Three things to watch for as the New England Patriots take on the undefeated New Orleans Saints in Foxboro Sunday.
$11. Can the Patriots run the ball?
New England has shown no indication it will be able to keep pace with the high-powered Saints offense, particularly without Rob Gronkowski, who is reportedly unlikely to suit up.
As well as the Pats’ defense has played this season, the best way to stop Drew Brees is still to keep him off the field. That’s done by stringing together long drives, converting on third downs and effectively shortening the game. And that’s done by running the football.
Fortunately for the Patriots, the Saints rank dead last in stopping the run, giving up a whopping 5. 4 yards per carry. Another bonus for the Pats: running back Stevan Ridley, (officially listed as questionable) is expected to make his return after missing last week with a knee injury. Ridley is New England’s most versatile running back and both LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden are capable performers who can be very effective when they limit their mistakes.
$12. Can the Patriots stop the run(ning backs)?
With Vince Wilfork out for the season and fellow tackle Tommy Kelly out this week with an ankle injury, the Patriots are very thin along the defensive line. Fortunately for the Patriots, New Orleans does not excel at running the ball between the tackles – they rank 27th in the league in rushing yards. But that doesn’t mean the Saints’ backs aren’t dangerous. The pint-sized Darren Sproles might be the quickest player in the league and is an absolute nightmare catching passes out of the backfield, as is seven-year vet Pierre Thomas who has already hauled in 28 receptions.
The Pats’ top three linebackers, Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes are big and physical but they struggle in coverage and have zero chance of keeping up with Sproles. As a result, expect New England to lineup in sub packages with an extra defensive back. Also look for rookie linebacker Jamie Collins to see more action. He’s a terrific athlete and by far the Pats’ best coverage linebacker.
$13. Stopping Jimmy Graham
Fourth-year player Jimmy Graham is the league’s best tight end and, with apologies to the Lions’ Calvin Johnson, Graham’s combination of size and speed make him the most dangerous receiving threat in the game. Which is to say, the Pats will probably not be stopping Graham altogether, but the extent to which they can limit his impact will be crucial.
Patriots’ cornerback Aqib Talib has done an excellent job matching up against some very big receivers this season, including the Bucs’ Vincent Jackson (6’5”, 230 lbs) and the Bengals’ A.J. Green (6’4”, 210 lbs) but at 6’7”, 265 pounds, Graham is in a different category altogether. New England will likely put Talib on Graham for much of the game but will also ask their massive linebackers to chip him off the line, making it difficult for him to get into his routes, and bracket him with safety help over the top … and hope Brees looks elsewhere.