How's that for a recipe for a loss?
Yes, the Patriots have the odds stacked against them in a game with two offenses trending in different directions. But as it is with adversity in all team sports, a few standout performances from players in key matchups can turn the tide.
Let's take a look at the matchups that the Pats need to win in order to beat the Saints in Week 6.
Dont'a Hightower and Steve Gregory vs. Jimmy Graham
Expect Marques Colston to face off against Aqib Talib, as the Pats will need to shadow the 6'4" Colston with their tallest corner like they did with the 6'5" Vincent Jackson in Week 3.
Jerod Mayo and perhaps rookie Jamie Collins will be tasked with covering Darren Sproles out of the backfield—although it's possible the Pats will sit in the nickel, blanket Sproles with a safety or slot corner and dare the Saints to beat them with their nonexistent power-running game.
That leaves Saints tight end Jimmy Graham as the focal point for the remaining defenders. With Rob Gronkowski sidelined for the first five weeks of the season, Graham has been the undisputed best tight end in football.
That's a bad matchup for a Patriots team that has struggled in recent weeks defending tight ends.
After a strong showing against weak tight ends in the first three weeks of the season, the Patriots have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete passes to tight ends at an 81 percent clip for 230 yards and two touchdowns in the last two games.
Those were the numbers put up by Tony Gonzalez, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert combined. They are top-flight receiving tight ends, but Graham is the best of the bunch.
Let's take a look at what the Pats did in covering Gonzalez and see how they can change it to slow Graham.
The Pats start out in a 4-2-5 nickel package with man under coverage and two safeties high (Gregory, left circle and Devin McCourty, not pictured). Mayo (right orange circle) is in man coverage against Gonzalez (green circle) with Gregory supporting over the top.
First mistake: Mayo lets Gonzalez get a clean release off the snap. With a safety high, the Patriots should be jamming an elite tight end like Gonzalez off the line and disrupting his timing so that the quarterback looks elsewhere. Still, Mayo does a great job of mirroring Gonzalez's route up the seam and staying with him.
Second mistake: Gregory uses shuffle technique in backing up to his spot over the top of the bracket. See how his feet are perpendicular to the line of scrimmage? He's shuffling back to his spot over the top, when he was only about seven yards off the line of scrimmage to begin the play. Without turning his hips and bolting back to his position, Gregory isn't going to be able to support Mayo over the top.
Here's a good look at what happens as a result. While Gonzalez is doubled and both coverage defenders are close to Gonzalez, they're also both behind him. No one is bracketing Gonzalez over the top, and a former basketball player like Gonzalez with length on both his defenders is going to be able to make a play if no one comes up and stops him from on high.
At this point, it's an alley-oop from QB Matt Ryan to his tight end, and Gonzalez will win that battle no matter how tightly Mayo is covering him.
So when the Pats bracket Graham with a safety, they need to (1) jam him at the line and (2) be sure the safety is in his bracket high to come up and make plays on jump balls. Graham (6'7") is even taller than Gonzalez (6'5") and is an elite athlete who will catch balls over coverage linebackers all day if the top half of the bracket coverage isn't in place.
Offensive Line vs. Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks
As much as this game will be billed as a showdown between Drew Brees' High-Flying Circus and Tom Brady's Band of Nameless Carnies, the important matchup for the Patriots offense comes in the trenches, not at the skill positions.
That's because the Saints' surprising defense ranks fifth in the NFL in adjusted sack rate per Football Outsiders. Cameron Jordan has been phenomenal, grading positively in all five games per Pro Football Focus (subscription required) by being second overall in their 3-4 defensive end rankings and registering four sacks, five QB hits, 19 QB hurries and a forced fumble in his first five games.
Then there's Junior Galette in the linebacking corps, who ranks seventh among 3-4 outside linebackers per Pro Football Focus. He has three sacks, six hits and 12 hurries this season.
Given the Patriots' problems with defensive ends and linebackers in Week 5 against the Cincinnati Bengals—when they allowed four sacks, including 2.5 combined from DE Wallace Gilberry and LB Vontaze Burfict—New England will need to do a much better job in Week 6.
As NEPatriotsDraft editor Oliver Thomas wrote, the issue in Week 5 appeared to be communication along the line, as missed assignments led to unblocked rushers with a clear path to Brady:
First two Bengals sacks looked assignment-based. Logan Mankins, Nate Solder didn't appear to be on same page. In turn, open gaps.— Oliver Thomas (@OliverBThomas) October 7, 2013
The Patriots must be clear on their blocking assignments. It's the responsibility of the entire line as well as Tom Brady to identify rushers and adjust blocking assignments before the snap.
The Pats can't allow Jordan free shots at their franchise QB.
Stevan Ridley vs. the Saints' Rush Defense
First of all, if the Patriots hope to win in Week 6, they need Stevan Ridley back. LeGarrette Blount was unable to establish himself as a credible run threat in Week 5, and the Bengals simply pinned their ears back as the saying goes and went after Brady.
Play action wasn't effective, and protecting the QB was that much harder for a beleaguered offensive line that was facing one of the most ferocious defensive fronts in the sport.
If there's one bit of good news for the Patriots, it's that the Saints can't stop the run. They're 29th in the NFL in adjusted line yards allowed and are average to bad just about anywhere you run at them.
Here's a look at Football Outsiders' rankings for the Saints defensive line by how effective opponents are at running through certain gaps.
Here's a little bit of analysis on those stats—they aren't good.
That means it's up to Ridley, last year's feature back, to run aggressively on the Saints defense. The Patriots will need a big day from him and from their line in opening up holes for him to hit hard.
The Pats will naturally want to keep the ball out of Brees' hands and gas the Saints defense. It will be Ridley's job to do so. If he can't go after missing Week 5, the Pats may be in trouble.
But if he's healthy and effective and focuses on ball security, the Saints might finally have to answer for their inability to stop the run.
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