The Patriots are bound to be happy to be back in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium after back-to-back road games against Atlanta and Cincinnati. However, forcing Jimmy Graham and Drew Brees does tend to dampen even the most enthusiastic.
The young Patriots defense has been one of the lone bright spots five weeks into the season, but we'll see what it is really made of after facing the Brees-led Saints.
Patriots Offense vs. Saints Defense
In order for the Patriots passing game to work, they are going to have to run the ball effectively. The Saints have some physical defensive backs—Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Jenkins, for example—who will wreak havoc if they don't have to respect the inside run. If the Patriots can take advantage of their occasional lack of discipline, there could be some big plays in store for New England.
If Rob Gronkowski actually hits the field, his mere presence—both as a blocker and a receiver—changes the way defenses line up. It will be interesting to see if the Saints play nickel if the Patriots run two-tight end formations. If they do, look for the run game from the shotgun to make an appearance.
All the scheming will be for naught if Cameron Jordan is in the backfield every play. Nate Solder and Logan Mankins will have to be on top of their game to keep in check.
Patriots Defense vs. Saints Offense
A dynamic tight end is difficult to handle. Patriots fans saw it in Week 4 against Atlanta, when Tony Gonzalez ran wild in the first half before head coach Bill Belichick put the clamps on him at the line of scrimmage. I'm sure Belichick has been hard at work thinking of ways to keep Graham from beating him.
While Graham isn't a great blocker by any means, tempting the Saints to run—with the defensive line decimated—probably isn't the best idea.
However, if the Patriots interior line can somehow make the Saints one-dimensional, the New England defense has shown that it can take away your best player every week.
While Aqib Talib has done a number on Julio Jones, Vincent Jackson and to a lesser extent A.J. Green, the 6'7" Graham presents a formidable problem. No matter who ends up covering him, expect Graham to see plenty of chucks and bumps at the line of scrimmage.
What They're Saying
Mike Reiss from ESPN Boston had this to say on the potential Talib vs. Graham battle.
Who would you put on Jimmy Graham?
One option for the Patriots to consider is having Talib match up against tight end Jimmy Graham, similar to what he did Sept. 22 against Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson and Oct. 6 against Bengals receiver A.J. Green. Talib said he's covered tight ends in the past, but that was mainly because the tight end lined up outside (he mentioned Tony Gonzalez, in particular). Talib stressed that it's the entire Saints offense, more than just Graham, that is so lethal. Specific to Graham, he said: "He's so tough because of what he is -- 6-7, 250, 260, and he has ball skills out of this world. That's the main thing that makes him so tough."
I expect we'll see Talib on Graham a few times during the game, but don't expect Coach Belichick to let Graham get comfortable by seeing similar looks all game long.
Tale of the Tape
Drew Brees and Tom Brady are legends. They have been two of the top-four quarterbacks in the league for as long as many NFL fans can remember. Their supporting casts are a little different this year, but each—to varying degrees of success—has shown the ability to move the ball down the field. I wouldn't bet against either of these guys.
If Stevan Ridley is able to play, the Patriots run game gets a lot better. He consistently gets more yards than the offensive line blocks for. He keeps linebackers and safeties honest with the threat of the play-action pass. However, Darren Sproles is equally dynamic for the Saints. If Ridley isn't able to go, the Saints have the advantage here.
If Lance Moore can't play, the Saints will need one of their young receivers—Nick Toon and Kenny Stills—to step up. The Patriots can certainly sympathize, as they have relied on rookies in important positions for the majority of the year. Whichever team can get the most out of their youngsters will have a big advantage in this game. Marques Colston and the Danny Amendola/Julian Edelman combination are three of the better slot receivers in the game.
While a full-strength Rob Gronkowski—who is a much better blocker than Jimmy Graham and his equal in the passing game—would make this close, the duo of Graham and former Patriot Ben Watson are too much for the Patriots tight ends to match up with.
The Patriots interior line has had some issues as of late, but it is still a solid unit. Neither the Patriots nor the Saints have blocked very well in the run game, and each have their soft spots in pass protection. Each defensive coordinator has some vectors to attack.
Cameron Jordan was on the Patriots' radar during the draft process but ultimately landed in New Orleans. He has exploded this year with incredible play against the run and the pass. Meanwhile, the Patriots could be without Tommy Kelly, who suffered an injury last week against Cincinnati, with Vince Wilfork on injured reserve.
Junior Galette has played well for the Saints, but it is tough to match the Patriots linebackers from top to bottom. Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo have been one of the best groups of linebackers in the league.
While Kenny Vaccaro has been impressive at points for New Orleans, he is still a bit rough around the edges. At the end of the day, the Patriots have Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty and Alfonzo Dennard, and the Saints don't.
Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen have played lights out as of late, but Thomas Morestead has been equally impressive for the Saints. Darren Sproles and Julian Edelman probably won't get too many chances in this game.
The tale of the tape is split right down the middle, with the Saints having the advantage in the trenches. This game looks like a close one on paper, but with Sean Payton and Bill Belichick in charge, things can get out of hand quickly.
Will Rob Gronkowski play on Sunday?
Thursday's Injury Report Analysis
Did Not Participate: Tommy Kelly, Leon Washington
Limited Participation: Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Bolden, Stevan Ridley, Kenbrell Thompkins, Sebastian Vollmer, Tavon Wilson, Ryan Wendell
Full Participation: Kyle Arrington, Nate Ebner
Tommy Kelly is the big issue here—the Patriots desperately need him to play with Vince Wilfork already sidelined for the year. In an interview with the Associated Press, Gronkowski refers to himself as "day-to-day," but he is expected to play. Ryan Wendell's concussion is also an injury to watch.
For the Saints, Roman Harper, Zach Strief, Lance Moore and Tyrunn Walker were all held out of practice for the second day in the row.