Drop number eighteen of the season happened immediately for the Patriots offense as wide receiver Aaron Dobson dropped a wide open in the flat on the first offensive play of the game. Fortunately, the Patriots were able to move past the mistake and convert for sixteen yards to Michael Hoomanawanui as quarterback Tom Brady got the tight ends involved early in the game. Mixing in some no-huddle, the Patriots converted their first third down of the game when Brady hit slot receiver Julian Edelman for fifteen yards on third-and-five.
New England’s initial drive looked like classic New England as the shotgun/no-huddle offense moved the ball quickly with short passes and mixing in some runs out of the no-huddle. On another third down, Brady looked downright mobile with some slippery moves in the pocket and then scrambling for eleven yards to the Saints fifteen yard line with some high-stepping scrambling. However, the drive ended with a coverage sack as Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan tracked Brady down after a long time in the pocket looking for an open receiver. A 35 yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski put New England on the board with a 3-0 lead.
New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib (31) Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
The New England defense had a great first series as the Saints ran running back Darren Sproles wide outside on their first play from scrimmage and New England held the edge and held Sproles to a yard with cornerback Alfonzo Dennard setting the tone with a hard it on the speedy running back. On the first pass play, the Patriots had cornerback Aqib Talib coverage on tight end Jimmy Graham (who split wide like a receiver) and Talib batted the ball away with some tight coverage. On third down, Talib stayed tight on Graham as the Saints had to go to wide receiver Nick Toon and forced a punt.
The Patriots tried some trickery on the punt return, as a throwback by Julian Edelman to Talib lost fifteen yards on the punt as missed block led to Edelman being hit hard while throwing and New England was fortunate to fall on the ball. The Patriots saw the offense go three-and-out with running back Brandon Bolding stumbling on a screen pass and turning a big gain on first down into a five yard stumble and bumble. After a quick out to wide receiver Danny Amendola went for only a yard, the Patriots ran Bolden up the middle on third-and-four and he was unable to muscle through the Saints defense for the first down.
The Saints converted two big plays against New England as former Patriots first round pick Ben Watson took advantage of man coverage by Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes to gain 25 yards. This was on the heels of a screen pass to Pierre Thomas that went for 29 yard on second-and-thirteen that was highlighted by some poor tackling by New England. On third-and four, the Saints converted again as Darren Sproles slipped out and rookie linebacker Jamie Collins could not get a grip of him to bring him down before the first down marker.
On third down, the Saints finished a ten play drive with a three yard touchdown to Travaris Cadet on third-and-goal. The score put the Saints ahead seven to three and highlighted the difference between the two offenses as the Saints converted in the Red Zone where New England fizzled out and kicked a field goal. Missing tight end Rob Gronkowski was highlighted by the lack of production close to the end zone this season. With Gronkowski practicing and not playing, the Patriots continued to struggle when they need to complete a pass when there is little space and need to find a receiver who can get up and catch the ball in coverage.
After the Patriots received the kickoff down seven to three, the team drove quickly to the fifteen on some nice running by running back Stevan Ridley in his first series of the game including an eighteen yard rumble up the middle of the Saints defense. The Patriots worked the sidelines with rookie Aaron Dobson catching a twenty yard pass, a nineteen yard pass, a nine yard catch, and then drawing a pass interference penalty in the end zone on third-and-two. Running back Stevan Ridley, healthy this week, showed his nose for the end zone on second-and-goal as he powered in from the one yard line to give New England a ten to seven lead.
With cornerback Aqib Talib all over Jimmy Graham on third-and-ten on the ensuing Saints drive to deny him a reception with another nice break-up on the ball forced New Orleans’ second punt in three drives. The game plan early for the Patriots defense was geared towards stopping Graham, keeping bodies in front of scat-back Darren Sproles and preventing him from making big plays. With Drew Brees forced to look for third and fourth options like tight end Ben Watson and wide receiver Nick Toon.
Oct 13, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (47) runs the ball against the New Orleans Saints during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
After a sack, a dropped pass (with a declined holding penalty to boot), the Patriots converted a third-and-eighteen when quarterback Tom Brady escaped from pressure and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui got just enough yards to convert the huge first down. With Stevan Ridley mixing in some strong running and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui beating a blitz with another fifteen yard reception. Again near the ten yard line, the Patriots worked the sidelines, this time with Julian Edelman for seven yards and on first-and-goal Stevan Ridley again found the end zone to make it seventeen to seven for New England mid way through the second quarter.
After another three-and-out by the Saints highlighted by the Patriots defense behind cornerback Aqib Talib denying tight end Jimmy Graham on second down and rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones stopping Darren Sproles short of the first down marker on a screen pass on third down, the Patriots took over on their thirty-one yard line. After a twelve yard rumble by Brandon Bolden on first down, the Patriots faced a third-and-ten shortly afterwards at their forty-three yard line. Quarterback Tom Brady was sacked to give it back to New Orleans with just under five minutes to play in the first half.
New England’s defensive strategy to force Saints quarterback Drew Brees to find his third and fourth option continued as he missed twice on first and second down trying to find Nick Toon and force a pass to Jimmy Graham into triple coverage. The Saints converted two first downs by finding young wide receiver Kenny Stills on third-and-ten and then finding Darren Sproles on a slant for another fourteen yards. On another crucial third down, the Saints were stopped just short and had the ball at the Patriots 38 yard line and fourth and inches. A bad call by the referees made it fourth and five and forced a punt. On the replay, Patriots undrafted rookie free agent defensive tackle Joe Vellano clearly appeared to have jumped and drew movement by Saints offensive lineman Jahri Evans. It was a tough break for New Orleans, as they needed positive momentum before halftime, not punting the ball back to the Patriots at the two minute warning.
After a defensive holding penalty on the Saints and a nineteen yard rumble by Stevan Ridley got the Patriots out of their own end of the field, the Patriots looked poised to make a quick drive and try to score another time. Unfortunately, another sack on first down stalled the drive and New England was content to let the clock wind down to the half.
The New England offense looked in rhythm for the first time this season, as they involved tight end Michael Hoomanawanui who had three receptions for fifty-three yards at the half. Running back Stevan Ridley was the last back to get a carry in the first half, but with sixty-one yards on eleven carries and both touchdowns in the first half, he showed his value to the offense. With sixteen first half completions for 163 yards, quarterback Tom Brady appeared to recapture his 2012 form and had some nice drives in the no-huddle.
On defense, the Patriots shut out Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in the first half, They limited running back Darren Sproles to eleven yards rushing and only four receptions for thirty-one yards at the half. The strategy to shadow Sproles and drape cornerback Aqib Talib on Graham played to near perfection in the first half. However, it is hard to hold the Saints offense down, and the Patriots had their work cut out for them in the second half.