Dave D'Onfrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats face a stiff Brees
After matching up with a couple of rookies, a guy who was shortly thereafter benched and released, and a couple of above-average passers who have underachieved to this point this season, there is little question that the best quarterback the Patriots have encountered this season is the one that'll be standing on the opposite sideline when things kick off at Gillette Stadium this afternoon. Drew Brees will someday be a Hall of Famer, after all, and he's already in the midst of another terrific season. He's completed 69.7 percent of his passes, he's got 12 touchdowns to just four interceptions, and he's on pace to throw for more than 5,500 yards. He's got his Saints out to a 5-0 start.
Those are numbers New England fans - and their quarterback - would long to see again. But while Tom Brady may lament his lack of healthy, veteran receivers, it isn't with his wideouts that Brees is doing most of his damage. It's with sensational tight end Jimmy Graham. And, more pertinent to the Patriots' efforts to stop the Saints today, it's with his running backs leaking out of the backfield.
To a certain extent, Graham is uncoverable. His size, skill and athleticism are similar to Rob Gronkowski, so the Pats almost have to live with whatever he gets - and so far his average output is seven catches for 119 yards. But if the Pats can somehow limit the effect of New Orleans backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, it takes a major weapon away from Brees and his attack.
"They're both good," Bill Belichick said this week. "Sproles is a dynamic player, but Thomas is very underrated. He's been a very productive guy too. Yeah, they're both good.
Through five games the tandem has combined for 54 catches for 474 yards and three touchdowns, almost doubling their combined yardage when actually running the ball. Sproles alone made seven grabs for 114 yards and a score a couple of weeks ago in Miami, and has alone hauled in 26 of those tosses, for 308 yards.
Thomas, meanwhile, ranks second on the team with 28 catches. He's less of a threat to break one than is Sproles, and thus has just 166 yards receiving, but he snagged nine balls last week against the Bears, getting to the end zone with two of them.
And what makes them even more problematic for offenses is that the Saints move them around, lining them up in different spots, and even sliding them to the outside if they identify a matchup they like. When other teams have done that this season, Jerod Mayo has followed the back and essentially played cornerback. Rookie Jamie Collins could take on some of that coverage, too.
But, either way, the presence of the Saints' backs is likely to pull the Patriots out of their preferred base defense, and into a look better equipped to defend in space.
"You have to just really make sure to keep those guys as well contained as you can and not let any of them break loose," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "With as many weapons as the Saints have on offense, everyone is dangerous, whoever touches the ball. You just have to make sure that everyone is accounted for."
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UNDERRATED?: Sean Payton. No longer is the Saints' head coach underrated - not after winning a Super Bowl, and not after his 13-3 team became a 7-9 team while he was suspended a full season for the bounty scandal that unfolded on his watch - but New Orleans' fast start this year may have pushed Payton into the elite class among his sideline contemporaries. "You see a lot more focus and attitude form these guys. Guys have that swagger that we missed last year," Thomas said. "We really didn't have that good swagger to keep working hard, to keep fighting, to keep pressing on. And we felt like our family wasn't complete. Now that we've got our head coach back, our family is complete."
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OVERRATED: The Saints' red zone efficiency. Because Graham is such an outstanding - and borderline indefensible - player, and because he has six touchdown catches through five games, the perception is that the Saints are dangerous in the red zone. But that's not the case, according to the numbers. They've converted just 42.1 percent of their opportunities into touchdowns, which is fourth-worst in the NFL, but which speaks to the explosiveness of their attack. Six of their 14 offensive touchdowns have come from outside the 20.
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KEEP AN EYE ON: Big plays. Last season the Patriots allowed more receptions of at least 20 yards than any defense in football, and while they've trimmed the frequency of those field-position changers from 4.6 to 3.2 per game, the Saints will test those improvements today. New Orleans has 23 such passing plays through five games, and thrives in part by gaining territory in chunks, so limiting those long gains would take away one part of its attack. "The first half of the year last year, you could compare that to anything and say it was a lot - any year, any team, any other comparable period, I would say that would be a lot," Belichick said. "That's always our goal: we never want to give up big plays defensively. Make them drive the ball, make them earn their yards, (not) give it up in big chunks, which will be a big challenge for us this week."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.