The New England Patriots return home on Sunday to take on the undefeated New Orleans Saints. After one of the worst performances in the Brady-Belichick era, a 13-6 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals, it’s not exactly a walk in the park for the Patriots in week 6. The New Orleans Saints haven’t stumbled into their perfect record. They best the Patriots in nearly every offensive category. They are third in the league in yards gained and are averaging more than 26 points per game, compared to the Patriots 19 points per game. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is second in the league (behind only the unworldly Peyton Manning) in yards per game and sports a 107.4 quarterback rating, compared to Tom Brady’s measly 80.5 rating. He is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes compared to Brady’s 56 percent.
While Rob Gronkowski has been recovering from a series of offseason surgeries, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham leads the league in receiving, averaging more than 16 yards per catch with nearly 600 yards through five games. While Patriots fans wonder if their offense will ever be the same with a new cast of characters and a struggling quarterback, the Saints keep marching on and are feeling as confident as ever with head coach Sean Payton back from suspension.
Despite the travails of the Patriots and the success of the Saints, their records are not wildly different. The Saints may be undefeated, but the Patriots were one score away from perfection themselves, despite their struggles thus far in 2013. With the Patriots at home and likely feeling the need to prove themselves, the game might be more evenly matched than the statistics would predict. Let’s look at some of the key questions for the Patriots week 6 matchup with the New Orleans Saints.
1. What Tom Brady will show up?
Let’s be perfectly clear: Tom Brady has never struggled this badly. He is having have much more difficulty assimilating a new cast of receivers into the Patriots offense than most predicted. His woes have even led some to question whether or not he’s lost the magic that has made him one of the most productive and successful quarterbacks in the history of the game. He is 27th in the league in completion percentage, 31st in yards per attempt, has thrown only seven touchdown passes, and trails Geno Smith, Sam Bradford, and Ryan Tannehill in yards per game. He’s not exactly keeping company with Montana and Unitas these days.
While Brady’s numbers are certainly affected by the young receivers that are learning the NFL and one of its most complex offenses on the job, the reality is also that number 12 just hasn’t been sharp. His passes have not been as accurate as we’re accustomed to seeing and his lack of confidence in his receivers has affected both the quickness of his release and his ability to see the whole field. If the Patriots offense is to start producing like it has in recent years, Brady himself will also have to improve, not just his receivers.
Despite Brady’s struggles, the Patriots organization and their fans have faith that their quarterback will break out of his funk. He’s been too good for too long for him not to find his rhythm in this new offense. Whether it can happen on Sunday is another question altogether, but you can rest assured that Brady remembers the last time he faced off against the Saints: a 38-17 Saints shellacking of the Patriots on Monday Night Football in 2009. Forget about all the talk in the Patriots locker room about moving on from losses – Tom Brady holds a grudge better than most that have ever played the game. Whether he can channel that motivation on Sunday and turn in a better performance against the Saints will go a long way to determining whether the Patriots will be 5-1 or 4-2 come Sunday night.
2. Can the Patriots pressure Drew Brees?
The Patriots pass rush has been inconsistent at best so far this season. Like most elite quarterbacks, Drew Brees will pick defenses apart if given time in the pocket. In order for the Patriots to have any hope of slowing Brees and the Saints passing attack, they will need consistent pressure from the edge and a good game from Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, the young defensive tackles filling in for the injured Vince Wilfork. The health of Tommy Kelly will also be something to watch on Sunday as he’s been missing from practice the past few days and is certainly questionable to start against the Saints. If Kelly can’t go, there will be a lot of pressure on the young duo of Jones and Vellano, as well as the newly acquired Andre Neblett, to fill in effectively.
Sunday would be an ideal time for Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones to have a breakout game. The Patriots will need both him and Rob Ninkovich to make their presence felt on Sunday and make Brees uncomfortable. If they can’t get to the quarterback consistently, it could be a long day for the Patriots secondary.
3. Will Stevan Ridley make an impact?
The Patriots running game took a step back against Cincinnati when they rushed for only 82 yards. It’s reasonable to wonder why New England abandoned the run in the second half of that game, particularly with such poor pass catching conditions. Regardless, the running game needs to be better against the Saints if the Patriots want to come out on top. If Stevan Ridley returns from injury, which looks like a distinct possibility given that he’s been a regular participant in practice this week (albeit on a limited basis), can he provide the Patriots the boost they need in the running game and start to look like the back he was in 2012? The Saints are allowing 109 yards per game on the ground so there could be room for Ridley and the rest of the Patriots ball carriers to make an impact on Sunday.
4. What effect will the return of Rob Gronkowski have?
This is the million dollar question for the Patriots offense. If the reports are accurate that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is set to return to action on Sunday, what effect will he have on the game? Can he be the catalyst that Patriots fans hope he can be or will he be limited in his return as he eases back into action? I think it’s safe to say that we’re not likely to see the Gronk who carries opposing defenders down the field on his back en route to spike parties, but don’t be surprised if he is a frequent target of Brady’s on Sunday. The Patriots have basically gotten no production from the tight end position thus far this season and we all know that Tom Brady is drooling for another trusted body to throw to. If he is healthy, there’s no doubt that Gronkowski can help the Patriots when and where it counts most: on third down and in the red zone. The Patriots must get better in both areas and Gronk offers at least a little cause for optimism that the Patriots can improve in those critical facets of the game on Sunday.
If the answer to most of these questions is yes, the Patriots stand a fair chance at beating the New Orleans Saints. If they can’t get more consistent production from their quarterback and in the running game, however, and put real pressure on Drew Brees, the Patriots are likely in for a long day against the Saints on Sunday.