effective edge-rusher. I feel as though he can have success against the right tackle Zach Strief.
Ninkovich has an array of moves and will unleash all of them against his former team. New England also has a second-year end many feel will be a star. Chandler Jones arrived in Boston with a lot of hype and has been a disappointment thus far. He doesn't have any special go-to moves and appears to lack the necessary strength.
He does have 3.5 sacks on the season, but two of them came against rookie Geno Smith of the New York Jets, who gifted the Patriots with plenty of time to get home for sacks. Quite frankly, I don't think Jones is that special of a player.
With veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork out for the season, due to injury, there really isn't a special player on the Patriots' line.
In the secondary, cornerback Aqib Talib is the most talented player. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneer is used to going against most of New Orleans' offensive personnel, but he is also used to getting defeated by that same personnel. He's a talented corner but is not the shutdown corner fans think he is.
I have a feeling the Patriots might put him on Graham, which would be a major advantage for the Saints. The rest of New England's corners are average at best.
Free safety Devin McCourty is a good player who can cover and tackle, but the rest of the defensive backs aren't anything to phone home about.
When the Saints and Patriots collide, it will be a collision of some of the best football minds in the history of the sport. My theory is, if the scheme's cancel each other out, the difference then lies within the talent department.
If that's the case, advantage Saints. It will be a fun one, though.
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