The New Orleans Saints have a tall task in front of them for their 2017 home opener. After beginning the regular season with a Monday night loss on the road against the Minnesota Vikings, the Saints now must contend with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The Patriots are coming into this game with an 0-1 record as well, after getting drubbed at home last week against the Kansas City Chiefs.
One of the most surprising things about the Saints opening day loss is how ineffective their normally high powered offense was at times against a very good Viking defense. Today we look at a few key match ups to watch as the New Orleans offense tries to rebound at home in Week 2.
WR Michael Thomas vs. CBs Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore
Thomas is perhaps the best offensive weapon that quarterback Drew Brees has at his disposal. His 92 receptions for 1,132 yards and 9 touchdowns set rookie records last season, and have many believing that Thomas is on the cusp of being considered among the NFL's best receivers. He was held in check by an outstanding Minnesota secondary last week, finishing with only 5 catches for 45 yards.
New Orleans was missing star wideout Willie Snead, currently serving a three-game league suspension, along with another top target from a year ago in Brandin Cooks, now in a Patriot uniform after an offseason trade. Now, Thomas faces a New England secondary with top rated corners Stephon Gilmore and the subject of many trade rumors involving the Saints themselves this offseason, Malcolm Butler.
The Patriots pass defense was torn apart by the Chiefs’ Alex Smith last Thursday. Smith was 28-of-35 for 368 yards and 4 scores, with 133 of those yards on 7 receptions going to their dynamic wideout Tyreek Hill. The Pats secondary showed surprising vulnerability against a Chiefs passing attack that is not considered to be a strength. Thomas doesn't have the game breaking ability that Hill possesses, but he still possesses a number of advantages over most defensive backs. At 6-foot-3, he is bigger than either the 5-foot-11 Butler or 6-foot-1 Gilmore, and Thomas has the strength advantage against most defensive backs he will face as well.
"Can't Guard Mike" must be exactly that for the New Orleans passing game in this one, especially with Snead missing his second consecutive game. As much as the Saints need their best receiver to step up his production a bit, it certainly wouldn't hurt if he got some help from his friends....
Ted Ginn, Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis and Coby Fleener vs. Patriot coverages
13 catches, 170 yards and a touchdown. That was the combined stat line produced by Ginn, Coleman, Lewis, and Fleener against the Vikings. Perhaps not bad numbers on paper, but anyone who watched Monday night's game realized that this crew was not a significant factor in the New Orleans offense. Fleener had one of his better games as a Saint, making multiple plays down the seam and providing a quality red zone target.
Lewis had a deep reception in the 3rd Quarter that would have been a touchdown if he wouldn't have stumbled, and Ginn had a nice over the shoulder reception that led to a New Orleans score. The Saints simply need more from this group, particularly in the absence of Snead. Ginn and Lewis are the best deep threats on the team, but they must at least provide a long ball THREAT to a defense for the coverage to respect that option, therefore opening things up underneath.
Fleener showed flashes of being a bigger threat for this offense in 2017, now just needs to show consistency. Coleman had his best training camp as a pro, but once again was unable to get any separation against Minnesota. The Patriots possess a capable secondary, with safeties Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, and Patrick Chung to go along with corners Gilmore and Butler. It has already been outlined how important top target Michael Thomas is to the Saints passing game, but it is equally vital that at least one of these players step forward to provide a consistent threat for New Orleans to be successful.
Saints OTs vs. Trey Flowers/Patriots pass rush
One could argue that the Saints offense came to a screeching halt against Minnesota when right tackle Zach Strief went down with a leg injury midway through the 1st half. Up until that time, the Saints were leaving Strief in some one-on-one pass blocking assignments while using a running back to "chip" on the side of rookie left tackle Ryan Ramczyk to help him against Vikings pass rusher Everson Griffen.
Senio Kelemete took Strief's spot at right tackle, and the Saints were forced to try and provide extra help on that side, leaving the inexperienced Ramczyk in more one-on-one situations. The result was Brees being under siege for the remainder of the game against a very talented Minnesota front line. Although he was only sacked once (Griffen), the 38-year-old quarterback took numerous hits and was under a constant heavy rush. Strief will miss numerous games with injury, joining talented left tackle Terron Armstead on the injury list. The Saints re-signed veteran tackle Bryce Harris this week, and brought in several veterans for tryouts.
New England's pass rushers are not nearly as dangerous as what they faced in Minnesota, but Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick have made a career out of devising schemes to expose an opponent's weakness. Defensive end Trey Flowers is developing into a dangerous edge rusher, leading the Patriots with 7 sacks over the second half of last season, adding 2.5 sacks in their Super Bowl victory and 2 more in last week's game against the Chiefs.
Ramczyk is showing more and more why the Saints invested the 32nd overall pick in him this spring. But, the learning curve is steep for a left tackle in the NFL, and there has been some question whether the team may move the rookie to the right tackle spot, and juggle the rest of the offensive line combination. Left guard Andrus Peat played well at times at the tackle spot last season, and both Kelemete and Harris have experience on either side. No matter the combination that New Orleans decides, the ability to protect Brees will be vital if New Orleans is to have an effective passing attack.
Mark Ingram/Alvin Kamara vs. Patriots LBs
One of the biggest questions of New Orleans coming into Week 1 was how the running back trio of Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara, and Adrian Peterson was going to be used. Now entering week two, that question has still not been answered. The three combined for just 53 yards rushing against the Vikings, averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per attempt. Once the game got a bit out of hand, Ingram and Kamara received the bulk of the snaps down the stretch because of their pass catching abilities, combining for 9 receptions and 74 yards.
The Patriots had no answer for Chiefs rookie back Kareem Hunt in Week 1. Hunt had 148 rushing yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, and added 5 receptions for 98 yards and 2 more scores. Kamara is a more explosive back than Hunt, Ingram is one of the more underrated versatile backs in the league, and New England's best linebacker, Donta Hightower, has been ruled out of this game due to injury. A game like this has all the potential to be a shootout on paper, with each team having major defensive question marks. It seems like a perfect match up to get the dynamic Kamara opportunities in space, using the versatile Ingram to keep the Patriots off balance, while the veteran Peterson may only see carries in goal line packages.
Drew Brees/Sean Payton vs. Tom Brady/Bill Belichick
Two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history meet as their Hall of Fame careers wind down. Each still capable of taking their team on their shoulders and leading them to victory. Arguably the best two coaches from the Bill Parcells coaching tree, one of them at one time lauded as a defensive mastermind, and the other at one time viewed as the best offensive mind in the game. The best two players, with the best two head coaches in their respective franchise's histories. Four famously fierce competitors from two proud and angry teams coming off humbling losses, and most certainly respective of one another. The mental chess match that will take place on the sidelines this Sunday should have every fan glued to their TV screen, waiting for something both the special and the unexpected that each of these four have delivered at various points throughout their successful careers.
Which Saints offensive player(s) will be the biggest key to success against New England?
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Mark Ingram/Alvin Kamara
Brees/Payton vs. Brady/Belichick