Patriots vs. Saints: Previewing New England's Preseason Week 2 MatchupAugust 20, 2015
Patriots vs. Saints: Previewing New England's Preseason Week 2 Matchup
Saturday night's product should look more familiar to New England Patriots fans. After nearly half the projected starters sat out the team's first preseason game, a few starters returning healthy should help the Pats roll out a lineup somewhat resembling what they'll have on Sept. 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That news applies especially to the offense, which was missing every starter from last year's roster apart from Tom Brady. Brady played just seven snaps while surrounded by second- and third-stringers, so he'll surely look for more reps against the New Orleans Saints' revamped defense.
The Patriots' defense may have experienced the majority of the offseason turnover, but that unit has turned into the more stable one this preseason. The Pats got unexpected good news on the health front when Dont'a Hightower suited up for the team's first preseason game, and the second contest should provide a better look at potential new starters such as Malcolm Butler and Dominique Easley.
For now, New England is looking at the culmination of a five-day road trip. At the time of publication, the Patriots were conducting the second of two joint practices with the Saints in their West Virginia camp site. As to which team might hold the upper hand when they move to the Superdome, read on for a complete look at the top storylines and matchups to watch from New England's second preseason contest.
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome; New Orleans
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: WBZ-TV CBS (Local), replays on NFL Network
Patriots' Preseason Week 1 Recap
Preseason may be invaluable for coaches to evaluate their roster, but Gillette Stadium's paying crowd likely didn't enjoy the languid performances from New England's bottom-of-the-roster players. Still, there was plenty of takeaway from the Patriots' 22-11 loss to the Green Bay Packers, especially in relation to the roster-bubble outlook.
Running backs James White and Jonas Gray, along with wide receiver Brandon Gibson, might have been the biggest winners of the night. White led the team with 52 receiving yards on four catches, gaining some separation from the injured Travaris Cadet in the passing back competition. Gibson might've inched ahead of fellow fringe receivers Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce by catching all four of his targets. Gray, who isn't getting enough attention as a possible challenger to LeGarrette Blount, was the only Patriot to reach the end zone with an explosive 55-yard scamper.
The Pats were also fortunate to ostensibly escape any major injuries, though rookies Trey Flowers and Darryl Roberts were knocked out in the first half. ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss noted that Roberts suffered a hand or wrist injury, while also speculating that Flowers may have been concussed given how he exited after hitting his head on the turf.
Both could play situational niche roles this year (it was intriguing to see Roberts get first-team right cornerback reps apart from Malcolm Butler), but they'll need to return soon to get more reps before the regular season.
How Belichick splits reps between Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo, especially when the first-stringers are playing, will be the central focal point against the Saints. Playing with backups, Garoppolo was perpetually under siege against the Packers en route to seven sacks. Unless Brady's court case reaches an unexpected settlement, though, Garoppolo deserves to split time with the likes of Rob Gronkowski and the first-string offensive line.
Latest Injury News
With the Patriots traveling to West Virginia for practices, the names who stayed behind should give us a good read on the players who won't suit up. According to WEEI's Christopher Price, a group, including Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson and Bryan Stork, stayed behind to work out at Gillette Stadium. All those players have practiced sparingly in camp, which leaves their availability for Saturday night in doubt.
In addition, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss noted that the trio of Trey Flowers, Darryl Roberts and Rufus Johnson, all of whom were injured against the Packers, missed the first joint practice on Wednesday. It appears the Pats will once again be rather thin at receiver and along the offensive line, though having tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer back should help the first-team offense's continuity.
Given the instability throughout the rest of the unit, though, it's unclear how much Belichick will want to expose Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
Defensively, the front-seven depth has taken a hit, with numerous second-stringers (including Dane Fletcher, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano) unavailable. That could create opportunities for linebackers Jonathan Freeny and James Morris, both of whom commanded the huddle against Green Bay, as well as Geneo Grissom and Zach Moore on the defensive line.
The Saints are similarly depleted in the secondary—the Times-Picayune's Larry Holder counted the entire secondary (including old friend Brandon Browner) as missing from practice. New Orleans is relatively healthy apart from that unit, but it could create a chance for New England's numerous fringe receivers to make a roster case on Saturday night.
Rob Gronkowski vs. Kenny Vaccaro
Assuming Gronkowski does see a bit of game action, there likely won't be much mystery to how New Orleans defends the All-Pro tight end. Unlike most teams, which vary their looks with a cocktail mixture of safeties and linebackers, the Saints have a logical option in Kenny Vaccaro.
The third-year pro was one of the game's most versatile safeties in his impressive rookie campaign, a Swiss army knife capable of covering the slot, defending the run in the box and helping in deep-half coverage.
However, Vaccaro slumped badly while playing through a litany of injuries in 2014. Playing with an injury-depleted secondary that included two undrafted rookie starters by season's end certainly didn't help, as Vaccaro's responsibilities often stretched him too far during his second season.
So ultimately, this matchup might be more important for Saints fans to gauge Vaccaro's progress in a possible rebound season. However, while New England has no such questions surrounding Gronkowski, it will be nice to see how he performs against a Saints secondary that, when healthy, has plenty of talent on paper.
Chandler Jones vs. Terron Armstead
After a disappointing injury-plagued 2014 season, Chandler Jones has generated positive reports about his renewed explosiveness during training camp, according to Reiss. The Patriots have never possessed a deeper edge-rushing corps since Belichick began installing more 4-3 principles, but Jones remains the potential cornerstone piece the Pats need on the defensive line.
And while preseason performance certainly won't count for Jones in the long haul, he should receive plenty of valuable reps against one of the league's best young left tackles. New Orleans' Terron Armstead (6'5", 304 lbs) is as athletic as any tackle in the league, demonstrating both superior strength and lithe footwork. Armstead has impressively harnessed his athleticism in two years as a starter—apart from a rough Week 12 showing against the Baltimore Ravens, Armstead allowed just 18 total pressures in the other 15 games last season, per Pro Football Focus.
After playing two series against Green Bay, Jones figures to see three to four series worth of action against the Saints. If you're looking for an individual matchup to watch while the defensive starters are on, keep an eye on Armstead vs. Jones wrestling on Drew Brees' blind side.
Logan Ryan, Bradley Fletcher and Tarell Brown vs. Brandon Coleman
With Darryl Roberts presumably out, the Patriots are still looking for a cornerback to elevate his game and steal the right corner spot. Along with Robert McClain in the slot, Ryan and Fletcher played the majority of the Packers game at the outside corner spots (Ryan on the left, Fletcher on the right). Brown sat out with a minor injury, but he figures to rotate in along with Ryan and Fletcher this week.
The toughest matchup for the trio might not be starters Brandin Cooks or Marques Colston, but rather it's impressive second-year pro Brandon Coleman. After going undrafted out of Rutgers, Coleman spent the year on New Orleans' practice squad.
A towering 6'6", 225-pound presence on the outside, Coleman has drawn rave reviews from camp, including those of the Advocate's Joel A. Erickson, and could conceivably become the Saints' No. 3 receiver this season (for all you deep-league fantasy owners).
The Pats have traditionally had issues defending vertical concepts against big perimeter receivers. Watching Ryan get toasted on a Jeff Janis fade route was ominous in that regard. Coleman isn't exactly a burner, but you can be sure the Saints will look for isolation routes with him, especially in the red zone. How the Patriots' corners handle that matchup could go a long way to earning a spot opposite Malcolm Butler.
Patriots X-Factor of the Week: Robert McClain
Though most offenses deploy their best receivers outside the numbers, the Saints have thrived for years on creating mismatches between the hash marks. Both Cooks and Colston play prominent roles in the slot, which should leave the veteran McClain with arguably the toughest job among Patriots corners this weekend.
After signing a modest one-year, $800,000 salary (with some roster incentives), McClain didn't register on the radar as a likely candidate to make the final 53-man roster. However, after playing with the first-team defense against Green Bay and holding down the slot virtually the entire contest, the 27-year-old is undeniably the favorite to start in the position.
McClain certainly wasn't perfect against the Packers—based on the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe's account, Green Bay quarterbacks went 3-of-5 for 44 yards when targeting McClain. Still, apart from Logan Ryan, the Patriots don't appear to have another natural fit in the slot, especially with Roberts injured. Once a bubble candidate, McClain is now approaching roster-lock status.
If he plays well in extended snaps against Cooks and Colston, perhaps McClain fully earns that status. Of course, if Belichick continues to give the majority of the slot corner snaps to No. 22, that itself might be revealing enough.
Saints X-Factor of the Week: Mark Ingram
Last week, the Patriots struggled defending top Packers back Eddie Lacy, who rumbled for 36 yards on just five carries (7.2 yards per attempt). Coming off his own impressive breakout season, Ingram could enjoy similar success.
Ingram and Lacy are not the same back stylistically, of course, but the Saints' former first-rounder could be expanding his repertoire this season. Having played alongside steady passing back Pierre Thomas his entire career, Ingram has played almost exclusively on early downs, with just 53 catches over four seasons. However, per the team's official website (via AL.com's Mark Inabinett), Ingram is angling for a larger role as a receiver:
I'm a complete back. I've been saying that since forever. That's what I was doing ever since I was little – receiver, corner, safety, punt returner, kick returner, I did everything. So I view myself as a complete back, a football player, so I definitely hope my role expands.
I've always believed in myself that I could contribute in the passing game coming out of the backfield, running routes. I'm looking forward to that, hopefully, expanding that role.
Ingram more than doubled his career receptions total with 29 catches last year, and C.J. Spiller's knee injury could open the door for him, at least early in the season. The Saints once traded a first- and second-rounder to the Patriots to select Ingram, and now New England will get an up-close view at the fifth-year back's evolution.
What the Experts Are Saying
Mark Daniels: Secondary Shake-ups
Coaches are going to roll out a litany of personnel combinations at this time of year, so it's dangerous to read too deeply into practices. But when a coach keeps personnel in place for multiple days, as the Providence Journal's Mark Daniels reports Bill Belichick has done in the secondary, it's at least worth noting:
Patriots secondary opens up with the same grouping as the past few practices with McCourty, Butler, Chung and Harmon— Mark Daniels (@MarkDanielsPJ) August 19, 2015
There was buzz earlier this offseason, per Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald (via Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio) about Devin McCourty moving to corner, though he's played there situationally the past two seasons (including in last January's divisional-round game against Baltimore).
Moreover, given the lack of proven depth at cornerback, the odds of McCourty moving there on an emergency basis are greater than they've been since he became a full-time safety. With the constant rotation at right corner, it only makes sense for McCourty to get his share of reps on the outside.
Daniels also reported that the veteran Brown has come on strong in recent practices. As alluded to in an earlier slide, Brown is likely competing with Logan Ryan and Bradley Fletcher for a starting spot. So long as he stays healthy after missing a few practices, perhaps Brown ascends to the first team soon.
Jeff Howe: Dobson's Spot Safe?
After a strong initial week of training camp, Aaron Dobson's stock has seemingly fizzled due to a familiar foe, the injury bug. But while Dobson appears set to miss another game (as mentioned on the injury slide), the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe believes the team is actually taking a cautious approach in the hopes of preserving him for the long haul:
Here's what I know on Dobson's hamstring: He feels ready to practice, but the Pats have opted to be overly cautious and kept him out. (1/2)— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) August 19, 2015
I'm led to believe that's a good sign for Dobson to make the team. If Pats were leaning toward cutting him, they'd have him on field. (2/2)— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) August 19, 2015
Although Howe's take is a curious one, his pulse on the Patriots makes his opinion intriguing. Given the renewed emphasis at tight end, the Patriots don't figure to keep more than five wide receivers (excluding special teamer Matthew Slater). New England kept six receivers out of camp last year (again, minus Slater), but the Patriots cut Kenbrell Thompkins after just four weeks.
With all the extra bodies on the defensive front seven, the Patriots will need to make roster concessions somewhere else. Assuming Edelman, LaFell and Danny Amendola are locks, that would leave Dobson battling with Brandon Gibson, Brian Tyms, Chris Harper and Josh Boyce for one or two spots. His second-round pedigree might buy him one more chance, but if he can't stay healthy, the Patriots' patience will run out shortly.
Mike Reiss: Analyzing Cleveland-Devey Swap
The Patriots acquired some extra interior offensive line depth earlier this offseason when they sent sixth-round rookie Matt Wells to the Chicago Bears for Ryan Groy. Perhaps that trade allowed the Pats to make another minor swap with the San Francisco 49ers when they dealt part-time 2014 starter Jordan Devey for backup tight end Asante Cleveland.
An undrafted rookie out of Miami, Cleveland worked his way onto the Niners' practice squad last year and played on special teams in six games. At 6'5" and 260 pounds, Cleveland is a larger tight end who figures in as more of a blocker. In four years as a Hurricane, he caught just 14 passes. ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss believes the Patriots could stash the second-year player on the practice squad as a developmental prospect:
Cleveland has practice squad eligibility, so even if he doesn't make the Patriots' 53-man roster (he's a longer shot right now), he could still be part of the 63-man snapshot in early September. We know how the Patriots like developing tight ends.
In addition, this trade likely bodes well for David Andrews' roster chances, another side effect Reiss mentions. The undrafted rookie started at center against the Packers and seemed to move past Devey before the trade. Andrews might be competing with Josh Kline (who is also receiving center reps, per Daniels) for the final spot on the offensive line.
Prediction: Patriots 25, Saints 23
Preseason performance isn't typically too concerning, especially for an organization as established as the Patriots. But given all the incessant off-field distractions that have clouded Tom Brady's offseason, Saturday night represents an important chance to evaluate how much those distractions have hindered Brady's preparation for the season, if at all.
Given that he's now missed two practices for court-related reasons, it's impossible to argue that Brady's preparation hasn't been at least slightly compromised. With many of his first-team receivers and offensive linemen out of the lineup as well, Brady hasn't compiled many reps with the players the Patriots figure to rely on to carry their offense this year.
Consequently, even though the defense underwent more offseason personnel turnover, expect the offense to stay on the field longer against New Orleans. Apart from cornerback, the defensive hierarchy is largely established. Regardless of how that unit performs against Drew Brees and Co., Belichick is unlikely to make any drastic changes to that side of the ball.
The Patriots have struggled offensively in September each of the past two seasons. The next two preseason games, against the Saints and Carolina Panthers, should give Pats fans a glimpse into how ready the first-team offense will be when the games begin to count.