This article turned out to be a bit more difficult to write than I expected for two similar reasons. The Saints offense has more play makers on the field for any given play than many teams have on their entire roster. Similarly, the Patriots 3-4 defense has several play making defenders that change their point of attack frequently, making it difficult to choose three or four players for individual matchups. All the same, I did find a few critical matchups that I think could make or break this game for the Saints. Before getting into individual matchups though, I want to point out (yell, scream, pray, beg, demand) that Payton needs to commit to the running game on Monday like he has never done before. I understand that Drew Brees is the best player on the field. But in this game the Saints rushing attack has a better chance of being consistently more successful than the passing game and needs to be used as more than just a mechanism for closing out games in the second half. Make the jump to find out why.
Saints Offense vs Patriots Defense
The most important position in a 3-4 defense is the nose tackle. And Vince Wilfork is one of the best nose tackles in the NFL. Jonathon Goodwin has been quite good at center this year, but is probably not Pro-Bowl caliber. In most situations, Goodwin will be getting help from the weak side guard - either Jahri Evans or Carl Nicks, depending on where the TE lines up. That said, it is Goodwin's responsibility to knock Wilfork off the line of scrimmage and allow one or both of the guards to get to the second level and make a block on a line backer, especially on 1st down running plays. I don't really know if either side has a distinct advantage here (Goodwin and Wilfork are nearly the same size), and this matchup may be decided by who had their Wheaties on Monday morning.
Will this be Reggie's big game for 2009? It certainly could be. In a 3-4 defense, the OLBs are generally responsible for containment on outside rushing plays. There are vew few if any RBs that can move as well in space as Reggie Bush. Two time Pro-Bowler Adalius Thomas is no slouch either, though he is fairly old at 32 and may have lost some of his quickness. According to the stats, the Patriots have an average rushing defense this year, allowing 109.4 yards/game (14th) and 4.4 yards/carry (20th). On the other hand, they've given up only three rushing TD's all year (2nd only to the Steelers). Payton's commitment to the running game is absolutely critical in this game, and I believe that running Reggie to the outside may offer the best matchup for the Saints. After the Texans signed Mario Williams prior to the 2006 draft and the Saints took Reggie Bush, Payton mentioned how excited he was to start drawing up plays involving both Deuce and Reggie. I want to see those plays now. Play fakes to Pierre Thomas running up the middle with a pitch out to Reggie could tie up the Patriots LBs all day. Watch for them. Of course, Payton is much smarter than me, and hopefully he has something more clever than my suggestions.
Drew Brees vs Leigh Bodden
I almost titled this section "Drew Brees vs Everyone". Drew has thrown TD passes to nine different receivers this year. But the Patriots field a very good secondary, including safeties Brandon Merriweather and Brandon McGowan. They have the 6th ranked passing defense in the league in terms of total yardage, and have given up only one completion over 40 yards all year. Leigh Bodden in particular has been very hot recently, snagging four INT's in the last two games, including one off of Peyton Manning. Bodden will likely be lined up against Marques Colston for most of the game. As always, Colston has the height advantage, but at 6'1" Bodden matches up well against tall receivers. It will be up to Drew to make those ridiculously accurate throws on the back shoulder or up high where only Colston can catch them. Besides Bodden, Drew will have to be very aware of those two very good safeties and avoid getting picked off on sucker plays.
Which matchup for the Saints' offense do you think will be most crucial?