The New Orleans Saints will host the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots this Sunday in their 2017 home opener. New Orleans comes into this game with a disappointing (infuriating?) 0-1 record after a 29-19 pummeling at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings on the road Monday night. The Patriots are a surprising 0-1 as well after being pushed around their home stadium on Thursday night by the Kansas City Chiefs, in a 42-27 beating.
It is difficult to call any Week 2 game "must-win", but the loser of this game will not have history on their side. Since 2007, only 10% of teams that have started 0-2 on the season have gone on to qualify for the playoffs. Another slow start by a very young Saints team in particular, could easily doom them towards another sub-.500 season.
After a stellar preseason, the Saints defense took a step backwards in their development in last week's debacle versus Minnesota. Now they face an even stiffer challenge with the offense of Tom Brady and his targets. Here are some key matchups to watch as the Saints defense is on the field against the dangerous Brady.
Linebackers A.J. Klein/Alex Anzalone vs. Running Backs James White/Dion Lewis and Mike Gillislee
An improved New Orleans defensive performance this preseason was keyed by a revamped linebacking unit that was more aggressive and athletically superior to the ones we have seen from the Saints over the past few years. That was evident early in last week's game against Minnesota. Free agent pickup Klein and 3rd round draft choice Anzalone in particular, covered sideline to sideline well and were in on nearly every play. As the game progressed, Klein was caught in a few athletic mismatches against Minnesota receivers, and Anzalone struggled with some of his pass coverage drops. Still, these two, along with last year's leading tackler Craig Robertson showed the potential of a much-improved unit that could mesh into the Saints strongest starting position groups.
The Patriots haven't been a consistently strong running team during the Belichick/Brady era, often attacking with a "back by committee" approach. The team did sign Mike Gillislee to replace the departed LeGarrette Blount for early down work. He had 3 touchdowns last week against Kansas City, and Dion Lewis has also proven himself to be a running threat in this New England offense.
The Patriots most dangerous receiver at running back is James White. He was the team's second leading receiver from a year ago, with 60 catches for 550 yards and 5 scores. White was a Patriot hero in the team's Super Bowl comeback, torching the Atlanta defense with 14 receptions for 110 yards and 3 total touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime. Containing White will be a top priority for New Orleans. He provides the kind of threat that Saints linebackers have been unable to contain in recent seasons, and the exact reason that the team revamped this unit.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro vs. Tight Ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen
This one-on-one match up could cause collisions that will rattle the walls of the Mercedes Benz Superdome. Gronk is still considered one of the better offensive weapons in football, and the responsibility for containing him will likely fall to a number of different Saints defenders. Vaccaro will probably draw him the most, because of his combination of athleticism and physicality. Gronkowski has struggled with injuries in recent years, and was limited to just 2 catches by the Chiefs last week. With the injuries to New England's wide receiving corps, we may see the Patriots target their big All-Pro tight end early and often in this one, testing the middle of the Saints defense. The athletic Allen was signed this offseason to continue the two tight end alignments that New England likes to employ. Allen was a bit of a disappointment in Indianapolis, but is an effective down field target that the Saints defense will also have to account for.
New Orleans faced a Pro Bowl tight end last week in Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph. Despite the Saints coverage woes against the Vikings wideouts, they did contain Rudolph well, holding him to just 3 catches for 26 yards, although he did score a touchdown. The Saints defense showed improved speed in the middle of the field during the preseason. The athletic combination of Vaccaro and fellow safeties Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams, along with linebackers Anzalone, Klein, and Robertson will be put to the test by another fine receiving target at tight end.
Defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata vs. Patriots interior line
Look back through Tom Brady's history at the defenses that have given him the most trouble over his career. The Denver defenses, the Giants defenses that they lost to in two Super Bowls, and even some of the Rex Ryan led New York Jets defenses all had one thing in common: they pressured Brady heavily and knocked him around by primarily using their front line. Even Atlanta had a lot of defensive success in the first half of last year's Super Bowl by rattling Brady with pressure up the middle (Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett led all defensive players with 3 sacks in the game). Kansas City had 3 sacks against the Patriots in last week's victory, and provided constant pressure on Brady through the second half.
The Patriots do have two serviceable tackles in Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, but Cam Jordan and Alex Okafor should have the athletic advantage on the outside. New England's interior line, with center David Andrews and guards Joe Thuney and Shaquille Mason, were a question mark coming into the 2017 season, and did little to provide answers in Week 1.
Saints defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins, Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata were expected to be a strength of an improved New Orleans defensive line in 2017, even without the absence of star Nick Fairley. They held the point of attack pretty well early last week against the Minnesota running game, stacking up the line of scrimmage and limiting cut back lanes for Vikings back Dalvin Cook. Cook was much more effective as the game wore on, primarily off tackle, once the Saints defense had been spread out due to the Minnesota passing attack. New Orleans did not generate any interior pressure on Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford, allowing him to freely survey the center of the field on crossing routes and victimize the New Orleans cornerbacks seemingly at will.
Brady has traditionally done very well against defenses with heavy blitz schemes. If New Orleans has any hope of keeping Brady from tearing their pass defense apart, they will be better served by periodic and well-timed blitzes, and need to generate pressure from their front four, particularly interior rushers Rankins and Onyemata. That will force Brady into quicker, pressured decisions while allowing the Saints extra defenders to disrupt his passing lanes.
Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and P.J. Williams vs. Patriots WRs Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Phillip Dorsett
The Patriots have already lost their best wideout, Julian Edelman, for the season with a knee injury, along with talented wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell. Danny Amendola is a major question mark to play in this game as well, after suffering a concussion during last week's loss to Kansas City. That leaves only slot receiver Chris Hogan as the only wide out with any significant experience in the New England offensive system.
New England traded for Indianapolis speedster Phillip Dorsett, to go along with another offseason acquisition familiar to Saints fans, Brandin Cooks. As the Saints are well aware, Cooks is a big play threat more than capable of taking the top off of a defense and making them pay for any lapse in coverage. The young Saints cornerbacks did not get their season off to a good start, giving up a combined 16 receptions, 250 yards and 2 touchdowns to Vikings starters Adam Thielen and Stefan Diggs.
De'Vante Harris, in particular, was tortured by Minnesota all evening. P.J. Williams, in only his third career start, had up and down moments. Marshon Lattimore played the best of any New Orleans corner, surrendering just 2 receptions and showing the aggressiveness and athleticism of a top draft choice. Expect both players to take a physical approach at the line of scrimmage with the smallish Cooks and Dorsett.
Better play is vital from Harris, Sterling Moore, and Ken Crawley, because the Saints cannot afford to let the Patriot receivers run freely through the secondary if they are to be successful. The down field threats that Cooks and Dorsett are will need to be neutralized by fast pressure on Brady, along with solid play from our final match up focus.
Safety Marcus Williams vs. Tom Brady
The rookie Williams was awarded his first professional start on Monday night, and showed early on why the Saints invested a 2nd round pick in him during this spring's draft. Williams is an athletic, aggressive safety with potential playmaking abilities from a centerfield position in the defensive backfield. Early on against Minnesota, Williams was penalized once for being too aggressive on a personal foul flag that kept a Viking drive alive.
As the game wore on, Williams fell victim to a few coverage lapses and poor decisions normally attributed to a rookie. Game experience and film study will certainly cause marked improvement in the mental part of Williams' game as the season wears on, but he will be challenged by one of the best decision makers the NFL has ever seen. Brady is a master at finding and exploiting inexperience in an opposing defense.
Williams will almost certainly be part of the coverage schemes responsible for containing Gronkowski and Cooks. His primary responsibility, however, will literally be as the last line of defense for an inexperienced and beleaguered Saints defensive backfield that is going up against a sure-fire Hall of Famer and arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
Which Saints defensive player(s) is the biggest key against the Patriots?
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A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone
Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata
Marshon Lattimore and P.J. Williams