No, I'm not talking about Tom Benson's matching Fleur-de-lis suspenders and socks, although I'm sure Keyshawn Johnson would love to know all about that. No, I'm talking about the critical on field matchups between certain Saints and Patriots players that fans might want to keep an eye on, how they help or hurt the Saints, and why ultimately, I think the Saints should win this game. (Publishing note: I'm splitting this into two posts because a) it was getting too long, and b) I'm too tired to finish the Saints Offense vs Pats Defense section tonight. I should be able to get the second half up tomorrow night).
Saints Defense vs Patriots Offense
Not surprisingly, the Patriots offense is skewed towards the passing game. What is surprising is that they run about 50% more passing plays (42.8/game) than running plays (28.4/game). While they are effective in the running game (4.0 yards/carry), this kind of imbalance in the offense should provide opportunities for Greg Williams to be more aggressive in attacking Brady. Generally speaking, the Patriots have done a pretty good job of protecting Brady in the pocket, allowing only fourteen sacks all year. However, six of those sacks have come in the last three weeks, and every one of them has come from the left side of the defense, five with Patriots right tackle Nick Kaczur getting beat. After back to back games with two sacks earlier this year, Charles Grant has been rather quiet in recent weeks. This is the perfect chance for him to step up his game and show the fans why he's still the starting left defensive end.
I'm assuming that Jabari Greer will be lined up on Randy Moss for most or all of the game. That leaves Jenkins and/or McAlister in coverage on Welker. It's not at all clear to me which of them will get the start, but they both provide an interesting matchup that could favor the Saints over the course of the game. Welker is an incredibly dangerous receiver, Jenkins is still inexperienced, and McAlister is very new to the Saints defense. Much of the success of the Brady-to-Welker combo, however, lies in timing routes which can be disrupted by playing a hard press coverage at the line. And this is where a possible advantage for the Saints arises. Wes Welker is fairly small at 5'9", 185 lbs. Jenkins is 6'0", 205 lbs., and McAlister is 6'1", 210 lbs. That size advantage will be critical in knocking Welker off of his routes and getting him out of his comfort zone. Undoubtedly, this kind of aggressive approach will surely result in the Saints CBs getting burned sometimes, but with disciplined help from the rest of the secondary and LBs, the damage can be limited. This approach also goes hand in hand with the aggressive attack from the defensive line. Disrupting Welker's routes gives the defensive line just a bit more time to get to Brady, and an aggressive attack from the defensive line should force Brady to get rid of the ball before Welker is ready for it.
This is possibly the most interesting and the most dangerous matchup in the game. Two future Hall of Famers, each trying to outwit the other. As great as Darren Sharper has been for the Saints, I think this is one matchup where the advantage clearly belongs to the Patriots. Veteran QB's often know which receiver to whom they are going to throw before the ball is even snapped. Tom Brady is no exception. Wily free safeties, though, can nearly as often foil all those pre-snap reads by faking a commitment to one coverage or another or just remaining neutral until the last moment. Unfortunately, the free safety has to commit at some point, and that is when great QBs can really take advantage of an overmatched CB. Further, a great QB can force even the best safeties into committing to the wrong side with a good pump fake, a well timed stare down of one receiver, or just waiting it out. Sharper's success in this game will depend heavily not only on his own skills, but on the previously mentioned matchups. If Grant and the rest of the line can get good pressure on Brady, and if the CBs can maintain good coverage in their assignments, Darren Sharper will be free to play his best game. On the flip side, if Brady has lots of time and if either CB blows their coverage, Darren will be forced to commit before he wants to, and Brady will make him pay for it.
Which Saints defensive players do you think will be most crucial to continued perfection?