3TFO: Saints @ Patriots, Week 6
New England saw its unbeaten season come to an end last week in Cincinnati. After a full day of offensive futility, the team’s bid for a comeback was ultimately derailed in the face of monsoon-like conditions late in the fourth quarter. The offensive struggles wasted a fine effort by the Patriots’ defense. Through five games, New England’s defense has been superior to its offense, a sharp reversal from what we have come to expect from the team in recent seasons.
New Orleans kept its perfect season alive with an impressive performance last week in Chicago. Offense has rarely been a problem for the Saints since Drew Brees arrived, but the team’s defense has been less consistent. After last season’s team broke records for defensive futility, the biggest story surrounding the team in 2013 has been its rapid turnaround under new coordinator Rob Ryan. This should be a great matchup of teams with Hall of Fame quarterbacks and defenses that are allowing less than 15 points per game.
New Orleans Passing Offense vs. New England Pass Defense
The Saints’ offense is still one of the most explosive groups in the NFL, though it lacks the balance that we saw during the team’s Super Bowl-winning season in 2009. Former first-round pick Mark Ingram has been a huge disappointment for the team, and the Saints’ offensive line ranks in the bottom third of our cumulative run blocking grades. Fortunately, the passing attack has more than picked up the slack for the offense. Tight end Jimmy Graham has been unstoppable so far, leading all tight ends in nearly every statistical category. If he is able to maintain his ridiculous 3.26 Yards per Route Run, he will shatter the previous mark for tight ends. The problem with focusing too heavily on Graham is that the Saints have the ability to exploit mismatches with its other offensive weapons, and Brees does a great job using pre-snap movement to create favorable matchups. Marques Colston is built more like a tight end than a slot receiver, but more than half of his snaps have come from the slot. He ranks third among all receivers in Yards per Route Run from the slot. Darren Sproles has the best passing grade of any running back, and also leads his position with 3.02 YPRR.
New England’s defense appears to have turned a decisive corner after several years of poor pass defense. The Patriots currently rank fourth in our cumulative coverage grades, and several members of the secondary look like they are well on their way to the Pro Bowl. Aqib Talib has gotten most of the press, and deservedly so. He has four interceptions already, and opposing quarterbacks have a QB Rating of 30.8 when targeting Talib. Devin McCourty has received less media attention, but he quietly leads all safeties with a +9.6 overall grade. McCourty has been solid both in coverage and in run defense, and is one of just two safeties who have yet to miss a tackle. It will be interesting to see how the team tries to slow down the Saints’ passing offense. The team’s linebackers have regularly struggled to contain tight ends, which does not bode well when facing a player of Graham’s caliber. In Atlanta two weeks ago, the Patriots used two linebackers in a vice coverage against Tony Gonzalez to great effect in the red zone. It is unlikely that they will be able to use this strategy for the entire game however, as Brees will simply target his other weapons who will have more favorable matchups.
New England Rushing Offense vs. New Orleans Front Seven
New England’s offensive line ranks fourth in our cumulative run blocking rankings, but they had a disappointing showing last week. Nate Solder has been the team’s best lineman, and his +6.0 run blocking grade leads all tackles. The interior of the line has been its weakness this season, and the Patriots would greatly benefit from a return to form from guard Logan Mankins (+3.4), who has been inconsistent through five games. The rushing attack will receive a boost in the form of starter Stevan Ridley’s return to the field after the back missed last week’s game with a leg injury.
No one has benefitted more from the hiring of Rob Ryan than defensive end Cameron Jordan. Jordan was a misfit in the 2012 Saints’ 4-3 defense, but has been dominant as a 3-4 end this year. His cumulative grade of +18.6 is second only to J.J. Watt among 3-4 ends, and Jordan has been equally proficient against the run and the pass. Inside linebackers David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton have been solid; they each rank in the Top 15 at their position in Run Stop Percentage, and have combined to miss just three tackles.
Replacing Vince Wilfork
New Orleans’ offensive line has done a poor job creating space for its running backs to work. Not a single starter has a positive run blocking grade, though the group has done a nice job of protecting Brees. Jahri Evans has made the All-Pro team for the past four years, but he has been the team’s least effective blocker so far as he has struggled with injuries. Evans is an excellent run blocker when he is at his best, but his -6.6 run blocking grade is near the bottom of all guards in 2013. With Wilfork out for the year and fellow defensive tackle Tommy Kelly nursing a knee injury, this week is as good an opportunity as any for Evans to get back on track.
Kelly has been the Patriots’ best interior lineman this season, even before Wilfork was injured. His presence was clearly missed last week, as the Bengals overpowered the Patriots’ defense on a crucial 4th-and-goal after Kelly limped off the field. Rookie Joe Vellano was woefully overmatched last week, and his -6.1 run defense grade earned him a spot on the Had a Bad Day Team. On the other end of that spectrum, linebacker Brandon Spikes was the starting MLB on our Team of the Week, after he earned a career-best +5.4 grade. Spikes is a dominant player against the run, but he rarely sees time in sub packages because of his limitations in coverage. Given that New Orleans loves to spread the field offensively, Spikes’ opportunities may be limited this week, which would deprive the Patriots of their two best run defenders.